An Attempt at a Critical Overview of Amitav Ghosh’s Body of Work
Posted by bangalnama on March 11, 2009
Amitav Ghosh is my kind of writer. He doesn’t have the masterful genius of a Rushdie or a Naipaul nor perhaps the eccentric erudition of a Seth, nor the poignancy of Lahiri in detailing little everyday experiences. He writes with an anthropologist’s precision, taking care to situate his characters and themes in a well-defined historical context. He loves to dwell in those little-explored spaces where cultures intersect and identities emerge, classes collide and languages melt into each other, and equipped with his gift for lucid prose and power to relate in a way that is at once modest and deep, comes away as being extremely convincing for his pains. What’s more he has written consistently over twenty years and seems to improve with almost every book, and manages to remain fashionable in academia, and attractive to the lay reader, at the same time. These are no mean achievements in today’s bustling world of Indo-Anglian writing.
When you read the likes of Orwell there are moments when you jump up and say “Yess! that’s exactly what I feel too”. With a clever little narrative device, the author has articulated a little piece of your Weltanschaung, perhaps better than you yourself could have ever put it . Such literary resonances oftentimes happen with Ghosh too, not least the “compass on an atlas” episode from “The Shadow Lines” where the narrator picks up an old atlas and with a compass centered on Khulna draws out an arc through Srinagar. It flashes upon him that Chengdu and Chiang Mai, places one would have barely heard of, are closer to Calcutta than Kashmir is, and yet happenings in the Hazratbal shrine in that faraway valley could set off riots in Bangladesh, to be symmetrically reflected in Calcutta. This “yess” moment in one broad sweep ( like the compass’s swinging arc), ponders on the ironies of borders, on the meaning of identity, on the problematics of nation-states and expresses an aspiration towards a certain universal humanism. This internationalism, this blurring of lines, this impulse that leads him to put Bengalis, Arakanese, Europeans, Chinese and Biharis ( not to forget the various assortments of halfbreeds) on the same boat in “Sea of Poppies”, could be seen as a key underlying project in the corpus of Ghosh’s work. He will let a Burman and a Bengali talk to each other, form bonds, fall in love, i.e. relate in all ways that humans tend to, and create interesting human tales out of it all (ref. “The Glass Palace”). There’s of course nothing surprising and exotic about this, as the story of Empire entailed peoples shifting and diffusing into each other’s spaces. What is surprising is that this angle has been totally ignored in a century of colonial literature. While Orwell writes disparagingly of Empire in his “Burmese Days”, he rarely takes us beyond the incestuous small town English community and the corrupt Burman officials, and while Sarat chandra in his autobiographical “Sreekanto” or the militantly nationalistic “Pather Dabi” situates part of the action in Burma, rarely does he shift beyond his narrow cast of bhadroloke characters. Ghosh wedges himself in these unexplored chinks, cuts across class and ethnic lines, and tells the tales of Empire in a very fresh voice, lending it in the process to a cast of characters – the lascars, opium peasants, and boatmen – whose side of the story we rarely hear.
Ghosh is a very postcolonial author, and although thus far I have been trying to steer clear of jargon, let’s not make any bones of the fact that this is what he is celebrated in academia for. At least two of his major works till date directly deal with the dark underbelly of Empire : “The Glass Palace” features the British usurpation of Burma in the 1920s, and “Sea of Poppies” is the first in a trilogy meant to look at the opium trade with China as well as the question of indentured Indian labor in the mid 19th c. Ghosh deftly employs all the postcolonial narrator’s tricks in the book. He lends his incisive voice to the Other, the people inhabiting the marginal recesses of Empire, for they’re often his protagonists. The Other can now laugh, cry, scream and play freely with this voice. For the first time perhaps a Tamil rubber plantation worker in the Malay peninsula gets to play a significant role in a book that sold well on the international market, purely on its storytelling merit. The beauty of it all is that Ghosh is not satisfied with merely a single Other. His work is more like a celebration of a multitude of “Others”, not only talking back to the Empire but chatting merrily amongst each other. This could be seen as very new, very syncretic, very “Indian” strategy for upsetting colonial discourse. The Empire in its capitalist quest for resources, market and labor did impose political order on its subjects, and colonial apologists still argue that India’s political union and emergence as a modern nation state owe to this colonial heritage. Further, the various subaltern peoples of this world, would have had little basis for relating to each other, had it not been for the medium of western culture and technology. Why even Ghosh has to write in English. Even some postcolonial critics would argue that the Other can never really express herself in the language of the imperial master, that all the native idioms and reflexes of her culture that lend to a full and rich expression would then be lost, and in English she would be a mere superficiality : a caricature not unlike the “Baboo” stereotype of colonial discourse. Ghosh begs to differ. He subverts language if necessary, employing lascars’ argot, Hobson Jobson, Baboo English, various kinds of pidgins, even snatches of Bhojpuri or Bengali, regaling his readers with obscure information on Indian words of Arabic etymology and the like – all in a delightfully indulgent manner. He remains painstakingly faithful to his period, not shying away from culturally specific terms and conditions, constructing characters and situations that are very much believable. Above all, he uses very sensitively narrated human stories to put his point across : it is not merely jingoistic pan-Asianism that we are talking about here. The postcolonialist project is also readily apparent in his other works. “Calcutta Chromosome” is a classic subversion of the science fiction genre. Here “cool things” like aliens landing and clones being devised are not limited to the Western world alone. A thriller could happen in Calcutta too as much as in New York, and mysticism might as well have a role to play in it! “The Shadow Lines” looks at how identities are shaped in a postcolonial setting. It is as strong an indictment of a colonially inherited sense of religious and national identity, as a gentle author like Ghosh can offer.
It was not without some consternation that I started off by dropping some names, who have only two things in common for sure: that they all write books in English and that they all are of South Asian origin. I am wary of this new-found media obsession (no doubt helped along by a few Bookers in recent times) with “Indian writing in English”. One tends to speak this phrase as if it were a whole new literary genre by itself. We could be talking of writers of different ouvres exploring entirely different themes here – say Roy and Lahiri, and yet be in that one category; that doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense. In fact talented young British Indian novelist Hari Kunzru has gone so far as to refuse this label as he owes little of his literary inspiration to India. With the exception of Roy, none of the others actually permanently reside or work in India. Be that as it may, I feel the South Asian Bengali heritage is very important to Ghosh and is a significant inspiration for his works : to a lesser extent that’s true of Rushdie as well. This is why I happily let the tag of “Indian writer in English” stand for him. Let me elaborate my point. First perhaps, in Ghosh’s own words from an essay he wrote on Satyajit Ray (he has a considerable body of nonfiction, ref. “The Iman and the Indian”, “Dancing in Cambodia, at Large in Burma”, to his credit as well. His prose is as lucid and his observations as penetrative as ever and help us gain considerable perspective on his motivations for fiction.) :
“His greatness as an artist is in no way diminished by the fact that he was a rivet in an unbroken chain of aesthetic and intellectual effort that stretches back to the mid-nineteenth century – a chain in which I too am, I hope, a small link.”
Ghosh clearly considers himself indebted to that curious phenomenon called the Bengal Renaissance, in fact sees himself as a torchbearer of that heritage. In the same article he is very forthcoming about Ray’s influences on his works (yes Prof. Shonku might have had something to do with Murugan and Antar!) , and Ray’s powerful presence in the intellectual world of his formative years; in fact we even learn in this very illuminating essay that “Agantuk” might very well have inspired Ghosh to take up anthropology! Even if Ghosh hadn’t owned up to these influences, a discerning Bengali reader cannot fail to notice them. Many a happy moment of our childhood reading time was spent on Ray, and he always loved to educate us while weaving his magic on us with his stories. So there were references to farflung places, tidbits of history and geography, little nuggets of detail (features seen in Ghosh as well) that were imbued with the same spirit of intellectual enquiry and internationalism informed by a certain sense of humanism, a spirit that goes back to a Bengali zamindar who drew inspiration from Rousseau and the Upanishads alike! In “The Shadow Lines”, Ghosh draws on several themes very commonly known in Bengal – in real life and fiction alike. The story of the joint family and its rancorous disputes leading to litigation and partition of property is oh-so-familiar. Tridib, one of the most adorable characters in this story, is an eccentric oddball and a boyhood hero to the narrator, reminding us of one of the many “dada”-s of Bengali literature. (With his secret Inca salute and eclectic learning, I am inclined to believe he is nearest to “Ghana da”). In “The Hungry Tide” he creates more characters straight out of the Bhadroloke book. There is the idealistic but impotent intellectual in Nirmalya Babu, immediately identifiable with a generation who dreamed of a revolution that never quite happened, and there is his wife – the practical and indefatigable social worker who holds things together in their life. With Piya, the Bengali born American cetologist he attempts to do a little Jhumpa Lahiri, which I am not sure comes off very well, but the somewhat improbable figure of Piya, all agile and alert, astride Fokir’s dinghy while recording the whereabouts of river dolphins in the Sunderbans, has to be one of the most enduring images of the book, and the relationship she develops with her boatman Fokir has to be Ghosh’s best study in human relationships so far. In “Sea of Poppies” he goes on to create a 19th c “nobyo babu” in Raja Neel Rattan – a man well-versed in western scholarship but of little practical ability – effete, almost like an earlier reincarnation of Nirmalya Babu, only quoting Hume and Locke in stead of Rilke.
Ghosh draws all his material from real history – immaculately researched and portrayed with great care for detail – but he also does so from his own experiences – which have to be quite varied. He grew up in Dhaka, Calcutta, Baghdad and other places where his father’s foreign service job took him : his family had roots in East Bengal and had spent many years in Burma, he studied for his Phd at Oxford, did field work in Egypt and currently lives and writes in New York. He did experience the riot incidents mentioned in “The Shadow Lines”, he did have uncomfortable brushes with his Fellahin hosts as portrayed in “In an Antique Land” and one suspects the compass-atlas incident is also true. Being so familiar with the politics of identity, he is understandably sensitive to the problems of “refugees” – people uprooted from land in the name of identity. Thus in “The Hungry Tide” he dedicates space to the settlers of Morichjhapi and their brutal persecution by the government. He wrote a very evocative piece about the plight of East Bengali settlers in the Andaman islands after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2005. His basic social and political concerns were picked up in real life and he finds a way to skillfully blend this into his fictional narratives. He is very much a South Asian author, drawing his characters, metaphors and even intellectual inspiration from the history and traditions of his native region.
Ghosh does have major shortfalls as a novelist. My major gripe is his inability (or is it disinterest?) to portray the man-woman relationship in its proper depth. In fact he has hardly ever given us the woman’s perspective before “The Hungry Tide” came along. Many would be turned off by his penchant for documentation (actually that is one of the reasons I like to read him. To each his own!) and detailing his setting rather than dwelling more upon the characters and developing their inter-relationships more organically. Ghosh knows his limitations and very rightly eschews Rushdie-esque flights of fantasy and Tolstoy-ian dialogues. Rushdie also likes to draw themes from his South Asian heritage, and play with “Indian English” but there the similarity ends. Rushdie is the master of his own devices – he plays, teases, fantasizes and loops off in complicated maneuvers. Ghosh is more conservative, lucid and prosaic but not necessarily less interesting.
I would rate “The Hungry Tide” as his best work till date. Here he overcomes many of his weaknesses without necessarily compromising his strengths. The emphasis on documentary detail is still there. He still throws around anthropological tidbits about folk culture and literature in the Sunderbans, informs us a lot about the climate and landscape of that unique ecosystem, feeds us with morsels of marine biology and the like. But here he also invests more care on the women characters, and the mutual tension in the inter-relationships of some of the main characters – Kanai, the urbane suave whitecollar womanizer; Piya, the Indian American scientist; Fokir, the simple kind-hearted boatman and his wife Moyna, a very ambitious and determined woman – is very well developed and the ending is heart-rendingly tragic. The Sunderbans with its mazework of waterways, mangroves, shifting mudbanks and interplay of powerful social and natural forces itself becomes a major character in the novel , and we are always made aware of her brooding lurking presence. This produces a heightened effect in the narrative. Thank you for this book and the others too, Mr. Ghosh!
-by Kinjal Dasbiswas
Essays by Ghosh: http://www.amitavghosh.com/essays/index.php
Tsunami disaster in Andamans, a trilogy of essays published in The Hindu: http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/nic/0037/index.htm
Ghosh’s website: http://amitavghosh.com/