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’.]