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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


It's funny how exams or the thought of the ones that are looming large can set you off in different tangents. Last night, we were journeying through India, narrowing down parts of the country when we reached West Bengal. "Didn't Amitav Ghosh write about a jungle here, Mamma?" Aneesha asked. I don't want to run the risk of creating an impression. Aneesha hasn't read any of Amitav Ghosh, I'd be happy if she got by her text books for the moment but Amitav has a special connect for her. She remembers him from the first time we were at Ubud, she remembers him because he stayed "downstairs" at the Honeymoon Guesthouse, she remembers him because an Amitav Ghosh question is her trump card in her home-grown quiz contests. If that's the way words are meant to connect, I'm not complaining. I'm pretty certain the reading too shall follow.

And it is Aneesha's words that have set me off on a journey to recount some of the things that Amitav has shared right from the writing process, to the way he's picked some of the issues he's written about. From 'The Hungry Tide', to 'The Glass Palace' to 'In An Antique Land' to 'The Shadow Lines' Amitav has shown his eye for detail. It's something that's evident in his spoken word as well:

Q : Your book ‘The Hungry Tide’ has been called “a whirlwind work of the imagination”. You’ve set it in the largest mangrove forests in the world – The Sunderbans. What took you there and what did you hope to achieve through the setting?
A : I’ve been going there since I was a child because I’ve had a family connection with that area and they’ve always kind of haunted my imagination and I always wanted to write about them. If I wanted to achieve anything at all, it was to let people know about this astonishing place and this astonishing landscape.

Q : What did it take to bind ordinary people in an exotic place than can possibly consume them all?
A : It’s a place where you have man-eating tigers. I went back there, spent a lot of time with the local fishermen, did a lot of research, spent time looking at tiger prints. It was a very long journey, it was an intense journey, I suppose what I really wanted to do was to know it myself, to understand the depth of its history, the depth of its ecology, the way people relate to it, the way people come together, their life in the midst of this intriguing setting.

Q : You mentioned going back there as a child, revisiting the place after so many years, what was going back there like?
A : I think The Sunderbans is one of those places that changes very very little. It’s really a place that’s very persistent in a kind of timeless way.

Q : You bring a lot of your personal experiences in your books. Did that happen in ‘The Hungry Tide’?
A : Yes, very much so. For example, the book culminates in this enormous cyclone and for all of us who live in that area in the Bay of Bengal area, for us cyclones and these other cataclysms are a fact of life. It’s such a strange thing, that I wrote this book which came out in June. I was back in December and there was this enormous tsunami. It’s an extraordinary thing because after the tsunami so many people called me, including the Governor of West Bengal who asked me if I had an intuition about this, that such a thing would happen. It was nothing like that, there was no intuition but anyone from that region or anyone who is familiar with that region will tell you about living in the shadow of these enormous kind of geological upheavals and cataclysms.

Q : It’s interesting that in each of your books you talk about areas, places, countries, perhaps even people you’ve known, traveled to. Some of these places aren’t really talked about everyday. In fact, in ‘The Glass Palace’ your characters seem to flit effortlessly between the boundaries of both geography and class. What was it like to string it all together?
A : It’s interesting you ask me that. When we look at Asia we tend to think of all these great numbers of people leading very settled lives in China, in India, in various other parts. In fact, the reality is that people’s lives intersect in these interesting, interesting ways.

Q : I guess what you’ve been able to do is to put all of this into words. A lot of us end up going through life losing a bit of it along the way, then when you read it in a book, you are instantly transported by that experience, or incident….
A : Absolutely, you know this is exactly the case. I was in Mauritius where I met some Chinese families who had been settled there for two or three generations. Just to hear the stories of their lives was a fascinating experience. How they would go back to China to be educated, how they would come back, how their families co-existed in two different places, just these astonishing connections between peoples, their lives, the places they live in, their countries. All of this fascinates me.

Q : Do you think we are losing our oral traditions as we go from one generation to the next as we travel from one place to the next?
A : In a sense we are losing our direct connection with it, but one thing that is noticeable to me is that people are actually more and more interested in their particular past, in their family histories, so yes and no is the answer to that.

Q : War and the collision between history and individual lives. You have addressed this in your work. Personally, how have you been affected by it?
A : Somehow my life has been intersected by all these strange upheavals. I was in New Delhi during the riots in 1984. I was in New York on 9/11. In one way or another, I’ve witnessed it, I don’t know how to account for it. But I feel that in some ways my writing has also been a process to bearing witness to all these unfortunate upheavals.

Q : Do you think all writing should do that?
A : I feel its impossible to lay down prescriptions for all writers and I do hesitate to do that. I can only talk about what works me. I feel a need to bear witness to what I’ve seen and to express it through words.

Q : Another interesting term that I’ve come across in your work is the “aesthetics of violence.” What do you mean by that?
A : When I used that term it was essentially to oppose aestheicizing violence. I come from India which has been a witness to a great deal of violence in the last 30-40 years. The lesson that I’ve learnt from reading Mahatma Gandhi is how do you create non-violence in a very violent world. I think that’s a moral as well as an ethical necessity for writers too. Often as a writer, particularly one who has been witness to a lot of violence, you are tempted to re-create that violence in your work. I feel that it is very, very important for writers to try and distance themselves from it, to try and reflect upon it and to try and create circumstances where you can write about in a non-violent way about non-violence.

Q : You live in New York but go back to India almost every year. Does India always surprise you?
A : Oh, yes. India never ceases to amaze me. The changes you see in India even within a couple of months are simply unbelievable. India is a very different place from the India in the 1980s though. The sense of governance is much greater. In my own city, Calcutta, the improvements in the last 10 years have been staggering.

Q : Going back to your work. In ‘The Shadow Lines’ you wrote – “every word I write is the product of a struggle with silence.” It’s something that’s stayed in my head ever since I read the book. Word, writing and silence, what is the struggle about?
A : It is in two senses that I said that. I’ve often been writing about places, situations and people which are normally not written about. Burma, for instance. In the past very few people have written about Burma or noticed its existence for that matter. For me, in some sense writing about Burma, writing about Burmese history was a process of discovering a silenced aspect of our past and that was really interesting. But I think writing in general is often about battling our own resistances. I think, in some way we all experience a sense of resistance to writing about just writing.

Q : Would you then say that putting all these thoughts down on paper is a process of self-discovery for you?
A : It is in a sense. For me often it’s a process of the discovery of not just the historical aspects of the place I choose to write about, but also a process of discovery of the people who make up that place.

Q : Speaking of discovery through words, through books, your critically acclaimed work ‘In An Antique Land’ is widely recognized as being authentic even by Egyptians. What took you on this journey? It wasn’t just the pyramids?
A : (Laughs) That was over 25 years ago. I lived in a small village in Northern Egypt with the villagers. I learnt to speak Arabic. I wrote very truthfully about what I saw and you know life in a village is like life in a village anywhere. I was there for a year to start with and after that I’ve been back several times. I was at Oxford and was supposed to be doing a PhD in Anthropology and someone said to me: “where do you really want to go?” and I thought, “Why not Egypt?” That’s pretty much how I landed there and how the book happened.

Q : You have also captured some of your experiences in Egypt in ‘The Imam and The Indian’ – which includes 18 essays written over a 16-year time period – from 1986 to 2002. What changed and what impacted you the most during those years?
A : A number of things. I write non-fiction, essays and journalism from time to time. That collection was actually published in India. It’s now going to be published worldwide under a different title called ‘Incendiary Circumstances.’ One of the first of the essays in that book was about Cambodia. The war was still going on when I went there. When I went to Angkor Vat, the Khmer Rouge opened fire. There was bombing around the temple. It was something I just had to write about. It was some of those experiences that have been put together in this book and I hope people can take something back from it.

Q : How does your background and training as an anthropologist, a historian and a journalist impact your work?
A : I don’t think of any of these fields as being any different from the other. I think they are all ways of writing. I think they have all different times fed my curiosity to know more about the world, the circumstances we live in. And my curiosity is what made me a journalist, an anthropologist, a writer, it’s just a kind of habit. Usually I’m on the other side talking to people. I always have my little note book with me. You can see me busy taking notes. It just interests me to know about other people’s lives.

Q : Do you have your ‘Blink’ moments. You are talking to this person, you are drawn to the story and you know this what you definitely want to write about?
A : Absolutely. When I was in Cambodia, I went looking for Pol Pot’s family. I travelled a lot and reached a central Cambodian province where I met his brother. It was an astonishing experience. I went to his house, he was an ordinary peasant and as he told me the story of his life, I knew in that instant that here is someone I must write about.

Q : I know you’re not into giving advice to other authors, but if you were asked to say something to encourage budding authors, what would you say?
A : I would repeat what Honoré de Balzac said, which is, "ceaseless work is a law of art."

Q : In addition to writing a lot, you also read a lot. Who or what do you normally read?
A : Oh, my reading is very eclectic. I read whatever I can find. There’s absolutely no normalcy in my reading but I stumble upon things all the time.

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