Sunday, February 24, 2008

In Conversation with Amitav Ghosh

What is your earliest childhood memory?

Earliest I won’t be able to tell, but I have a lot of early childhood memories centring on Dhaka. When I was three-four years old my family came here, and till eight I lived here. It feels very different now to recall, naturally everything changes in forty years. That day I have found the house in which we lived, so, it's an interesting thing to come and look for it.

I must say that I am surprised by Dhaka, it’s wonderful how much park areas it has, how much greenery it has. The parks have really surprised me. I don’t think its often that you see in South Asia a city that has so many parks, and they seem to be so well maintained, they look really, really beautiful. At the same time, a lot of the architecture seems unplanned. So it's kind of strange to reconcile the two, on the one hand you see something so well planned, on the other hand some buildings seem so haphazard and unplanned. Apart from this, Dhaka now seems a thriving, vibrant place.

Can you recollect one particular event of your childhood that has stirred you?

I can remember many things, I remember going to school, I remember my first day at school, I remember in that school, teachers used to beat us up with a ruler--I remember almost everything.

How important is a novelist’s childhood to her work?

I think it’s impossible to have a rule about that. Exactly how important it is I don’t know, but one can say that childhood in different degrees is important to a novelist, there are some novelists who write about nothing but their childhood. There are certain writers for whom their childhood is the central experience around which they build their experience, that’s not the case certainly with me. My childhood is very important as childhood is, but I would say that the later phases of my life have also been very important.

The reason why I asked is because I wanted to know if you think every art in the broadest sense of the word is autobiographical.

The answer to that again is that it’s particular to every individual writer. It is impossible to make a blanket statement on that. For me, I don’t think my writing is very autobiographical. I am interested in things, which are outside my own experience. So a lot of my writing is not about myself at all, at the same time, it is also true that when you are writing a novel, in some way your experience, your knowledge of the world, what you have seen of the world-- all these things go into your book. Someone who has not seen anything, or has felt certain emotions, they can’t write about it convincingly. So I would say that it’s not autobiographical at all, so much as experiential. I would make a difference there.

Do you know your audience?

It’s impossible for me to know my readers. At this point in time my readers are in so many places, in so many countries I can never know them. Essentially I have reached a point in my life where basically my readers are myself and a few friends, because there is no way I could know all my readers. I should think my books have sold, at least, over a million copies, how could I know? My audience is as such that, it’s really myself and a few friends.

Will you tell us a little about your novel The Sea of the Poppies?

It’s a book that starts in the 19th century, and it follows the history of three or four families over a period of time, it follows a few characters, the inter-relationships, the interactions over an extended period of time.

In a broader sense the tale of the lascars, which the book is about, is essentially the history of colonisation.

I think its much more than that. South Asia is a great nautical region, you know. It’s a history that we have forgotten. We have lost the whole nautical tradition that we once had, we no longer think of ourselves as nautical people. And especially in India shipping has suffered terribly since independence. Once upon a time it was possible to travel to India all the way in boats in steamers, there was a very busy, thriving coastal trade, but since independence, because in India everything is based so much on Delhi, which is very far inland, our coastal shipping has died away, there is no shipping left on the Ganga, there is no shipping left on any of our major rivers. Once upon a time these rivers were alive with shipping, now very rarely do you see a ship on the Ganga.

Should I put it this way, you are reclaiming a part of history that is forgotten?

I think you can certainly say that, it’s part of history that I do want to reclaim, because a whole tradition of sea that we had has been lost. It needs to be reclaimed.

History is central to the art of fiction…we see you try to interpret and reinterpret history both at a personal and social level.

Again it varies from writer to writer, but I would say how important is history for me. It is enormously important to me; it is always very basic to my work, I am very interested in it; my books are built around it. History is absolutely fundamental to my work.

I have found in Naipaul’s The Magic Seeds that the first textual history of the sub-continent has been written by a White school inspector for schoolchildren.

I am a great admirer of Mr Naipaul but I don’t think very much of his scholarship. But I have to say I don’t know what he is talking about because there has been history, there were Rajotaranganies, written in the 10th/11th century, there were all the traditions of Ain-e-Akbari, there were so many histories, how can he say that there was no history in India.

But because of colonisation we have to resort to, say, Royal Albert Museum or the British Museum to know about ourselves. Our history is, in a way, lost, forgotten.

You are right. I think the history of the last 200 years has been defaced largely, because of it we have to reclaim a lot of it from the colonial archive. That certainly is true. But there has been a long tradition of writing history in South Asia. So many histories have been written--The Akbarnama, The Jahangirnama, especially the Buddhist tradition, it’s very historically informed. I suppose what Naipaul means is that the first contemporary or modern history in the sense of a school text of history was written by a school inspector. Who else is going to write school texts but a schoolteacher or a school inspector?

In The Hungry Tide we see you portray the role of individuals in myth and history. Why does it, as a theme, dominate your work so much?

Because myth is fiction and I am a writer of fiction. Myth is, in a way, like a novel. These are inventions about lives, about societies; they interest me because they are doing the same thing that I am doing. I am inventing fictions about the world.

The myth that you create has a modern point of view too. You create modern myths.

It’s true, but at the same time, it’s a continuity I don’t think the modern aspect is a complete break from what existed before. I find so many of our myths so interesting and so beautiful, like the Bonbibi myth is a very interesting myth to me, it’s absolutely a part of people’s lives, people’s histories, myth is fascinating.

Would you feel comfortable being associated with the term Post-colonialism?

You must be the twentieth person to ask me that question today. I don’t know what to say, I feel neither comfort nor discomfort, this is something I feel completely indifferent to, really. If you call my work, like, ‘Zoological fiction’ my reaction will be the same, I couldn’t care less.

You wouldn’t mind?


You are indifferent to it…

I am completely indifferent to it.

How did you become a writer? How has this journey taken place?

I have always wanted to be a writer. I was very fortunate that one day I was able to start writing a book, basically that’s what it takes; sit down and write a book, and do as well as you can. The India in my time the idea of living through writing especially for one who writes in English was inconceivable. So, I always thought I would have to had another job, maybe in teaching or in journalism. But I feel I have been fortunate at this point in my life that writing is all I do. The only thing I can be is a writer; this is the only thing I am good at.

Is the history of novel also the history of modern man, and his crises? I don’t think it is mere coincidence that one of the first English novels, Robinson Crusoe, portrays an isolated individual and the problem of his belonging.

I think Robinson Crusoe is a very good example, Defoe is crucial in inventing the myths of modernity, Crusoe influenced Jean Jacques Rousseau, who invented the modern point of view. So, yes, I agree with you. In every way fiction has been crucial in inventing the sense of modernity.

Novels you read alone, its not a collective experience.

The novel is written alone, its read alone. In that sense it’s a very individualistic experience.

Do you think book, as a form or as a source of knowledge, is facing a challenge from the Internet?

I don’t see it as a challenge. Many people I know are really lamenting the idea of books becoming lost. I was one of the first persons to download books from the net; I ordered mine from Amazon. Of course technologies must change. Print was a technology that was new, and it was changed, why shouldn’t we move to a digital book? I mean, it drives me mad having all these books on the bookshelves. I would rather have them digitally available. Whenever I can I download it from the net, it is wrong to print all these stuffs and using up the world’s paper, so it all must be made digital, I completely support this new technology. And I absolutely have no nostalgia; people go on and on about the feel of the book and this and that. But now the latest kind of electronic books that you get they give you the feel of the book. And it’s so convenient; you can store the books forever. You can have them in your computer library; you don’t have to be constantly sweeping out maggots and all that. I welcome the age of the electronic book.

What’s the last Bangla book you read?

I often read in Bangla on and off. I think I lat read Sunil Gangapadya’s Shey Shomoy. I am a very big admirer of Sunil’s work.

But there is a problem, if you call it so. How do you recreate the way certain figures in history, say Michael Madhusudan Dutt, used to talk? Here we are talking about a person’s speech, his own way of talking.

He is writing historical fiction, just the way I write. Do I know that the King of Burma has said what I have said that he said? Of course not, you make it up.

So, to what extent can you make things up?

You can do this to whatever extent you like, it’s a fiction, your reader has to know it’s a fiction. I do not know if you have read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ‘August 1914’, there is a wonderful, incredibly powerful passage 60/70 pages long which is the Tsar thinking about the revolution that is on his doorstep. That’s one of great marvellous passages of fiction. I mean, did Shakespeare know what the Henry the IV thought? Did Shakespeare know what Julius Caesar thought? Of course not. He made it up.

JM Coetzee tried to imagine the life of Fyodor Dostoevsky in his ‘The Master of Petersburg’. So, should we call it fiction or a fictional autobiography?

It should be fiction. Even if you are writing in first person does not mean that it has be called an autobiography.

You have said something that has struck me as interesting, you have said, while referring to people who ask you about your books, that you used to think in this way then, now you don’t.

What I was trying to say is that, when you are writing a book, you have to enter a particular state of mind, because you create a style for the book, you create a mindset within which the book happens, you build a house, you live inside that house and that house becomes your book. And once you finish, you are outside the house, you can’t really speak as if you are still inside the house and still remember every bit of its architecture. To write a book you have to create a very specific mindset. When I finish writing a book, I always feel that I am behind it, I have done it, I move onto something else, it’s on public domain now.

So you believe in a disjunction between the writer and the text, the way Deconstructionists think.

That’s right, yes. You should read the book in terms of the book and not read it against the background of the writer necessarily.

So, a text creates its own paradigm of power.


Of the writers you have read lately who do like the most?

The most interesting is a young boy called Ali Shetti, his book has not come out yet, it will be out in later this year, a really wonderful book about Pakistan, I think its going to be a striking book. Then, I really tend to pick up books at random. The books that are sent to me, I read. Just recently I read a book by a Bengali boy, it was in English, called Amitabh Bagchi. The book is called Above Average, it's about the IITs, Indian Institute of Technologies, excellent book. Then I read a very wonderful book by a woman called Anjum Hassan, its about Shillong and life in Shillong. So, there are so many, you come across them all the time. Another book, written by, again, a Bengali boy, Sudip Chakrabarty, called Tin Fish, I really liked it. There is such a wealth of talent coming out; it’s one of the great things about just being in India or South Asia now. The bookshops are filled with books that I want to read.

Do you think South Asia is losing its secular character, becoming a dangerous place in which to live?

No, I don’t think so. I think its true that in some way the sort of secularism, it's not certainly as secular as we would like to see, I don’t think the secular character is vanishing either. I think someone was telling me yesterday that in South Asia we are secular for the 364 days of the year and on the 365th day something awful happens and its true, when these things happen they are very devastating, very awful, and very dangerous. In India we have a kind of Hindu fanatical party which is becoming very dangerous, similarly we have Muslim fundamentalist parties which are very threatening and dangerous. I think the great majority of the South Asians remain tolerant to each other’s beliefs. See, when we speak of secularism in South Asia, we speak of something very specific; it’s not secular in the Western sense necessarily, where there is a religion-science kind of divide, I don’t think that’s what we are talking about, we are talking about a spirit of multi-culturism, a sort of spirit of pluralism, and it's far from there. There are pockets in India when this spirit is under threat, but I would say, the overall situation is different. If you watch any Indian television, you will notice that young people are so much interested in bread and butter issues, there are so much interested in making money, for one, which is fairly a secular pursuit. They are interested in films, in dancing, in clothes, in fashion, it has a downside too, but I think it has broadened the area of mutual tolerance.

[Amitav Ghosh is one of the most widely known Indians writing in English today. His books include ‘The Circle of Reason’, ‘The Shadow Lines’, ‘In An Antique Land’, ‘Dancing in Cambodia’, ‘The Calcutta Chromosome’, and most recently, ‘The Glass Palace’.]

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Waiting for the Mahatma

In an exclusive interview Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of Mahatma Gandh,i talks about his life and works.

You are quoted to have said, "I wish they could understand I am a descendant of the Mahatma, not Mahatma myself. If being Mahatma was hereditary, there would be 54 living Mahatmas today!' How does it feel to be the great-grandson of the Mahatma?

This was said while faced by very unjustified demands. If greatness was hereditary there would have been so many Mahatmas and Prophets. But greatness is not inherited it is achieved and so it is unjustified to expect me or any of my family members to have inherited the qualities that made Mohandas K. Gandhi a Mahatma. Having said that I will say that I am extremely proud of being the descendant of both Bapu and Ba. One must not forget that much of the credit in turning Mohandas into a Mahatma goes to the silent support and strength provided by Kasturba, a lady with admirable courage and conviction and a strength of character far out surpassing that possessed by her husband the Mahatma. Bapu has admitted that after he lost Ba he felt incomplete ad insecure. During his travels in Noakhali many a times he admitted that when he was at his weakest both physically and emotionally he felt the presence of Ba and that memory built up his strength and courage. I am privileged and blessed to be carrying the blood of two such illustrious ancestors.

How important do you think MK Gandhi's ideology is to the world in this new century?

If Truth, Love and peace are important to humanity Gandhi will always remain important. As he said, “Truth, Love and Peace are not invented by me they are as ancient as the mountains and rivers. Thus these the corner stones of the formation of society and civilization will always remain important to us if we value life and more so quality of life. As the World faces threat from violence against humanity and against our environment and we see its effects which are now threatening our existence on this earth the belief of Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammad become more and more relevant. When the darkness is blackest then a spark gives us hope about the coming emergence of light, this is true for Gandhi and his relevance too. The war on terror is making us even more susceptible to terror and violence, people challenge the advocates of nonviolence to prove how nonviolence can address terrorism. Nonviolence can not stop a suicide bomber but nonviolence if applied with honesty and humility will be able to address the cause which creates the suicide bomber. Bullets may stop a terrorist but terrorism has not been known to have been deterred by bullets and bombs. If we want this world to become safer we will have to take recourse in nonviolence practiced with honesty and compassion.

Many say that the idea of secular India has failed. What is your response to this view?

Apparently the idea of Secularism has failed in India. But the fact that India survives as a multi religious nation is proof that we are basically a secular people who have learned to coexist despite our differences, suspicions and prejudices. Since Bangladesh and Pakistan were created with a communal belief Secularism has not been able to take root in these two nations and today we see radical and fanatic elements dominating the societies in both the nations. In India there is a lunatic fringe which tries to assert and dominate from time to time but by and large we have survived and managed to keep our national fabric well knit. It will take a lot more aggravation to tear apart the century old bonds that Indians of any Religion, Caste or ethnicity have formed with their motherland. The Narendra Modis, L. K. Advanis and Praveen Togadias are the aberrations not representatives of Indian civil society.

You, I gather, studied art. Do you paint?

Although I did do a diploma in arts it was in printing technology. I have always fancied that there is a painter in me waiting to break out but till date all my attempts at art have ended up in me making one big mess.

Will you please tell our readers a little about the ideas behind your book 'Let's Kill Gandhi!'

‘Let’s Kill Gandhi!’ deals with the events of the last four years of the life of my great grandfather, Bapu. It specifically deals with the conspiracy to murder him, chronicles the many attempts to murder him which failed, profiles his murderers and their conspirators and patrons, the bungling by the police and the investigation after the murder, the trial, sentencing, appeal and execution and then the report of the commission of inquiry. My reason for writing the book was not because I was going to throw new light on the case, No that was never my intention, there was no secret gun man, no behind the scene puppet master to be exposed. I was only a chronicler, of course my research turned into an investigation and without official support I was able to ferret out quiet not yet known facts and flesh out many other vague whispers.
For sixty years the ideology which murdered Bapu, the Sangh Parivaar and the Hindu Mahaasabhaa have carried out a campaign of lies to justify the act of Nathuram Godse and the RSS and Hindu Mahaasabhaa. This campaign of lies has not been challenged and so a couple of generations have grown up believing these lies to be true. I felt very agitated when confronted by these allegations against my great grandfather. I feel I have received a lot of privileges due to my ancestry and so I feel it is my duty to present the truth and so I decided to write the book. It will be of particular interest to the people of Bangladesh since it deals extensively with his peace pilgrimage through the riot ravaged districts of Noakhali and Tipperah.

[Tushar Arun Gandhi is a great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, and the son of journalist Arun Manilal Gandhi. He is the author of ‘Let’s Kill Gandhi’, which looks back at the assassination of the Mahatma. According to his agent Jacaranda Books, “Tushar Gandhi’s sensational book on his great-grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi retraces the steps of his assassination. The book gives a detailed account of the murder in a milieu that is both political and religious. Very few people are aware that there were several failed attempts. After the murder, the manner in which the trial of the conspirators was conducted, the judgement and the execution have long been shrouded in mystery. Tushar believes that the police, intelligentsia and politicians of the day had information on all the attempts as well as on the actual assassination, but did nothing to prevent them, thus conveniently placing the Mahatma in the line of fire. The religious fundamentalism and political wrangling that led up to the partition of India is mirrored in today’s world. The campaign of hate, the desensitizing to human suffering, the acts of barbarism and terrorism are in the forefront. Gandhi died for a cause. He once said ‘an Eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind.’ Tushar uses the book to underscore the need to learn from history, and look at life with the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence.” ]

Sunday, February 03, 2008

In Conversation with Hari Kunzru

What is your earliest childhood memory? How important is your childhood to you?

I remember running down the aisle of a plane, on my first visit to India aged two. My mother disputes this, saying she would never have allowed me to do that. I also remember her feeding me some pink medicine on the same flight, something she also denies. My early childhood was happy and uncomplicated. I’m very grateful to my parents for providing me with a comfortable, stable and loving home. I spend a lot more time working through the events of my pre-teen and teen years, which were less happy. The world outside my home proved to be a more fraught and difficult place.

VS Naipaul has talked about separation of the man (the person who writes) and the writer. How is it for you?

That strikes a chord. For a long time my daily life was secondary to the project of becoming a writer. As I grew older, I started to put more value on living life, on taking pleasure in everyday things. However I’m not by nature a person who finds it easy to be content. I get bored, depressed, angry. I need the challenge of writing, of trying to express those things I find inexpressible, to give some shape and meaning to life.

Do you think every novelist, in a way, writes history, both at a personal and social level?

I’m not sure I understand the question. A novel is certainly a product of personal history, if only because a project that takes a couple of years to complete will necessarily become a receptacle for all the feelings and experiences undergone by the writer during that time. As for social history, I think it’s more complex. A novel is also a product of its time and place, so perhaps that’s true.

How do you see the 'role' of English in the context of South Asia, a place where the language had once been imposed on its people?

For a long time, English has been an Asian language. South Asians have adapted it to their own needs and are using it in exciting, creative ways – the English of South Asia is now as different from the English of Britain as American English. Its role as a colonial language meant that it didn’t belong to any one ethnic or religious group. In the context of independent nations, many of which are trying to balance the cultural claims of several different communities, this lack of ownership has given the language a new role – a unifying factor, rather than evidence of foreign domination.

Does a female writer's way of handling a certain theme differ from the way a male writer will tackle it?

I don’t think there are any essential differences between male and female writers. If there is such a thing as ‘women’s fiction’ it consists in the choice of themes. Writers have certain commitments, and certain areas of knowledge. Women have historically been more involved in domestic affairs, and more dependent on the outcome of romantic relationships for their personal security and happiness.

How important is it for you to know your audience/reader?

I think you make your audience, or perhaps find it. The most important thing for a writer is to try to tell the truth about the world as you see it. If you’re successful at that, an audience will emerge.

Do you think the way in which diasporic writers interpret South Asian reality differs from the way non-diasporic authors do?

I think for those of us who don’t live there, South Asia exists as much as an idea, a horizon or a point of reference, than a daily reality. I can imagine many things. I may even have a perspective that gives me greater insight into South Asian life than my Polish or Jamaican or English neighbours in London. But it’s not the same as living it every day. That’s a job only non-diasporic writers can truly do.

In Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, JM Coetzee's protagonist says the following about novelists in Africa writing in English, which may as well be true for South Asia: "Whether they like it or not they have accepted the role of interpreter, interpreting Africa to their reader. Yet how can you explore a world in all its depth if at the same time if you are having to explain it to outsiders? It is like a scientist trying to give full, creative attention to its investigations while at the same time explaining what he is doing to a class of ignorant students…" How do you view this issue?

I think there are serious political questions underlying Coetzee’s comment, and some of them are true for South Asia, but not all. African reality has, because of foreign igorance and condescension, been all but invisible internationally, so bridging the interpretative gap is difficult. South Asians are more accepted as writers and thinkers, and because of the popularity of South Asian writing, there’s a growing level of knowledge and understanding which makes our situation easier. I think one has to ask the question of any South Asian novelist – who are you writing for? If you’re merely retailing South Asian exotica for a foreign audience, that is a purely interpretative role, and leads to some uncomfortable conclusions about the writer’s allegiances. If you choose just to speak for your ‘own’ people, that’s something else, perhaps equally limited. I don’t think it’s impossible for a good South Asian writer to speak accurately and with nuance to all readers – it’s a difficult job, but not impossible.

How secular do you think modern India is?

Not secular enough, in its politics. In order to function successfully, Indian people have to accept the existence of a fire-break between their faith and the functioning of their institutions – and this is true of Pakistan and Bangladesh also. Religion has a place in public life, by providing an ethical horizon for political decisions, but the attempt to impose a religious vision on those who don’t share your faith will always lead to terrible suffering and violence. Religious believers will sometimes say they have a duty to bring others to the truth as they see it. I see no problem with argument and persuasion in furtherance of that end, but the use of force and political coercion in such questions is a form of arrogance – the belief that your view of the world gives you the right to hurt or kill is the worst kind of self-righteousness.

© Ahmede Hussain