Amitav Ghosh has been awarded Jnanpeeth award recently, and it is a historic moment as he is the first English writer to have won the award. In his novels, Ghosh wanders from historical settings to the modern era and creates a space for his readers where the past connects with the present in relevant ways.
NOTE: This article, written by me, discussing the uniqueness of Amitav Ghosh also finds a place in September edition of Litgleam Magazine.
He holds a special corner in the Indian literature owing to the fact that he has touched themes that would have been left untouched. If not for him, we would never have known that there is a small Chinese population still living in Kolkata or that there was a cold-blooded and brutal massacre at Marichjapi.
He has made us familiar with our history, nature and the threat it is under, and a migration crisis that we often ignore. His latest crusade against climate change is new, not only to the Indian literature but to literature itself. The literature talking about climate change was taken to be in the realm of science-fiction but he has elevated the importance of the subject. With his book The Great Derangement, he has found a place for his narrative on this topic in the non-fiction genre. Very recently he has also released a fiction on the matter of climate change in the form of Gun Island. In this post, we celebrate his award and have a look at why Amitav Ghosh matters to the Indian Literature.
History and places
Amitav Ghosh loves history and one can easily sense that from all his books. The history in them is no ordinary; there is always something new to it. His fecund imagination conjures up a world that is extremely life-like. In the Ibis trilogy, he touched upon the history of South Asia which has been woven with the common thread of the British ambitions. He effortlessly makes us travel from the fields of poppy in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh to the Canton Port in China and to the island of Mauritius. His brilliance lies in details and a tremendous amount of research that he puts into his writing. He does not miss a beat, be it about the local dialect or local cuisine or some Bengali connection like a Bengali population in Venice, which will surprise you.
Also read: Sea of poppies by Amitav Ghosh
You can smell places in his books. You can never visit some of those places, partly because they existed long back in history and partly because they do not exist at all. You can smell the fishes in Calcutta in his Calcutta Chromosome, then travel to Sunderbans and explore their deep mangroves in his book The hungry tide and dance in Cambodia and experience the life of a rich teak merchant in Burma in The glass palace. One thing is for sure, you will never stop travelling with him as he is the travel blogger of Indian literature. The shadow lines has vivid elements from the tales of colourful cousin and the narrator paints a picture of London, so vivid that he recognizes it instantly when he visits London years later and Ghosh makes us believe that we can live and travel inside our head. I felt the same while reading about Canton in River of Smoke and I could live Canton in my head without even seeing a single picture of how it looked like in the 19th century.
Languages and themes
He has a unique mastery of languages. You will hear him talk in Bhojpuri at one moment, French in another, then in Bengali and sometimes in pidgin in his Ibis trilogy. In Gun Island, you will witness his knack for speaking Italian. In his book, In an Antique Land, you will get to read a delightful account of Egyptian history from the eyes of an Indian. In an interview, he has talked how he had to learn Hebrew script to decipher the letters of the merchant which he has included in the same book. I wonder why this book is not as widely read as his other books.
A notable thing about him is a wide range of themes he covers in his books. An example would be the Ibis trilogy, where he writes about Sati, oppression by the British, indentured labor system, untouchability, decline of princely states and opium trade, all in his first book of the trilogy, Sea of Poppies. He dives into a deep pool of scientific jargons and researches in Calcutta Chromosome. Another good thing about his work is how he connects his characters so really well, in the same book and in other books. The character development in his books is of the finest level and despite being from different in gender, nationality, language or ethnicity, to a reader, they would seem very familiar. A peculiar feature in his books is how he weaves the colonial issues with considerable depth and presents the situations as they were, without giving his own commentary. In a review in The New York Times, Pankaj Mishra describes Ghosh as one of few postcolonial writers “to have expressed in his work a developing awareness of the aspirations, defeats and disappointments of colonized peoples as they figure out their place in the world.”
Amitav Ghosh returned to non-fiction after almost a decade with his book “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable” which was published in 2016 and it addresses the uncanny climatic events which have been happening around us and how we have willfully chosen to ignore them. He also pulls attention of the literati towards climate change. He asks them to include it more and more in their works of fiction and non-fiction so we can thwart the radical transformation happening in nature, which was once unthinkable. It is not just now that he has inked his opinion about climate change, he has already written about dolphins which are no more found in Kolkata, of disappearing mangroves when climate change was out of question. He infused action into his advice to include climate change in literature and wrote “Gun Island” which explores the complexity of climate change, the reality of the very world we are living in.
Also read: Flood of fire, third book in Ibis trilogy
Decades of writing about history, people, cultures, cuisines, nature and climate change shows in his versatility as a writer and his ability to write relevant literature with utmost precision and details which many Indian authors have failed to do. The voyages in Circle of Reason, the references to Misr and Jews in In an antique Land, two Bengals in Shadow Lines, Sunderbans in Hungry Tide, the mystery tour in Calcutta Chromosome, migration and shipping in the Ibis books, climate change in Derangement—they are all a testimony of his years of meticulous efforts. His fiction is full of immeasurable depth and precision, which he has gained through his academic training as a historian and a social anthropologist. And this is particularly why Amitav Ghosh matters.