Telling the world's story, one person at a time
Two Indian writers, Amitav Ghosh and Vikas Swarup, were in town recently to participate in the Bharatasamay International Conference at Chulalongkorn University. Discussing the issues of language, history, movies and globalisation, the two literati talked to Life in exclusive interviews
Amitav Ghosh laughed when asked why anyone would pay him a compliment by saying that he "writes Bengali novels in English".
He said he treasured that praise from his friend, the late distinguished senior Indian poet and novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay. The work of Indian authors like himself who write in English, he explained, arises "out of the tension between cultures and languages".
It may seem contradictory, the term "Bengali novels in English", but this kind of work, which isn't just English and isn't just Bangla, perfectly expresses what he does.
"I think the reason why people read a writer like me, why I have an audience in many places," he explained, "is because people understand that this is the predicament of most people in the world today _ this tension between languages, between cultures."
Ghosh, born in Calcutta, raised in Bangladesh and India and a graduate from Oxford, is an author of several English-language novels that are propelled by the tumult of history and how it shapes and affects the courses of his characters' lives.
From The Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace, Sea Of Poppies, and his latest, River Of Smoke, which came out last year, the 56-year-old has established himself as a distinctive voice through stories that speak about the flow of lives in the great ocean of something bigger, such as destiny and the cross-currents of historical progression.
Here's a writer who straddles several boundaries _ cultural, linguistic, geographical _ so what exactly makes his work "Bengali"? Is it simply that he talks about Bengal? "I talk about it," Ghosh explained, "but I talk about it in ways that are familiar to Bengalis, if you like."
Would it be possible to sense the Bengali character of Amitav's work, if one had never been to India and had never had Indian friends or co-workers?
His books have a distinctive "texture", he said, which a foreigner might miss, but which would be familiar to a Bengali reader. (Hence the warmth and bonhomie he felt in his senior friend's comment.)
It is sad to think that non-Indian readers of Amitav's novels, while following the intriguing paths through his stories, are at every moment missing a wealth of unseen realities that please and delight the Bengali reader.
Of course, it's easy to believe that historical fiction is more fun and interesting to read than many academic history texts. On that note, however, Ghosh mentioned Canadian-American Natalie Zemon Davis, recognised as one of the most creative historians writing today. She has inspired younger generations of historians, for example, by promoting "cross-fertilisation" between disciplines and by finding history in the reconstructed lives of ordinary people.
Speaking of the approach to history taken by Davis, by himself, and by others, Ghosh said: "What we do is see the past through the eyes of individuals. And it's because we see the past in this way _ through characters _ that students or readers find ways of identifying with it.
"I think historians also read a great deal of historical fiction," he added, "and they like it, especially when it's accurate, or when it's attentive to history, as I am. I try to stay abreast of all the research. History can become very dry, [but] when it's put in context, it suddenly comes alive."
Ghosh's first field of study, not surprisingly, was history. He later trained in social anthropology and got plenty of experience as a journalist. These varied perspectives help him bring to life the memorable and beloved characters that have long peopled his works of historical fiction.
The author's goodwill is reflected in his extraordinary willingness, documented in his books and on his website, to appreciate new places and new people. With a welcoming, non-judgemental attitude, he is quick to find the overlaps and similarities between cultures and societies that can help the newcomer feel a bit more at home.
One underlying reality of both Sea Of Poppies and River Of Smoke is surely that globalisation is not a new phenomenon. A major theme in River Of Smoke is the extensive network of merchant shipping that has for centuries plied the waters of the Bay of Bengal. Seafaring merchants from around the world profited enormously from opium exported from India and smuggled into China. Amitav points out that more people have crossed the Bay of Bengal than any other stretch of water _ 40 million Indians trading and shipping and on pilgrimages and journeys.
He notes that the excitement and anxiety about globalisation is, in many ways, mostly a revelation of the depth of our ignorance of history. Reading any of Ghosh's novels is a fine way to be awakened from that kind of insularity. The author mentioned a bit of heartening news in this respect, having learned recently that a school district somewhere in the US had just ordered 25,000 copies each of Sea Of Poppies and River Of Smoke.
''It's the biggest single order that my publisher has ever had.''
It's fitting that while the various implications of globalisation seems to be the subject of his scrutiny, Ghosh's latest channel of expression is one that defies frontiers and the traditional rule of publishing _ his online blog, which racks up a startling half-a-million hits a month.
Reflecting his wide-ranging interests, the blog's archives contain, for example, a commentary on the disappearance of the Aral Sea, descriptions of the cultural riches of the ancient and modern city of Kabul, a photo essay on an ''architectural masterpiece'', the new Seattle Public Library, and notes from the journal he kept on an expedition up the Mekong to study Irrawaddy dolphins with Isabel Beasley. He also discusses climate change, another subject that's high on his list.
He regards his website as a kind of autobiography in real time. ''I could never imagine myself writing an autobiography, but this [blog] is the closest I could come,'' he explained. ''So I just write about whatever's on my mind _ what I'm seeing, what I'm doing. The extraordinary thing is the top three visitor countries are India, the US and China, and then all sorts of countries like Italy, Russia, Canada, England, and Spain. I get visitors from so many different places.''
Ghosh, in his historical novels, tells stories about the tensions and the sharing between societies and cultures _ not only in reference to the grand designs and historical destinies of empires and capitalists, but also in the lives of individuals who inhabit ''the vast networks of foxholes where real life continues uninterrupted''. He makes it clear that we all ''speak'' history, often without knowing it. We unwittingly practice cultural tension, innocently insisting, for example, on calling the country ''Egypt'' (the European designation) while not remembering that, from that name, English created an epithet, ''gypsy''. (Egyptian people commonly refer to their own land as Masr.)
Likewise, how many Americans know that their newly re-elected president's first name, Barack, is also related to the Arabic word ''baraka'', which means ''blessing''?
Amitav finds encouragement in the many people who do express interest, who are eager to learn. He has a wide readership, and they look to him for explanation and enlightenment. There are so many rich and incredible stories that remain untold behind all the media hype. As the author said of some of the distressing situations that we see arising in many countries around the world today: ''These things don't just happen by accident.'' Globalisation is not new at all.
About the author
Writer: Janice M Wongsurawat