The Role of Memory in the Trauma Process: An Analysis of the Trauma Narrative in Sethu’s The Saga of Muziris

Pheba K Paul
Dr. Ann Thomas

Trauma and Memory are concepts that go hand in hand in the analysis and interpretation of literary texts. Considering recent developments in trauma theory, it can be understood that memory is seen as a fundamental element of the trauma process.  In the analysis of fiction, it is possible to identify the intrinsic nature of memory in the construction of a trauma narrative. This is especially prominent in the case of historical fiction. History hinges on memory and historical fiction presents opportunities to recreate history. This recreation is not possible without memory. In the present paper, concepts of the trauma theory of Jeffrey Alexander are used to analyze a historical novel to understand how the element of memory features in it. The Saga of Muziris was translated by Prema Jayakumar from the original Malayalam novel Marupiravi written by Sethu.  In the novel, the narrator, Aravindan in his journey to his homeland, traces the story of the ancient port of Muziris. The journey compels Aravindan to recreate the bygone era of his homeland. The novel presents various instances in which memory plays an important role in the creation of the trauma narrative. The present paper attempts to examine this role played by memory in the trauma process by analyzing the trauma narrative in Sethu’s historical novel, The Saga of Muziris. 

Keywords: trauma, narrative, memory, history, fiction

With the evolution in the field of literary trauma studies, trauma theory has been increasingly used as a tool to analyze various literary texts. Trauma which was initially used as a term for a physical wound acquired a psychical meaning with the work of Sigmund Freud. The inclusion of psychical meaning along with the physical led to the incorporation of various other disciplines widening the scope of trauma studies. The work of scholars like Cathy Caruth, Judith Herman, and Geoffrey Hartman points to the unrepresentability of trauma using language. Their work became the starting point for engagements of trauma with literature. 

From treating trauma as an event that defies representation to the recent views of trauma as a construction, the approach to the trauma narrative in texts has also undergone changes. Later theorists of trauma believed that viewing trauma as only the consequence of an event is very limiting. While earlier theorists focused on trauma as that which was unsaid, the later theorists pointed out that trauma is that which has been said. In other words, trauma is the story and not that which is missing from the story. Jeffrey Alexander’s theory of trauma belongs to the latter school of theorists. In his view, “representation of trauma depends on constructing a compelling framework of cultural classification. In one sense, this is simply telling a new story” (17). “Identity revision, memory and Routinization” (26) are the elements in the trauma process outlined by Alexander. Memory is an integral part of the trauma process and is often a dominant presence in discussions of trauma in literary texts. Ron Eyerman remarks that though there are several responses or ways to resolve cultural traumas emerging in a specific cultural context, “all of them in some way or other involve identity and memory” (Eyerman 4). The present paper elucidates the role of memory in the trauma process by highlighting its presence in the trauma narrative in Sethu’s The Saga of Muziris.

The Saga of Muziris was translated by Prema Jayakumar from the original Malayalam novel Marupiravi. The novel is written in the third person predominantly from the perspective of the protagonist Aravindan. Sethu has used a mixture of myth, legend, history, and fiction to recreate the lost port of Muziris. The Malayalam title of the novel “Marupiravi” meaning rebirth or reincarnation is significant. It sheds light on the role played by the author through his character Aravindan in bringing to life a long-dead era. It also points out that an attempt at recreation is taking place in the novel. 

The land itself becomes a character in the novel. The prologue of the novel begins with a poetic description of the floods of 1341 that led to the erasure of the land of Muziris . “A whole settlement was crushed beneath the new layer of sand. A city that had lived extravagantly, forgetful of time’s speed vanished. When the wealth brought by the sea was taken away by the river, there was no one left to mourn. The grains of sand did not give any one time to even groan as they covered everything.” (Sethu 12). The land of Muziris also undergoes a transformation through the trauma process. It has been impacted by the flood and all traces of it are removed.  But the revival takes place and is suggestive of what Alexander terms as ‘identity revision.’(26) “And then one day the land that had been buried under the sand woke from its slumber and tried to count the breaths of rebirth….She had been lying quietly, waiting for the fresh green sprouts, for the tangled veins of life, for the blood that flowed through them, carrying the warmth and smell of the new times”(Sethu 12). The traveller who comes in search of his roots is killed and from the land where “his blood, sweat, and dreams had fallen” (Sethu 16), a new settlement is born. The cyclical nature of the trauma process is reiterated. This is explicitly shown in the example of the land, which acquires different forms and different inhabitants through the centuries. In the final chapters of the novel, the imaginary characters in Aravindan’s story speak about the new form of Muziris: “ The Vallarpadam terminal would be the rebirth of Muchiri.  When trade took place there with the support of new technology, Muchiri that had been drowned in mud could console itself, that its rebirth was not in vain; so could the old denizens of Muchiri who still lived” (Sethu 415). Trauma fiction presents alternative histories by re-working earlier narratives. Through the words of Aravindan, Muziris acquires new life, “A place was awakening from the layers of centuries, millenniums. And some creatures with it” (Sethu 179).

Aravindan has migrated from his hometown to Mumbai. A call from a historian friend named Perumal makes him want to visit the place again. His nostalgia and longing for home overpower him and, on his arrival, fueled by Perumal’s narration, he begins to write the tale of Muziris. This act of writing is something that he feels compelled to do by the memories of the ancient land and its people who call out to him. Alexander notes that traumatic “reconstruction means that there will be a searching re-remembering of the collective past, for memory is not only social and fluid but also deeply connected to the contemporary sense of the self” (26).  This is especially true in the case of Aravindan.

Birgit Neumann’s observations on the fiction of memory are noteworthy at this juncture. According to him:

on the textual level, novels create new models of memory. They configure memory representations because they select and edit elements of culturally given discourse: They combine the real and the imaginary, the remembered and the forgotten, and, by means of narrative devices, imaginatively explore the workings of memory, thus offering new perspectives on the past. (334)

Aravindan engages in a similar process. Or, in another sense, the author himself engages in this process when creating a history for Muziris. The trauma process unfolds in the novel through the character of Aravindan who has moved away from his hometown and now wants to reconnect. He travels through the process with the aid of memory and achieves identity revision and Routinization. Neumann notes that “fictions of memory are presented by a reminiscing narrator or figure who looks back on his or her past, trying to impose meaning on the surfacing memories from a present point of view” (335). This is exactly what Aravindan does in the novel. He is constantly viewing the past and understanding its implications for his present. “Aravindan was searching through the mildewed heap of history. From Muchiri, he was traversing millennia, centuries, generations and reaching the present. An endless chain lay before him with rusted links that refused to part” (Sethu 269).

Memory forms an important aspect of the narrative in the novel. At the very beginning of the novel, a traveller who came in search of Muziris is introduced. Memories are important for him. When he tastes the water of the land, he finds that the “Memories of generations seemed to have merged into it, making it sweet” (Sethu 14). There is also further reference to the memory of the land: “When the land where pearls and corals grew woke up from a deep sleep, it gave these new pearls to history. The shore that remained not a shore, filled again with pearls and herbs. And stones of memories, spilled from time past into time future” (Sethu 16).

Aravindan’s purpose of visiting the place is also triggered by memory. He says that he is visiting his place “to recall a place, a time, to regain it, to awaken history again” (Sethu 19). It is through memory that he is able to attain reconciliation with his past and the past of his land. He has frequent memories of his mother and hometown: “It was recently that his mother had revisited him with the memories of their place…. His mother’s rosy face, her grey wavy hair, the two teeth, slightly out of alignment and the earrings with white stones were all memories of his hometown for him” (Sethu 21). His relation to his mother is connected to his bonding with his hometown.

Perumal narrates the story of Muziris from records that he has but he emphasizes that the real essence of the past Muziris cannot be attained by a historical study.  He says that it is “a time you can reach out through memories alone” (Sethu 52). He talks about the necessity of creating a narrative to put things in perspective: “it is up to the poets to enter spaces that cannot be brought under control of history books” (Sethu 63). “I have a doubt. Is this a rebirth, a resurrection? Or are we just getting back something lost?” (Sethu 97). Aravindan asks Perumal, the historian to which he replies that it is both and adds on how Muziris had lain in wait for eons and then slowly revealed herself. “So, it becomes a mission, for those who received the message to spread the story” (Sethu 97). Aravindan usually saw his mother in his dreams but that night Muziris came to him; “She lingered near him, laughing, playing with him, threatening him and reminding him” (Sethu 97). This compels him to write the story of the place. “When he got up the next morning, Aravindan had decided. He could write; he had to write. That old Muziris had to appear in his jottings about his land. Only then would the history of later times be complete. This was a mission he had to take up” (Sethu 97). 

Aravindan creates imaginary characters in the land of Muziris based on what he had heard from Perumal. He also meets Achumbava, an old man who has some memories of that time. The text mentions that “his memories, and the stories Aravindan had heard, wove the history of a period” (Sethu 323). As Aravindan begins writing he finds that his identity is undergoing a change. From being a mere listener to the tale of an ancient past, he is transformed into the role of a storyteller and recorder of memories. He finds that he is entrusted with a great mission.  “It was not just the story of Muziris, but that of a period, of a people. Some forms slid into the room from beyond the smoky curtains of history. Shapes that had not been seen before, words that had not been heard before” (Sethu 106).

Aravindan decides that he would write for the next generations so that the memory of Muziris is kept alive. Through his granddaughter, he feels that it would pass on to future generations. “This may not end with him…Someone, listening to the call of the links that could never break fully but needed to be united again” (Sethu 430). Aravindan was distressed by the lack of interest in his son in keeping a tie with the ancestral land. The book Aravindan writes becomes a means by which Aravindan is able to forge a history for future generations. Through the characters that he creates, the culture of the long-lost land becomes alive. “Aravindan told himself that he was not trying to capture a period now but a rich culture” (Sethu 180). Alongside the culture of ancient Muziris, he also weaves in the political history of Chendamangalm, bringing in the Paliyam struggle.  In the final pages of the novel, Aravindan attains Routinization because he knows that he has done his part in recreating the past of his land for his granddaughter and her future generations. “This was the return journey that some ancestor had longed for.” (Sethu 430)

Aravindan’s characters are presented in such a way that the customs of past generations are vividly described. The attachment of the ancestors to the land and its cultivation is mirrored with the present generation’s pull towards the roots through the character of Aravindan. In delineating the past through his writing, Aravindan is creating memories that will help him attain the resolution of his trauma of moving away from his homeland. Alongside this is depicted the history of Jews who came as migrants to Chendamangalam. Bezalel who came back from Israel in search of his roots is presented as a foil to Aravindan who also undertakes the journey back to his roots. The need to establish a connection with the roots is presented as a necessity for migrants to understand their identity and keep their memories alive. While Aravindan writes a book to keep the memory, Bezalel plans a house in Chendamangalam. “For this, he had bought a piece of land at a high price in the compound where his ancestral home stood.” Like Aravindan who tries to contribute to the collective memory of the future generation, Bezalel also says, “It is for the coming generations. They should realise that this is the earth in which my ancestors sleep” (Sethu 303).

The paper has shown how memory is able to shape the stages of a trauma process. Aravindan’s trauma as a migrant was related to his inability to do enough to sustain his connection with his homeland. Added to this was his son’s lack of interest in his ancestry. The trauma process takes place in the novel when he begins to connect to the past using his memories and the memories of those around him. His identity is revised to that of a writer and he finds reconciliation when he realizes that he has made a history of his place for future generations. The events and characters that he creates become part of the trauma narrative that he has constructed. It is this trauma narrative that is created with the aid of memory. Memory becomes the connecting link between the identity shift which takes place at the start of the trauma process and the resolution at the end of the process. Thus, the paper has explored the creation of the trauma narrative in Sethu’s The Saga of Muziris which is made possible by the indispensable presence of memory.

Works Cited

Alexander, Jeffrey C. Trauma: A Social Theory. Polity, 2012.
Balaev, Michelle., editor. Contemporary Approaches in Literary Trauma Theory. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Eyerman, Ron. Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity. 2001.
Cambridge UP, 2003.
Kunhikrishnan. K. “Recreating Muziris.” The Hindu, 06 Aug. 2011.
Neumann, Birgit. “The Literary Representation of Memory”. Astrid Erll, Ansgar Nünning, editors. Cultural Memory Studies : An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook  Walter de Gruyter, 2008. pp.333 – 43.
Sethu. The Saga of Muziris. Translated by Prema Jayakumar, Niyogi Books, 2017.
Pheba K Paul
PhD Research Scholar
Department of English
Madras Christian College (Autonomous)
Affiliated to the University of Madras, Chennai
Pin : 600059
ORCID: 0000-0002-4583-5760 


Dr. Ann Thomas
Assistant Professor and Research Supervisor
Department of English
Madras Christian College (Autonomous), Chennai 
Pin: 600059
Ph: 9444005440
ORCID: 0000-0002-5715-3783 

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