Literary Shelf

The Circle of Reason

Continued from Understanding Amitav Ghosh 

Many big changes go quietly unnoticed. The first novel by Amitav Ghosh, ‘The Circle of Reason’ brought one such change. ‘The Circle of Reason’ is remarkable for many reasons. Its theme is different from traditional concerns of Indian English Fiction. It challenges a direct and simple appreciation. In fact, it needs a different type of approach to be grasped fully. The book itself is sort of a paradox. It exudes restlessness with extreme control and poise. The new thrust and lift that came to Indian English Fiction during late eighties and early nineties is partly due to this path breaking work. It internationalized our fiction. It brought a refreshing ‘contemporareity’. It is daring in its experimentation with the form, content and language of the novel.

The novel, although not strictly organized, is episodic in nature. In this sense, it can be called picaresque. The novel is a journey from Sattva to Rajas to Tamas, the three parts of the novel. As we can see the journey is lopsided. Traditionally the protagonist Alu should have gone from 'Tama' (darkness) to 'Satwa' (purity). As we will see Amitav Ghosh freely mixes past, present and future in his books. So he does in this book. He writes in a chain of thoughts. He describes one incident and if the incident links itself to any past happening, he immediately goes to that past incident. So the whole fabric of the novel keeps floating, going backward and forward. And this is quite logical in it’s own way. In any case present is born out of past. So why should one not go to the great reservoir of memories, dreams and desires i.e., past.

The novel is crowded with characters. The episodes are only loosely connected. Alu is the only constant factor who lives a life by trial and error method; falls at times, stands up again and finally moves on to realize his potential, if he has any. The novel, without becoming a morbid case-history, underlines the troubled times, through which all of us are living. Like a typical open-ended novel, it ends without providing readymade solutions. There is a soothing effect at the end. Different threads seem to draw together yet there is no effort at preaching. In a typical picaresque fashion, Alu moves from Laipukar in India to Al-Ghazira in Egypt and then to a small town in the northeastern edge of Algerian Sahara. The journey does not bring any kind of satisfaction or success. It celebrates the sense of unquiet wanderings. It goes on and on searching a vision suitable for present times; it is like chasing a phantom that ultimately vanishes into the thin air. The journey is the end.

The Circle of Reason’ has both historical as well as mythological elements. Mythical references have been molded to reflect contemporary conditions in a true new historicist fashion. Girish Karnad is another man to have done so, so successfully in his plays. Here, Ghosh weaves ideas, characters and metaphors through magic and irony and develops his fictional motifs. Characters are not far from metaphors; they become metaphors. The characters as well as different situations of the novel stand for root-less-ness. As a critic, I often wonder at our fascination about the idea of root-less-ness. The present literati seem obsessed with the idea of migration. Migration, diasporic feelings, root-less-ness and a new kind of sensibility born out of these factors-these things are unique to our age. 

There used to be times when people used to be solidly rooted. Identities were clear. Everyone knew everyone else in the village or in the locality. Families used to be super strong. Human beings fought with elements; not with each other. There was no fear of ‘being lost’. Everyone was cared for. Alas! this is not our present day world. All genuine artists are in one way or the other trying to depict the loneliness of the contemporary human. Everyone understands as to what it means to be alone in a crowd. The human species has found itself in this new situation and it wants to express this sentiment. Immigrant communities have caught the imagination of the artist. In fact, often the artist is the immigrant. ‘Home’ as a metaphor has been lost. The native village is home; mother’s lap is home; father’s angry brows are home; elder brother’s slap is home. One does not know as to where is home. Things have gone far off. Things that used to matter have been lost. 

There is nothing in this novel that can ordinarily be called a home. Significantly, it is initially located in a refugee village. It only settles the human race temporarily as a refugee on this planet. It goes back and forth to Bangladesh and Calcutta. Then it reaches the Middle East via Kerala. The last location again significantly is that of a desert with shifting sand dunes. The story moves in an uncertain atmosphere. One is never sure whether it's a city or a village. Even the ideas are not stable; they keep us shaking. Even the most basic element of coherence, time, is not arranged normally. ‘The Circle of Reason’ can only be called an endless saga of restlessness, uncertainty and change.

The novel basically tells three stories. The first part deals with the story of Balram. He is a rationalist and is influenced by the life of Louis Pasteur. He is idealistic to the extent of being inhuman. He has no involvement with people. He treats others simply as objects of observation and/or change. He takes his whims to extremes and becomes self-destructive. In fact, he meets his own mettle in Bhudeb Roy. He is equally cynical. He is a Congressman. Alu, the protagonist, is a nephew of Balaram. He is the only one to survive in the family. The second part of the novel tells another tale. An earthly, practical and zestful trader tries to bring together the community of Indians in the Middle East. But again these efforts prove to be unrealistic. The third part is the story of Mrs. Verma, who out-rightly rejects rational thinking. She again tries her hand at creating Indian model of community life in the desert. However Alu, Zindi and Iyoti Das, who is a police officer leave Mrs. Verma and her experiments in the desert. At the end of the novel, these three are in search of newer horizons, unformed hopes and ideas. Hope is their only asset. 

The relationship between Alu and Jyoti is not normal. Jyoti, as a police officer, initially views Alu as an extremist. She has her eyes on him right from the first part. Their story is the main source of continuity in this novel. Their relationship also adds thrill. Nevertheless, since the basic building block of their interaction is officialdom and power of the state, it lacks human warmth. We can see this relationship as a comment on present day man-woman encounter which lacks natural elements and is totally artificial at times. Man-woman relationship has become a game of maneuvering.  

The story begins when an eight-year-old orphan Nachiketa Bose comes to live with his uncle Balram Bose in Lalpukar. His rickshaw is chased by Boloi da. Boloi da runs a cycle repair shop and eagerly utilizes every opportunity of enjoyment. The only remarkable thing about this orphan is his extraordinary head. It is ‘an extraordinary head, huge, several times too large for an eight year old, and curiously uneven, bulging all over with knots and bumps'. While everyone is busy in comparing the head with other suitable objects and bring it in a perspective, it is Boloi da, who gives Alu his life long name as well as part of his identity, 'No, it's not like a rock at all. It's an Alu, a potato, a huge, freshly dug, lumpy potato. So Alu he was named and Alu he was to remain' (3). On an allegorical plane Alu is someone rooted in soil and therefore in identity. But as we will see by his torturous wandering, Alu seems only to satirize his name. 

Balram is a freak. He claims to be a rationalist. He admires scientists like Jagdish Bose, Meghnad Saha and above every one else Louis Pasteur. They are his idols. He is obsessed with the science of phrenology. Phrenology is the study of the size and shape of people's heads in the belief that you can find out about their characters and abilities from this. Needless to add that Alu becomes a curious case study for Balram. Balaram applies his instrument for measuring heads on Alu, much to Alu's woes. Slowly he gets used to it. Balaram is determined to match 'outside' of a person with his 'inside.' 

Alu settles in Lalpukar, but his troubles do not. He is admitted to Bhudeb Roy's school. Roy's son Gopal bullies Alu and finally Alu is forced to leave school. Shombhu Debnath is a lowly man in Lalpukar. It is not exactly respectable to learn weaving from him. Yet, Alu does the same. This gives the novelist an opportunity to give a historical perspective to the skill of weaving. Ghosh is eloquent about the past value of weaving: 'Man at the loom is the finest example of mechanical man [...] it has created not separate worlds but one, for it has never permitted the division of the world. The loom recognizes no continents and no countries. It has tied the world together with its bloody ironies from the beginning of human time. Human beings have woven and traded in cloth from the time they built their first houses and cities. Indian cloth was found in the graves of the pharaohs. Indian soil is strewn with cloth from China. The whole of the ancient world hummed with the cloth trade. The silk route from China, running through Central Asia and Persia to the ports of the Mediterranean and from there to the markets of Africa and Europe, bound continents together for more centuries than we can count. 

India first gave cotton, Gossypium Indicus, to the world. The cities of the Indus Valley grew cotton as early as 1500 B.C. But soon cotton was busy spinning its web around the world. It had king Sennacherib of Mesopotamia in its toils by 700 B.C. and before long it had found its way to Herodotus in Greece. 

When the history of the world broke, cotton and cloth were behind it; the machine had driven men mad. Lancashire poured out its waterfalls of cloth and the once cloth hungry and peaceful Englishmen and Dutchmen and Danes of Calcutta, Chandanagar, Madras, and Bombay turned their trade a garrote to make every continent safe for the cloth of Lancashire. Millions of Africans and half of America were enslaved by cotton. And then weaving changed mechanical man again with the computer. In the mid-nineteen century when Charles Babbage built his first calculating machine, using the principles of storing information on punched cards, he took his idea not from systems of writing or from mathematics, but from the draw-loom. The Chinese have used punched cards to discriminate between warp threads in the weaving of silk since 1000 B.C.

It is a gory history in parts, a story of greed and destruction. Every scrap of cloth is stained by a bloody past. But it is the only history we have and history is hope as well as despair’ (56-58). 

Here is a true Bengali singing the greatness of loom and cotton and weaving. We know what cotton weaving means to people of Bengal. But more importantly, it is the interpretation of history that is to be noted. First Ghosh divides man as mechanical man and the other type can be easily assumed, thinking man. Those who have gone through Emerson's ‘American Scholar’ know 'the man, thinking.' This division is only to underline the basic faculties of men and women. Emerson explaining the sordid state of affairs, says, 'Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter who is man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry. He sees his bushel and his cart and nothing beyond and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars. The priest becomes a form; the attorney a statute-book; the mechanic a machine; the sailor a rope of the ship' (An Anthology of American Literature of the Nineteenth Century, Euresian Publishing House, New Delhi).


In his thinking, Ghosh, as we will see, is talking about the Man on the loom or even further the idea behind the loom and not just the instrument. It is also the idea behind history. Loom united human race at times; it divided at others; it brought victories to some, subjugation to others. This passage is significant in its historical perspective, simply because the author here goes not to mere events or states of being but to themes that run them. The anti-colonial note against the monopoly of Lancashire cloth is obvious. Then the relation of loom to computer, the most advanced achievement of Man at Machine, is beautifully and factually established. The link between storing information in the form of dots in a punched card and the intricate structure of loom and its functioning is very clearly established. This is exactly what historians mean when they say that all history is history of ideas. Ideas are the guiding forces that run both men and their actions. The keen eye does not stop with events or states of being/conditions but goes on to search the whys and hows. The job of the scholar is to arrange information and knowledge input in a systematic and logical pattern. Anyone can say as to what happened and when but only the intellectual can tell why it happened, what shaped the event and how it took place. Only the thinking man can synthesize the whole gamut of unrelated chaotic past into a perspective. Only then we are able to understand history and its significance. Ghosh is clearly into this process of writing history in the above passage. 

It is amazing how Ghosh often turns into a historian, putting historical events in an ideological framework. 

Coming back to Alu's story, we see Alu getting feverishly involved in his uncle's plans of cleaning the refugee shanties with carbolic acid. But at the level of human intentions the cleaning operation is aimed against Bhudeb Roy. The movement is to finish germs. But Balram symbolizing reason has a natural enemy in Bhudeb Roy who is propagating the personality cult and is engaged in irrational activities. Thus, the movement to finish germs becomes the movement to finish Bhudeb and his types. But events take their own turn. A devastating fire destroys all-Balram, his home and the school. Bhudeb Roy finds in Alu an easy scapegoat. Bhudeb declares Alu a dreaded terrorist. From this point onwards, the dangerous life of Alu begins. He begins to live on the edge, on the brink of normality. Jyoti Das, an Assistant Superintendent of Police is told about Alu and his alleged terrorist activities. Alu rushes to Calcutta, from there to Kerala and finally on a boat to Al-Ghazira. All the while he is chased by the police. He even had to give up travelling by buses-and trains; he moves through Nilgiri forests. Alu's life is away from the normal. The threat of police constantly enhances the thrill of his adventure. The vagabond - like nature of this tale becomes very clear. Besides being a comment on present civilization of root-less-ness, the story of Alu also acts as a means for the reader to get adventurous. Settled in the set routine of our lives, Alu's story kindles imagination. Adventure, threat, danger are deep based in human psyche. Alu's story gives us a chance to live or relive that part of our psyche. It is a depiction of a life without centre. Those interested in the deriving nihilistic joys may do a wonderful Derridian analysis of this book. But that is not my cup, certainly not for the present. 

Balram personifies reason. How far an action is relevant to the present day situations-this is his only parameter for judging things and individuals. Reason juxtaposed with religion, provides a full-length debate in this novel. Balram is fascinated by the book, ‘Life of Pasteur’. Pasteur is his ideal; logic his God. Rational thinking is his only goal in life. But the author is mature enough to point out the end of rationality in practical situations. Scientific temper, the cause and effect theory do not work in real situations. Balram's case is that of firmness of logic. He cannot look beyond reason. It should be so rationally and so it must be for him. He cannot accept a hair breadth's difference from the upright, straight, unchangeable logical path. That is why Balram's plans are invariably put out of gear when put into practice. The story begins with his childhood. He wanted to study science and emulate great scientists like Pasteur and Jagdish Bose. But his teachers in Dhaka decide that he is good for history and direct him to Dr. Radhakrishnan, the teacher of Philosophy at Presidency College, Calcutta. There at Calcutta, his favorite pass time is to study heads. Many times he faces trouble due to his compulsive habit of studying and commenting on others' heads. But Balram is made of stiff stuff. His uncompromising stand on rationality as the only theory of life wins him a life-long friend, Gopal. He also gets associated with a rationalist society. But Gopal, even though his best friend senses something wrong, 'As he watched Balram go, Gopal had a premonition: a premonition of the disaster he would call upon himself and all of them, if ever he is allowed to take charge of the society. He decided then, with an uncharacteristic determination, that he would do everything in his power to keep that from happening' (50). Quite similarly Balram's wife also senses foul and puts his books on fire. Alu is able to save just one book-‘Life of Pasteur’. ‘Life of Pasteur’ is a significant symbol in this novel. But before going to that, let us see how cleverly Ghosh has put prophecy and rationality side by side. Rationality of Balram is juxtaposed with the premonition of his well wishers-contradictory forces are at work. Isn't it a pattern of life itself? Life cannot be defined as black or white. Ghosh is a good writer because his works provide balanced views of contradictory elements. Premonition comes true but rationality does not die, either. Inspired by this book, Balram starts a school in his village called 'School of Reason.' This is the ultimate test of his long cherished dreams of reason. Toru Debi teaches sewing and Shombhu Debnath, weaving. For the time being Balram and Bhudeb with their opposing obsessions come to a common point-serving society with the tool of education. But this is a short lived and temporary phase. Soon the conflict between them reaches the boiling point. But the book, ‘Life of Pasteur’ survives the crisis and goes on its journey to Al-Ghazira with Alu. 

The role played by the book is quite intricate. When Alu is first introduced to the book (and we too in the process), Balram is worried about Alu's lack of response. He lectures Alu with animated passion. Alu listens to him with 'wide-eyed silence.' Balram is touched. He reads from the book and stops to see tears in Alu's eyes. And when Alu retrieves the book from fire, it is Balram's turn to be wet-eyed. So the book exists as a bond between uncle and nephew-an extension of the tradition of reason from one generation to the other. The greatest win for a rationalist is to win over someone else on her/his side. 

This rationality wages a war against germs, which are the root of all diseases. The analogy can easily be taken further where carbolic acid as a tool of scientific temper tries to finish diseases, and rationality as the thought offshoot of scientific temper tries to end the ills of society. The cleansing mechanisms in different forms run as a metaphor throughout the novel. In Al-Ghazira Hajji Fahmy makes Adil and his cousin bathe in antiseptic. Carbolic acid is very much part and parcel of Alu's cleaning program. Towards the end of the novel, Mrs. Verma is shown using carbolic acid instead of Ganga Jal. Dr. Mishra remarks, 'Carbolic acid has become holy water' (411). To this Mrs. Verma retorts, 'What does it matter whether it is Ganga Jal or Carbolic acid? It is just a question of cleaning the place, isn't it? People thought something was clean once, now they think something else is clean. What difference does it make to the dead, Dr. Mishra?' (411). Ghosh is of course pointing out to the blind faith of millions of Indians in Ganga Jal even though the water of the life giving river is so badly polluted. In fact, the book, ‘Life of Pasteur’ is related to Mrs. Verma's life also. Her father introduced her to the book and it was because of it only she became a microbiologist. The story of the book comes to an end only when Kulfi, defying all efforts by Balram and Alu, dies. It is a defeat of reason because the course of action does not go on rational lines. The book itself states, '...without the germ, life would become impossible because death would be incomplete' (396). 

Alu's real name is Nachiketa. As with everything else of Amitav Ghosh, the choice of this mythological name has a meaning. Nachiketa, in mythology is the boy who waits at Yama's doors in obedience to his father. Waiting at Yama's doors naturally means waiting at the door of death. Nachiketa is sage Uddalaka's son. Nachiketa is known for his perseverance. In his pursuit of true knowledge , Nachiketa incurs his father's displeasure. In a fit of rage, Uddalaka curses Nachiketa to go and suffer in the nether world i.e. Yamaloka (the world of the death god, Yama). Yama, on his part, is also the embodiment of righteousness. His work is such that he just can not afford to be unjust. Nachiketa sincerely pleads to Yama to give him divine knowledge. He wins Yama's heart by his commitment to the chosen cause. He receives the knowledge about the true nature of Brahman (Bramha gyan) from Yama. Nachiketa's single-mindedness is coupled with disinterested action. He is not working for getting something. As the myth goes the young sage is lured by Yama  into the pleasures of heaven. Nachiketa refuses to go to heaven. As he has learnt the true nature of being, he knows Brahman is all pervading. Moreover Agni (fire) is a purifying agent. Fire, even in hell, does-the work of cleansing. Here the myth begins to connect with our story. Carbolic acid is also a purifying agent. At Kulfi's death, paste for puja is made of carbolic acid instead of ghee. At times, I feel, ‘The Circle of Reason’ is simply a response of Amitav Ghosh to the unhygienic conditions of India. It is a complex response of the author to appalling dirt and filth in a land whose people have always talked of purity of soul as well as surroundings. The contradiction is fascinating. People insist on taking morning baths, purifying their homes with havans (fire) and keep fasts for internal cleansing. And still, they turn a blind eye to all the garbage and dirt in their holy rivers and holy places. The mythical Nachiketa might have been interested in big things. Alu's concern is simply how to overcome germ and disease. 

Nachiketa Bose (Alu) also waits at death's door when in Al-Ghazira he is buried alive when a building collapses. Without food and water, for days together, he does one thing and that is thinking. He knows the truth to be present in scientific reasoning. He wants to apply the scientific approach in removing the ills of present day society. When he finally comes out, Alu declares that money is the enemy of mankind for 'it travels on every man and every woman, silently preparing them for their defeat,' turning one against the other (28l). 

Out of the multiple layers of narrative in this novel, one layer seems committed to the cause of education. How should our children be educated? What should they be taught? Education is one big question that haunts the author. Education is memorization of facts at one level. At another, it is a tool to get a livelihood. At yet another, it sharpens human sensitivities. It kindles social consciousness in children. Can education uplift living standards of Indian masses and save them from nightmarish depths of poverty, ignorance and disease? Balram, a schoolteacher, acts as Ghosh's mouthpiece when he says, ‘It would be wrong; it would be immoral. Children go to school for their first glimpse into the life of the mind. Nor for jobs. If I thought that my teaching is nothing but a means of finding jobs; I'd stop teaching tomorrow' (52). So, ‘glimpse into the life of mind' is all that education should do. It seems so far from our real burdensome curricula for children? Where is the pleasure in education? Ghosh seems to suggest a pattern where children are trained on rational patterns. They may enjoy their training. Their curiosity is not suffocated by authority. Their natural impulse to ask questions is encouraged. They are trained to find their own answers. Ghosh's idea of education becomes clearer when he deals with Louis Pasteur's life and education. 

Pasteur's life exemplifies the fact that education should be aimed at answering the common every-day problems of people. Bread alone is not the answer. Several other forms of thinking are needed to be really useful to society. Pasteur's father was a poor tanner. The young Pasteur's laboratory was life itself. He did not come to science by thinking about the nature of existence and atom. He actually left the study of crystallography in order to answer the most common problem of brewers of France. 'What was it that made bear rot? This is how he came to discover the infinitesimally small germ and the good and harm it causes to human life.' Life, therefore, is the best teacher. Experience and exposure to real life situations are more crucial than classroom instruction. Education is for life. As Shombhu Debnath says, 'Skill is not enough; you have all that you ever will.' Technique is just the beginning. The world is your challenge now; look around you and see if your loom can encompass.

Amitav Ghosh is a writer who is never vary of making comments on politics and power equations within India. In an environment of internationalization and globalization,  'restlessness' is only too natural' On one hand,  there is the traditional and perhaps 'out-dated' group of people who are obsessed with colonization of India by the British and decolonization of what the British did.  But Ghosh's focus is also on re-colonization and neo-colonization of the globe by multinational companies.  The tools of Balram for self-reliance are carbolic acid, loom and sewing machine. We are reminded of Gandhi's charakha. The situation today may be post-colonial but Ghosh effectively shows how socialism and democracy have been betrayed in this land.  Ghosh' throughout his career as a writer shows a love-hate relationship with decolonization. At times he is angered by the harm and insults given by colonizers and yet at other times, he is unsparing in his attack on hypocrisy and lack of sincerity of the colonized. At one point Mrs. Verma shouts at Mishra, ‘Who sabotaged Lohia? Don't think we've forgotten-we've seen you wallowing filth …, white high theory drips from your mouth, we've heard you spouting about the misery of masses' while' your fingers dig into their pockets' (380). Even the mechanics of organizing political meetings is not spared. The politicians are not sincere, nor are they charismatic any longer. They hire workers and through them an audience is arranged. Bhudeb in shameless political exhibitionism holds a meeting under the banyan tree. His men have gathered people from the entire village. But Balram, the man of reason, is bent upon disrupting the meeting. Even without sufficient volunteers he manages to disturb the meeting with buckets full of carbolic acid. On the other hand Bhudeb's sons and henchmen hang his life size poster on the tree. Ghosh here subtly fingers the coming 'advertising' culture of Indian politics. It also points towards feudalism within the so-called democratic set up of the country. 

The Circle of Reason’ makes an unconventional reading. The form of the novel may be taken to symbolize the chaotic state of today's society. But the parallel can be taken only to a certain limit because howsoever un-orthodox, the novel does have plot, theme and characterization. The effect that it produces is not at all chaotic. 

The novel seems to suggest that everything is actually a matter of how we look at it. Attitudes matter. History is not unchangeable; it very much gets molded by the way we look at it. Time in this novel is characterized by remarkable fluidity. The lives that this novel depicts are all lived on the brink of abnormality. These are dangerously lived lives driven by focused passions. The characters are uncompromising. And this is something quite common I have noticed among worthy writers. Their characters do not compromise. They are mostly talented people given to their specific causes. The fire within them may not be visible at times; but it is always there. Somehow adjustment, compromise and worldly wisdom seem to stand for mediocrity for these writers. Ghosh also builds his extraordinary tale with the help of extraordinary characters. 

Ghosh, Amitav. 1986. ‘The Circle of Reason’. London: Himash Hamilton.

Continued to: "The Shadow Lines" 


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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Views: 4296      Comments: 5

Comment Thank you so much to deep discussed about the novel. I really learn the theme and analysis way to said.

24-Sep-2019 09:45 AM

Comment nice review,it very helpful for understanding the historical novel of Amitav Ghosh.he is a splendid writer of this field.the present review is awesome

ruchi bisht
14-Oct-2014 10:16 AM

Comment Thanks for a review of the book. I was trying to understand this novel which i found to be very complex. I found it to be very liberal secular.The rendering is good.

Sudhir Krishnan
06-Oct-2014 05:33 AM

Comment Alu and Jyoti is not normal. Jyoti, as a police officer, initially views Alu as an extremist. She has her eyes on him right from the first part. - See more at:

is jyoti das a '"she"".......................

18-Aug-2014 09:33 AM

The analysis makes satisfactory reading as it paves way to dig out several fictional indications although the novel, from outward interpretations, is found to be telling historical events in three shots. Nice to see. Thanks.

Abhigyan Anurag
07-Sep-2012 05:31 AM

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