Dr. Asis De

Associate Professor of English, Mahishadal Raj College
([email protected])

Anupam Roy

Ph. D Research Scholar, Vidyasagar University


Kinship studies, a key area of anthropology since the late nineteenth century, implies human relationships based on consanguinity and biological affinity, where blood-relationships play an essential role in the social grouping of people and identity formation. The essentialist idea of kinship insists on a universal assumption—‘Blood is thicker than water’. However, this idea has been challenged by modern cultural anthropologists in the late twentieth century (David M. Schneider and Marilyn Strathern) and early twenty-first century (Janet Carsten) since it does not take into consideration multiple cultural factors in the formation of kinship in this modern age of transnational migration and dislocation. Setting the ‘blood-related’, ‘natural’ or biological kinship aside, they advocated for the ‘cultural’ dimensions of kinship configured by regional specificity, community, ethno-nationality, language, marriage and even diasporic dislocation. In this article, we attempt an exploration of transcultural kinship concerning diasporic individuals and their families constituted by members with different ethno-cultural identities. Taking Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace (2000) as case-study, this essay would examine how dislocation beyond the familiar cultural space opens up avenues for re-imagining kinship beyond the bonds of community and often leads to the establishment of families across the “water” (metaphoric of diasporic mobility). We also attempt to investigate how cultural hybridity and transculturality reconfigure family-ties situating an individual in a newer pattern of kinship; how a relationship like close friendship or mentorship turns into strong kinship bonds resembling family-ties.

Keywords : Migration, Dislocation, Identity, Borders, Negotiation, Kinship, Family-ties

“The ideas of kinship, the kin-based society, the idiom of kinship, and the content of kinship are the received wisdom of today, as they have been almost from the beginnings of anthropology.”

A Critique of the Study of Kinship (1984): David Murray Schneider

-With this proposition, Schneider’s influential volume A Critique of the Study of Kinship (1984) initiates a relatively new way of looking at kinship studies beyond the formalist tradition, by attempting cross-cultural analyses of kinship only three decades back. The inception of kinship studies is attributed to Lewis Henry Morgan and his ‘magnum opus’ Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1871) which centres around the essentialist idea of kinship based on blood relationships and biological affinity. The propositions of Schneider’s new anthropology of kinship, which he finds as “the received wisdom of today” (3), rely heavily on nature/culture interplay than the biologically determined structuralist way of assessing kinship. The inclusion of ‘local’ culture/s and community history as no less essential determinants than the exclusive factors like progeny and ethnology in kinship studies, has allowed a broader and more fluid conceptualization of kinship through comparative analyses of what Riitta Jallinoja and Eric Widmer call as ‘relationality’ of the individual with society and its culture.Marilyn Strathern has further developed this very shift from biologically essentialist assessment of kinship to the comparative, cross-culturalist analyses of identity. In her book After Nature (1992), Strathern findsthat as colonial encounters have materialized into cultural contacts, there is the apparent “possibility that new forms would naturally yield unique and vigorous hybrids” (37). Thus the historical process of colonization has its cultural outcome in redefining kinship. In this context of kinship studies, Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace (2000), a multi-layered historical novel set in a period of a little more than one hundred and ten years, is an interesting case study. This narrative is a“family saga” (Thieme 269) showcasing the shaping and reshaping of kinship and family-ties across four generations. Beginning with the historical event of the third Anglo-Burmese war and the expansionist British Empire in the Indian subcontinent, the novel accommodates ordinary people down to a dislocated Indian orphan, as well as the last Burmese Royal family of the Konbaung dynasty deposed and exiled to colonial India.

Marilyn Strathern’s ideas of the “unique and vigorous hybrids” (37) and the historico-cultural effects of colonization could be seen as ‘relational’ assumptions enabling the individual to conceptualize the self and its relationship status with the diverse cultural reality around, and thus broadens the scope of kinship terminologies. Janet Carsten, in After kinship (2004) attempts to find out how “kinship is part of the pre-given, natural order of things and the extent to which it is shaped by human engagement” (6), and therefore, takes the way Schneider has recently paved for the ‘revisionist’ anthropologists. Carsten emphasizes the analytic project of cross-cultural comparison outside the Western model of kinship-studies and insists on the “processual understandings of kinship, which allowed for a greater experiential emphasis on the way kinship is lived” (36; original emphasis). She takes in consideration the “memories of houses inhabited in childhood” (31), “the ‘mixed-up’ quality of social life” (34) and the likes which should “be understood in juxtaposition to the dislocations of history” (35). She concludes that “close kin ties are intrinsic to the social constitution of persons” (83). These propositions of socio-cultural kinship have further been emphasized by Jallinoja and Widmer’s idea of ‘relatedness’ which insists on the socio-cultural “processes” through “which contemporary individuals continuously make and remake their families within various structural and cultural constraint” (6).

In Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, historical vectors like war, deposition and exile, the fall and annexation of empires, the rise of a new capitalist colonial economy, the birth of new post-colonial nations, and finally the introduction of the global economy in the 1990s—all leading to massive movements and dislocation of people, contribute to the ‘processes’ of breaking and making of families and relationships. The memories of social life in different cultural spaces across India, Burma and Malaysia result in the genesis of the narrative itself, as Ghosh tells his readers in the ‘Author’s Notes’: “The seed of this book was brought to India long before my own lifetime by my father and my uncle, the late Jagat Chandra Datta of Rangoon and Moulmein” (GP 549). Personal intergenerational memory has a seminal role to play in the narrative, as Ghosh dedicates the novel to the memory of his father and acknowledges how deeply this “book was rooted in his experience” (GP 552).In the ‘Introduction’ of Ghosts of Memory, a volume edited by herself, Janet Carsten observes that “kinship emerges as a particular kind of sociality in which certain forms of temporality and memory-making, and certain dispositions towards the past, present, and future are made possible” (5). In The Glass Palace, kinship as “sociality” lies not just in the history of the colonial empire and its aftermath, neither in Ghosh’s inherited memories and personal history, but in the stories of dislocated individuals and families across their familiar cultural spaces.

The grand narrative of The Glass Palace, divided primarily into seven parts and further into forty-eight chapters, has its epical sweep over more than a century— from the November of 1885 to December 1996. Set in Mandalay, the first part introduces the arrival of an eleven-year-old Indian orphan Rajkumar Raha from “Akyab, the principal port of the Arakan” (GP 13) in lower Burma, after the loss of his family members in an epidemic fever: “I had a father, a sister, brothers…and a mother” (GP 12). The issues of family and kinship get impetus from the very first part, as the narrator describes how Rajkumar’s “father had quarrelled with their relatives and moved the family away” (GP 13) from their family-home in Chittagong to Akyab; how, after the unfortunate death of his mother Rajkumar is left with nothing—“who had been so rich in family, was alone now, with a khalasi’s apprenticeship for his inheritance” (GP 14). Except for the Royal family of the last Burmese sovereign of Konbaung dynasty King Thebaw, all the major characters introduced in part one are the residue members of broken families: Rajkumar, Saya John and his son Matthew, Saya John’s shopkeeper consort Ma Cho and Queen Supayalat’s handmaiden Dolly. No biological or familial tie unites these people to one another, but their ‘relatedness’ on the issue of transnational dislocation that forms real-life kinships and even family, in due course of time.

Ghosh feels fascinated by the lives of displaced people and families and ever remains critical of rigorous assessment of ethno-cultural identity. As “a believer in transcultural humanity, Ghosh insists on the warmth of human relationship and not on the cultural, ethnic or racial boundaries which separate people” (De 144). Saya John, the Chinese-looking teak-trading contractor in European clothes “from somewhere in Malaya” (GP9), has a Christian name—John Martins and was raised by Catholic missionaries “in a town called Malacca” (GP10) as he was a foundling like Rajkumar. The shared identity of the orphan and tit-bits of Hindustani language soon work cementing the bond after their meet at Ma Cho’s place. A Burmese-Indian lady in mid-thirties, Ma Cho is John’s consort and runs a food-stall close to the western wall of the Burmese fort in Mandalay. Saya John’s son Matthew is a boy of seven, who has already lost his mother and lives in Singapore with his mother’s family for a decent education. It is only on holidays that Matthew visits Mandalay for a couple of weeks to stay with his father. Finally, the youngest of Queen Supayalat’s handmaidens, “a slender ten-year-old called Dolly” (GP 20) is someone who has “no memory of her parents or family”. As the narrator reports, she “had been brought to Mandalay at a very early age from the frontier town of Lashio” (GP 20). Contrary to these dislocated individuals of several broken families, stand the Burmese Royal family of King Thebaw and Queen Supayalat with their two princesses. Part one of The Glass Palace chronicles the defeat and deposition of King Thebaw after a fourteen-day war, and the eventual exile of the Royal family to India, where the Royal couple gets two more daughters in their family.

The annexation of the Burmese kingdom of Mandalay to the British colonial empire of the Indian subcontinent opens up new opportunities to traders and contractors, and Rajkumar allows himself becoming an assistant of Saya John for a living. Part two of the novel focusses more on the family of the exiled Burmese King in Ratnagiri, simultaneously representing the capitalist economy of teak-trading and the rise of Rajkumar as a successful entrepreneur in Burma. Ghosh’s keen preoccupation with the issues of kinship and family has been reflected as in the transformation of human relationships, so in a subtle, fantastic reference to botanical kinship1. However, the family of the Indian District Collector Beni Prasad Dey and his wife Uma has been introduced in this section. A new family is established with the marriage of Rajkumar and Dolly as Rajkumar appears at Ratnagiri as a successful and affluent timber-trader in search of Dolly in a rather cinematic manner. A third family is on its way as the King’s attendant-coachman Mohan Sawant gets seriously involved with the first princess. After almost two decades of stay in India, the exiled Royal family members have adopted many social and cultural traits of Indian life, along with a few Indian languages like Hindustani and Marathi. The Burmese Queen confides to Uma that the cultural custom of the change of Indian women’s names before and after marriage is still obscure to her: “We have never been able to accustom ourselves to your way of naming women after their fathers and husbands. We do not do this in Burma.” (GP 108). The difference between two ethno-cultural spaces becomes evident as marriage and the eventual change of family from the parental house to the husband’s house takes place, resulting in the change of surnames of Indian women.

It is for Uma’s earnest behest that Dolly decides over marrying Rajkumar and after a brisk “civil ceremony” and garlanding, the couple moves for Rangoon. Saya John appears to welcome the newly-wed couple in Rangoon’s passenger jetty and what follows is a definite proof of transcultural kinship claiming a familial bond close to the role of a father-in-law: “Taking hold of her wrist, he slipped the bracelet over her knuckles. ‘It belonged to my wife,’ he said. ‘I put it aside for you’” (GP 181). Rajkumar’s identity mirrors that of John’s biological child Matthew as John allows Rajkumar to enter his closest sphere of intimacy. Carol Smart’s idea about “how we relate to our relatives and whom we include in our spheres of intimacy” (13) depends on the choice and decision of the individual outside specific needs prescribed by the traditional kinship formula. Meanwhile, the family of Collector Dey at Ratnagiri breaks as Uma moves back to her parental household in Calcutta. The first princess in the Burmese Royal household gets pregnant by the Indian coachman Sawant which creates sufficient ire not just in Thebaw’s family but also in the British colonial administration. The Collector receives a reprimand from the Chief Secretary of the Bombay Presidency expressing intolerance about the “prospect of dealing with a half-caste bastard”: “They like to keep their races tidily separate” (GP 173). The issue of keeping “their races tidily separate” is vital to the discussion of the western model of kinship studies, as Janet Carsten points out in After Kinship: “In defining itself as a discipline, anthropology thus reinforced the boundaries between the West and the rest. Kinship was something “they” have; “we” have families, and this was a quite different matter.” (15) However, Uma’s departure and the official letter of reprimand depress the Collector so deeply that during risky and unmindful rowing in the sea, he is swept away by the tide and dies. As Uma had “no children to care for” (GP 184), she decided to go abroad. Ghosh has shown how the breaking of a family motivates dislocation in unfamiliar ethno-cultural space.

The names of Dolly and Rajkumar’s two sons stand as significant examples of cultural hybridity and transcultural identity, as they have both an Indian and a Burmese name: the elder Neeladhri’s Burmese name is Sein Win, and the younger Dinanath’s Burmese name is Tun Pe. It is how, in the second generation, transculturality becomes easier to achieve. Meanwhile, Saya John’s son Matthew marries an American named Elsa, and establishes a family: a transcultural family again! Though Matthew is a Catholic, and Elsa’s parental family is Protestant, the common issue of Christianity keeps the difference less visible. A cultural anthropologist by academic training, Amitav Ghosh takes immense interest in human relationships despite the disparate socio-cultural constitution of identity, which gives Janet Carsten’s proposition the validity that “close kin ties are intrinsic to the social constitution of persons” (After Kinship 83). As the issues of home, belonging and upbringing are significant to the constitution of cultural identity, kinship and family, the transculturally dislocated individuals find it challenging to establish families or close kinship in the socio-cultural order around them. The exceptions are excitingly exemplary, as the narrator of The Glass Palace informs the reader about the families of the Burmese princesses, which is also historically authentic: “…of the four Princesses, the two who’d been born in Burma both chose to live on in India. Their younger sisters … both born in India, chose to settle in Burma: both married and had children” (GP 213). The “unique and vigorous hybrids” (Strathern 37) hardly find it challenging to establish transcultural kinship in dislocation. Rajkumar’s extramarital relationship with a south-Indian coolie woman in Malaysia and the eventual birth of Ilongo is a strong example of transcultural kinship in dislocation. The ending of the novel is significant since it shows how lack of wealth, homelessness and dislocation transform people. Despite their mutual antipathy, the redemptive love brings Rajkumar and Uma together to dissolve the borders between them. The crossing of borders not only liberates the ‘self’ from a confined space but also situates it in a global network of kinship that paves the way for re-imagining community and a home across the water.

End Note:

1. Ghosh’s narrator indulges in a fanciful reference to botanical kinship while reflecting over the relationship between teak and mint: “Teak is a relative of mint, tectona grandis, born of the same genus” (70), and “there was an unmistakable kinship, a palpably familial link” (71).

References :

Carsten, Janet. Ed. Introduction.Ghosts of Memory: Essays on Remembrance and Relatedness.           Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2007.

————. After Kinship. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

De, Asis. “Empire and Exile: Representation of the Burmese Royal Family across the Border in

Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace and Sudha Shah’s The King in Exile”. Beyond Borders and Boundaries: Diasporic Images and Re-presentations in Literature and Cinema. Edited by Nilufer Bharucha, Sreedhar Rajeswaran and KlausStierstorfer. Indian Diaspora Centre, 2018, pp.132-147.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Glass Palace (2000). HarperCollins Publishers India, 2005.

Jallinoja, Riitta & E. D. Widmer. Eds. Families and Kinship in Contemporary Europe: Rules and           Practices of Relatedness. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Schneider, David M. A Critique of the Study of Kinship (1984). The University of             Michigan Press, 1998.

Smart, Carol. “Relationality and Socio-Cultural Theories of Family Life.”Families and Kinship     in Contemporary Europe: Rules and Practices of Relatedness.Edited by Riitta Jallinoja       & E. D. Widmer. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp. 13-28.

Strathern, Marilyn. After Nature: English Kinship in the late Twentieth Century.    Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Thieme, John. “Amitav Ghosh.” A Companion to Indian Fiction in English.Edited by Pier Paolo             Piciucco. Atlantic, 2004. pp. 251-275.

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.