Risha Baruah

Research Scholar, Cotton University


In this paper, an eco-critical analysis shall be attempted of the novel: The Moth-Eaten Howdah of the Tusker (2004) by Indira Goswami . The novel has as its thematic framework the ever-growing tension between humans and the ecological world.The novel is like a primary handbook to understand the presence and absence of ecology in our lives as lived within an Assamese society. It captures the modern society’s dilemma of environmentalism which is highlighted through several situations and characters, most evidently through Indranath, the future “Gossain” of the “sattra”. The paper shall also deal with other relevant ecological concerns like illegal trade and smuggling, development, “Othering”, power politics, eco-ethics, land and labour and the nonhuman animal to cite a few.

Keywords: Ecocriticism, Anthropocentricism, Postcolonialism, Environmentalism, Animal Studies, The Moth-Eaten Howdah of the Tusker

With the onset of the Twenty First Century, we have been witness to a fast changing globalised and digital world that is exploring and expanding the Western notions of knowledge and interpretation. The new situations of this period have opened up newer possibilities, problems and vulnerabilities. This attitude has enabled in shaping and reshaping of the contemporary theoretical world that had made efforts to be ‘inclusive’. In consequence, the latter part of the Twenty Century had witnessed several significant developments like feminism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism and reader response theories, to name a few, all which have been essentially movements of resistance, equality and democracy. Alongside, another significant turn was seen towards nature from the traditional ideologies of western anthropocentrism that celebrated ‘human-centeredness’. According to the Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, it is an attitude where “only human beings have intrinsic value; all other natural beings and things only have instrumental value, and human interests thus always trump the interests of nonhumans and the environment” (Callicott and Frodeman 58). This attitude had opened the possibility for the Age of Anthropocence- The Age of Humans, which regards a new heightened role of human strength, influence and responsibility limited not only to humans but also to the nonhuman world. It further regards ‘humans’ as a new significant and its central role as the most decisive factor in the world (Raffnsoe xii and xiv). Despite this new ‘human turn’, the 1990s witnessed significant movements towards an eco-conscious generation with the realisation of the ‘dying’ Earth with the declaration by the U.S. President as “the decade of the environment” following the 1989 Times Magazine award to the person of the year bestowed to “The Endangered Earth” (Glotfelty xvi). Amidst this, the study of ecological concerns was given an organized structure under the formal approach of Ecocriticism that attempts to study the dynamic and complex relationship between humans and the ecological world in close proximity through the various literary narratives (Glotfelty xviii). Ecocriticism is an umbrella term that has several sub-concerns associated to it primarily because the importance and influence of the ecology is not limited to local and global levels but spreads across as a planetary situation and therefore, it is found in most critical disciplines. The increasing awareness and importance of nature followed in the abundance of scholarly outputs by the immediate generation which played a crucial role in the instant popularization of ecocriticism. Through such efforts, attempts have been made to understand the complex concerns and problems of ecocriticism. As a new approach that is still making a mark, one of its main objectives have been to fill gaps in the conceptions of ecocriticism by drawing from different yet associated disciplines. This has not only helped in the maturing of the approach but also in ‘greening’ of other significant contemporary theories, namely eco-feminism, deep ecology, social ecology, postcolonial and ecocritical, eco-ethics and green studies to cite a few.

In this paper, an attempt shall be made to study the approaches of ecocriticism and postcolonialism as individual concept but most importantly, attempts would be made for a detailed study to view them as a merged concept. This merger of postcolonial and ecocriticism has been an effort of the Second Wave Ecocriticism which was marked with the publication of Lawrence Buell’s The Future of Evnironmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination (2005). This work had significantly expanded the concerns of ecocriticism from nature writings of American and British writings to include concerns from cultural, literary and theoretical parameters. In this regard, the reading of postcolonial and ecocriticism can be seen as an overlapping program. In fact, both the concepts are essentially, a forum of resistance to a singular dominance, power and authority which has been made possible through the several social agencies and structures. The latter part of the Twentieth Century to the present Twenty First Century has been a period of post-colonialism where counter-narratives of the eroticized East has been produced to dismantle and deconstruct the western binary of power politics and representation. Further, the concept of the Other shall be analyzed where the West is seen as the centre of knowledge, history, superiority, civilized and the absolute Occident while the East is regarded as ignorant, unpredictable, inferior, savage and the relative Orient.

For both the approaches, the concept of ‘Othering’ is central. However, the idea was popularized by the famous postcolonial writer Edward Said in his canonical work, Orientalism (1978). It has influenced several theories including Ecocriticism which is a counter-narrative to anthropocentrism which can be seen as a parallel to the idea of postcolonial Eurocentric, where humans are centralized as the absolute while the ecological world is perpetually Othered (Garrad 23). In consequences, these efforts have opened possibilities for the ‘green turn’ of postcolonial as advocated by Graham Huggan and Rob Nixon, wherein all colonial and imperial issues are also natural and environmental issues (Mukherjee 39). However, a close relationship between the two ideas can be traced through history with the advent of the project of colonization which was initiated with the initial intention of economical gains through the control and exploitation of nature and its limited natural resources. This was aimed to satisfy the endless and selfish needs of humans which had intensified over generations without any respect to the rest of existence beyond themselves. Like the non-western world, even nature has been socially constructed through repeated stereotyping, fixation and complex discrimination through a shared ambivalent relationship wherein, we see that culture needs the presence of nature to be acknowledged as superior while at the same time, it shares a hostile relationship with it which has been narrated by both literary and critical writings. Hence, the co-reading of postcolonial and ecocriticism as a point of reference seems as an organic outgrowth as both the concepts deal with similar practices, policies and concerns. It makes our aware that the urge to conquer, control and colonize has been an instinctive feature of our civilization, be it for the nonhuman ecological world or for another racial community through the power politics of the (in)significant Other. As a merged idea, it takes the “forms of imperialism and colonialism of both the material environment” (Mukherjee 51) which makes possible for the emergence of dialogue between postcolonial and ecocritical as evident in most global literatures.

In this regard, the literatures from the North East India can be seen as a repository of such readings. The writings from the region are still strongly immersed with nature as the local communities have predominately been nature-centric. In this paper, an attempt shall be made to study several ecological/postcolonial concerns as represented in the famous novel, The Moth-Eaten Howdah Of The Tusker (2004) penned by the eminent Assamese writer, editor and academic stalwart Indira Goswami who is more famously known as Mamoni Raisom Goswami. She was not only a powerful voice that took the Assamese culture and literature to the mainstream India but also was a social mediator between the regional militant group United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the Government of India with the vision for social and political peace in the region.  The novel was initially published by the author in the regional language, Assamese in the year 1986 under the title Dontal Hatir Une Khowa Howdah and was translated to English in the year 2004 by the author herself, for a wider global readership. The novel is a typical regional narrative that revolves around the social structure of the Assamese “sattras”. In the novel, the presence of the ecological world is constant and normalized to a significant character who contributes not only to the development of the characters and events but also to the society. Although the oppositional binary between nature and culture is drawn in the narrative, yet we witness several occasions of over-lap and fluidity between the two socially constructed ideals. This is reflective of the nature-centric relationship, wherein the attitude of reverence, love, fear and the preservation of nature have been maintained by the locals. This has been a consequence to their traditional association of spirituality and the practices of animism with the ecological world. However, as the novel proceeds we see a change in this relationship brought about by the immediate policies and practices of capitalism, colonialism, globalization and modernity. In this changed relationship we see that culture is not only opposite to nature but also against it. This tensional relationship may be regarded as the main root conflict of our cultured world which is most evidently experienced by Indranath who, towards the end of the novel, goes through a phase of extreme physical and emotional turmoil with the new changes in the society that drastically shifts the social relationship with nature. He feels dejected, helpless and grows silent. Through him, we see the slow but steady disintegration of equilibrium in the characters, the “Gossain” family, the structure of the “sattra” and also with the ecological world. In this regard, the title of novel becomes significant as it shows the overpowering and invincible aspect of nature, despite several cultural ventures to control, manipulate and exploit the ecological world. In the novel, we see that there is a general worry for the “howdah”- which is a symbol of status in the cultured society. However, despite knowledge and developments, the “howdah” like the palanquin, is getting moth-eaten and therefore is getting ‘must’ which is eventually destroyed by the beloved elephant Jagannath of the “Gossain” family of the “Amranga sattra”. On a political level, it can be seen as the change of tide with the entry of communism, policies of environment, opium and animal shooting in the name of conservation. While on the other hand, it can be seen as an end of a social era where the ownership of land is shifting from the control of the “Gossains” to the common labouring men. The old social structure is threatened by colonialism and modernity that draws fear within the locals. The incident of the ‘ruined howdah’ can be seen as the invincible and overpowering position of nature which soon takes over human and their creations. This evidently highlights that the binary of nature and culture is a farcical idea as nature is everywhere and all components of the ecological world are a significant and inseparable part of it.

In the novel, we further witness the alarming concern for the excessive use of opium which since it entry “has eaten up this sattra, robbery has increased. Even from our attic, elephant’s tusks have been stolen” (Goswami 181). In consequences, the locals of the “sattra” have become essentially capitalistic by engaging in practises of smuggling of opium and illegal trading of elephant tusks for ivory. To combat this issue, the “Gossain” had donated land for the Opium Prohibition Committee Camp but had been unable to bring any positive changes within the community. This is reflective of the deep rooted corruption, failure of the judiciary system and infrastructural failure in the Indian society. In this new trend, we see that the initially nature-centric community which loved, worshipped, feared and revered nature, now has become mechanical and detached in their relationship with the ecological world. This can be particularly traced in the relationship between Indranath and the elephant Jagannath. For Indranath, the elephant was not only his childhood companion but a part of his family. He was a well trained, intellectual and majestic elephant who was the pride of the “Gossain” family. However, this soon changed when Jagannath had gone rogue and wild. Although there was fear and terror in the “sattra” for the ‘divine’ Jagannath, his initial destruction of crop fields was overlooked. But with the killing of human life, the official hunt for Jagannath had been declared by the Forest Department which was silently obeyed by all, including Indranath. This attitude signifies the spirit of speciesism which has been an important parameter in understanding the complexities of the human and nonhuman animal relationship as well as a significant flag-bearer in the animal rights movement. Soon after the declaration of Jagannath’s hunt, Indranath is emotionally shaken resulting to the loss of all hopes, happiness and calm in his life. This act of the necessary killing of Jaganath is justified through the many conversations between Indranath and the forest officials, but in some moments we also witness the dark reality of the lust over the tusks of the elephant by the officials which is a good source of money. This situation raises several potent questions- Who is more important and why- Humans or the Nonhuman Animals? What parameters decides such conclusions and most importantly is it ethically justified? Further, it is important to note that Jagannath- the divinely hailed and majestic elephant is now seen as a mere object of utility and revenue which has reduced him to a material identity. The tensional relationship between humans and the nonhuman animals as aptly described in the novel are primarily due to anthropocentric attitudes and practices, like increasing encroachment to the wild, environmentalism, unplanned development and urbanism which pushes the nonhuman animals to enter into the human world in search of food, space and survival. This eventually leads to the damaging of human property, crops, livestocks and loss of human life, thereby making humans blind with vengeance who mercilessly kill nonhuman animals that are otherwise unique, significant and essential; for they contribute to the ecological balance and also to the survival and sustenance of humans.

In postcolonial-ecocritical studies, the concept of place and land have an important commitment which is layered with infinite meanings and histories associated to it. For Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George B. Handley in their “Introduction” to Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment published in the year 2011, a place can be “defined geographically, in terms of the expansion of empire; environmentally, in terms of wilderness or urban settings; genealogically, in linking communal ancestry to land; as well as phenomenologically, connecting body to space” (4). Few of these ideas of land can be traced in the novel wherein land has become a space of identity, social status and security, monetary revenue, conflict, labor and dignity. Throughout the narrative, we are shown the on-going resistance on several lands of the “Gossains” in particularly, the case of “Marabhitha”. This is in consequence, to the political manipulation of the Communist who has waged anger among the laborers by showing them a brighter future of equal opportunity, development who thereafter, shouts at the “Gossain” to dig their own land. This voice of resistance coupled with the forthcoming land-ceiling policies by the government had created severe forms of disturbance in the “sattras” which reaches its peak with the planned killing of Indranath, the future “Gossain” of the “sattra”, when he goes to his land “Marabhitha” to meet the labors and declare peace by giving the rightful shares of the farmers.

The novel is a generic reading of the postcolonial-ecocritical perspective with several overlapping realities that open gates for new interpretation of the narrative. The fiction is a social document of history which can be better understood through the fictional people and the ecological world. The narrative immediately makes an evident point that like all of existence, humans and their cultured world too are an inseparable and significant part of the ecology. Therefore, for a balanced ecosystem, a practice of co-reading and co-living is essential as nothing can exist in isolation. In fact, the prolonged negligence of the ecological world by humans can become dangerous, self destructive and a self suicidal act which can bring the end of existence. In this regard, eco-consciousness and eco-sensitivity have become the need of the hour as it can open possibilities for productive and realistic dialogues, actions and policies for co-existence and sustenance of all living beings on this planet.

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About Drishti: the Sight

Drishti:the Sight is a National refereed Bi-annual Research Journal in the disciplines of Arts and Humanities founded in the year 2012 publishing articles in the subjects of English Literature, Assamese Literature, Folklore, Culture.The journal has been enlisted in the UGC-CARE list (Sr.No. 42) in Arts and Humanities section.The journal is dedicated to the cause of young upcoming scholars of the nation.The journal publishes only authentic research articles. It tries to follow the research ethics to the core.