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Amitav Ghosh’s Works – A Literary Postmortem

Posted by bangalnama on July 6, 2009


Had I not checked the invitation letter thoroughly I would surely have missed him.

A slightly above average height, a shock of white hair and a benign smile – Amitav Ghosh, the author extraordinaire of The Shadow Lines, Calcutta Chromosome, The Hungry Tide and Sea of Poppies sat quietly at the coffee bar of Oxford Bookshop at Park Street, on a slightly foggy December evening in Kolkata, 2005. The authorities seemed enough flabbergasted to suddenly have a literary behemoth at their disposal, and their frantic runarounds reminded me oddly of a film star – hit premier movie show. I watched from afar, not daring to go near, having nothing common between us except the distant bangal connection. He didn’t like the coffee, it seemed. Shrugging off the shawl from his shoulders, Ghosh quietly stood up and walked towards the podium where he was supposed to adorn the seat of the chief guest. I was at Oxford for the following couple of hours, listened to his talk (which I vaguely remember to be something about the state of Indian English Literature), but somehow the only indelible imprint that he left me with was him sipping coffee beside the smoky glazed glass window. He seemed distant, yet very much there, absorbing the present quietly. A true author – I concluded.

Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh

This account of my brush (albeit short) with a literary celebrity, however, does hold little value other than of a snippet. The following discussion, which focuses primarily on the stylistics on Ghosh’s writings, are based on the meager amount of pedagogy I can boast of, accumulated from a handful of primary and secondary materials. Amitav Ghosh’s style of writing, in all probability, represents the purpose of his oeuvre – to attain a trans- socio-temporal spectrum. Although, his focus is supposed to lie with the shifting terrains of the Bengali, his outlook cannot be despised as clannish. In his writing, Amitav Ghosh demonstrates the mixture and interstitial nature of cultures, as expressed through language. Having no distinct stylistic pattern, Ghosh’s writing strikes often as a strain of conscious oscillation between the root and the uprooted self of the diasporic individual. The basic premise of the emergence of authors writing in English came out of desperation. We use the term ‘postcolonial’ to cover all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day. This is because there is a continuity of preoccupation throughout the historical process initiated by European imperial aggression. Postcolonial literature can be traced in a multiple nationalistic scenario, mostly starting from the mid ‘40s, with emergence of authors like Ghosh we enter a whole new phase of postcolonial dilemma – the diaspora. An avalanche of familiar and not so familiar jargons is bound to fall through – diaspora, sense of rootlessness, postcolonial depression, cultural clash, subalternism etc. Avoiding this crisscross of theory and counter-theory, we might claim that Ghosh is probably the first Indian author who aptly describes the uprooted native’s dilemma in an alien context through thematic interpretation. At the same time he also avoids being mired into the status quo of diasporic literature, which was in vogue even a couple of years back, and was often considered as a popular shortcut to the Booker Award (obvious examples are suppressed due to authorial discretion). Ghosh, while being the exponent diasporic literature, also let modern western aesthetics influence his writing freely.

As observed in The Shadow Lines, Ghosh has this tendency to make the narrator relate his story absent mindedly, often digressing into seemingly unimportant details across spatio-temporal coordinates, with a hurried return to the narration, almost as an afterthought:

She put her hands on my shoulders and holding me in front of her, looked directly at me, her eyes steady, forthright, unwavering.
I would have been frightened, she said. But I would have prayed for strength, and God willing, yes, I would have killed him. It was for our freedom: I would have done anything to be free.


Robi and I sized each other up, he lounging languidly against the Studebaker, dressed in long trousers, and I, all too acutely aware of the shortness of my be-shortened legs. (Shadow Lines, 39-40)

shadow lines1The pause in the middle is almost, the choked recollection of the narrator from an emotional memory to the relatively simpler point from where the memory sprang in his mind. This occurrence impresses more as we silently try to read the passages and find ourselves choking exactly where the pause occurs.

Mr. Ghosh’s narrator as a story-teller, will probably confuse his listeners, but those who tolerate the strayed canvas, finally manage to find the broken collage that all the digressions have compiled into. In The Shadow Lines, out of an intricate web of memories, relationships and images Amitav Ghosh builds a vivid and moving story. Its focus is the meaning of political freedom and the force of nationalism, the shadow lines existing between people and nation creating the source of terrifying violence – the final meaning does not matter much, as we get sucked into the multitude of sensation. This is the art of inclusion that makes Ghosh so engrossing. Ghosh’s habit of avoiding the quotation marks as in the speeches remembered, further brings us close to the narration as we find, the narrator voicing the absent, and we join him in a low chorus.

Ghosh’s language in the process attains the status of a diasporic representative – voicing him and thousands of other uprooted individuals. It seeks the centrality which a common language or even a common history inflicts – something to cling to in this gradually shifting plane. It embodies the attempt to create the family, which has broken and dispersed in the mire of confused identity. Ghosh acknowledges it tacitly in The Shadow Lines:

You see, in our family we don’t know whether we’re coming or going — it’s all my grandmother’s fault. But of course, the fault wasn’t hers at all: it lay in the language. Every language assumes a centrality, a fixed and settled point to go away from and come back to, and what my grandmother was looking for was a word for a journey which was not a coming or a going at all; a journey that was a search for precisely that fixed point which permits the proper use of verbs of movement. (The Shadow Lines, 153)


This is the language that Ghosh believes in and this kind of language he tries to create in his work.

In Tabish Khair’s compilation on Amitav Ghosh, Robert Dixon writes of Ghosh’s style as one “that is sufficiently nuanced and elusive to sustain the ‘theoretical fiction’ of a recovery of presence without actually falling back into essentialism…achieved by a fluid and at times confusing deployment of the lexicons of both liberal humanism and post-structuralism, without allowing his writing to be affiliated with either…” (Khair, 27). This theoretical duplicity enables him to continue his unearthing the subaltern consciousness, while retaining an awareness of the inevitably textual nature of the process. In an Antique Land represents this self reflexivity by the image of the ‘stage of modern history’, upon which the slave Bomma makes his fleeting appearance from the wings. For Dixon, this image suggests “both the literariness of Ghosh’s own writing, and also the textuality of all history, which deals with textual ‘traces’ of the ‘properly human’…in a theoretically elusive way he suggests that ‘real life’ can only be grasped as a performance in the ‘theatre of writing, which actually produces the presence it seems to describe” (Khair, 27-28). Thus, it can be derived that Ghosh’s language and style are both chiefly performative. It is not an alienating spectacle but a wide periphery where the readers can join him in active participation. Ghosh’s works are thus an integrating presence.

Amitav Ghosh’s stylistic quest for a centrality is not only towards a past that had integrated the diaspora in a familial tie, it is also a resolution of the present. His steady denial to categorize his oeuvre under the “commonwealth literature” proves his intention.

I have on many occasions publicly stated my objections to the classification of books such as mine under the term “Commonwealth Literature”. Principal among these is that this phrase anchors an area of contemporary writing not within the realities of the present day, nor within the possibilities of the future, but rather within a disputed aspect of the past…That the past engenders the present is of course undeniable; it is equally undeniable that the reasons why I write in English are ultimately rooted in my country’s history. Yet, the ways in which we remember the past are not determined solely by the brute facts of time: they are also open to choice, reflection and judgment. (“Letter to the Administrators of the Commonwealth Prize”, March 18th, 2001)*

* Ghosh here is clearly speaking in the same vein of Gayatri Chakrabarty Spivak, essentially denying the position the wider literary-cultural scenario attributes him with. Spivak, in her “Post-colonial Critic” refutes Rashmi Bhatnagar’s query concerning her position as a post-colonial, NRI outsider who comments on more ‘authentic’, indigenous aspect. As in Ghosh, there is this constant acquittal of individualistic literary freedom from gross generalization. In other words, literature cannot be categorized.


Ghosh’s writing relates to the past as a condition of the present, as a possible recollection which leads to a better comprehension of the present. It is a reflection not a monolithic net covering us. Ghosh’s steady oscillation between different time frames undermines the importance of time in his work, the events are important for him as one he chooses to remember. Ghosh keeps the periphery open both for himself and the readers. The performance instead of exhuming colonial corpses, digs up a new identity for us, connected or unconnected to the past. The choice remains open.


-by Dibyakusum Ray

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One Response to “Amitav Ghosh’s Works – A Literary Postmortem”

  1. I realize this post was nearly 5 years ago, but I’m commenting in hopes that the author, Dibyakusum Ray, could please let me know how best to use this article in a citation. You can reply to this comment and let me know! Thank you!!!

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