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Histories of belonging and becoming

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Amitav Ghosh: Keeps reinventing himself with every new novel.
Amitav Ghosh: Keeps reinventing himself with every new novel.

Finally, Amitav Ghosh gets into the Man Booker shortlist with his Sea of Poppies. Ghosh’s novels, says PRIYAMVADA GOPAL, is a reclamation of all that is valuable, possible and indispensable in our heterogeneous culture.

The Booker Prize is usually served up with a dash of controversy. So far, that has been provided by either deprecation or a touch of ill-concealed glee at the absence from the shortlist of Salman Rushdie’s much-tipped novel, The Enchantress of Florence.

More significant than the petty drama of such exclusions is the inclusion, at long last, of another major writer from the subcontinent, one whose work has, over the last two decades, brought substance and range to Indian English fiction and, indeed, added richly to the literature of the subcontinent as a whole. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, the first in a trilogy, has been received favourably by the Booker jury for the compelling story told against an epic historical canvas, its deft use of diverse tongues and a memorable cast of characters. By familiar standards of literary accomplishment, the absence from the Booker shortlist of Ghosh’s previous two novels, The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide, seems inexplicable. If Rushdie can be said to have revitalised the Indian novel in English with the 1981 publication of the indisputably magnificent Midnight’s Children, Ghosh’s fiction has, over the years, pushed at the boundaries of the genre, probed its unlit corners, and brought it into powerful dialogue with other places, peoples and times. Rather than settle into a predictable house style with a much-used box of tricks to hand, Ghosh has chosen to set new literary challenges for himself, constantly transforming his work over the years.

Ghosh’s career did begin, like that of many of his contemporaries, including Shashi Tharoor and Mukul Kesavan, in the irresistible experimental wake of Midnight’s Children (twice-winner of the Best of the Booker) and the techniques it put into innovative play: magical realism, satire, wordplay, mythology, elaborate allegories, and layers of interconnected stories. His debut novel, the curiously engaging Circle of Reason, draws on these resources but is an uneven achievement, wonderfully witty and insightful in parts, unwieldy and thin in others. But it opened up a rich seam of stories and themes that Ghosh would excavate elegantly in later works. The novel’s most beautiful passages exemplify what would become a Ghosh trademark — an object or process examined in exquisite detail as the writing teases out a myriad embedded stories, much like the weaver’s loom which “has given language more words, more metaphor, more idiom, than all the world’s armies of pen-wielders”. From happenings in the physical world, some improbably prosaic, such as teak-felling, rubber-tapping, opium production, dolphin migration, sari-weaving and even the anopheles mosquito bearing deadly malaria, Ghosh’s writing draws out poetry, insight and wondrous histories.

Violent legacies

Indeed, a storyteller with a passionate predilection for the uncommon and profound is one of the tragic figures at the heart of Ghosh’s second novel, The Shadow Lines. A more tightly woven work than its predecessor, this novel experiments with a narrative form that enables the stories of individuals and families to intersect with the larger stories, both familiar and untold, of nation-States, those epic creations of the modern political imagination. Ghosh’s work is often haunted by the violent intimacies that are the legacy of Partition, legacies which set us apart “from the rest of the world… the special quality of loneliness that grows out of the fear of the war between oneself and one’s image in the mirror”. Like the novel’s “upside-down house” where a wall divides a family, “shadow lines” parcel up the subcontinent into nations haunted by a sense of their own fragility. When riots and pogroms occur and neighbours become killers, entire cities change shape overnight. As has been all too evident in places from Ahmedabad and Jaffna to Islamabad and Delhi in recent times, subcontinentals live with “a fear that comes of the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent, that the spaces that surround one, the streets that one inhabits, can become, suddenly and without warning, as hostile as a desert in a flash flood”.

In the face of painful separations, the writer is impelled to seek out those histories of belonging, encounter and common ground that have been erased from our awareness in a world which stresses difference. This search culminates in what some regard as Ghosh’s most wonderfully original work, not a novel, but a unique narrative that is at once a travelogue, a fictional reconstruction, an ethnography and a history. With a deftness that belies its complexity, In an Antique Land juxtaposes disparate centuries and transports us between India, Egypt, England and North America as it pieces together the lives of Ben Yiju and Bomma, a Jewish trader and his South Indian slave. Evoking the rich and unarmed medieval trading cultures of the Indian ocean, it questions the pervasive notion that the way things are today is natural and inevitable. History could, in fact, have taken a very different course for there are many instances of peaceful cultural contact and openness in our heterogeneous past. In an essay, “The Greatest Sorrow”, Ghosh offers an insight that we need to recall each time someone pontificates on the impossibility of, say, Hindu-Muslim or Indian-Pakistani co-existence: “there was nothing inevitable, nothing-predestined about what has happened; that far from being primordial, the enmities that have led to the sufferings of the present are new and unaccountable; that there was a time once, when neither protagonist saw the other as an adversary”. Among the many aspects of our history we have forgotten in the wake of the selective rewritings of it by both imperial and communal historians, are powerful traditions of unassuming tolerance and pacifism. It is the interests of divisive forces, whether Islamists or Hindutvawadis, to facilitate our amnesia in this regard.

Epic sweep

After an engaging and typically complex philosophical foray into science fiction in The Calcutta Chromosome, which won him the Arthur C. Clarke Prize, Ghosh returned to a more traditional, though hardly less challenging, form, the historical novel. Almost unique in its attention to proximate regions beyond the immediate subcontinent, Ghosh’s fictional work is enriched by its roots in his own travels, encounters and research. Some that he describes in the travelogue, Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma are incorporated in The Glass Palace, a 500-page magnum opus. Both texts visit regions where the displacements of colonialism and war became the mass experience of millions, generating enormous suffering but also the making of new communities. Palace moves with an epic sweep across the late 19th century to the present-day, knitting together the stories of the doomed last King of Burma and his family, their servant, Dolly, an Indian-Burmese orphan named Rajkumar, and Uma, a widow who becomes a famous participant in the Indian freedom struggle. As it illuminates the links between the histories of India, Burma and Malaysia, the novel reminds us that the texture of history is always to be felt in the complex predicaments of individuals and families.

When Palace was nominated for a Commonwealth Prize, Ghosh famously withdrew the book from consideration, citing not only his unwillingness to participate in the Prize’s selective memorialisation of empire, but also, in its privileging of English, “the exclusion of the many languages that sustain the cultural and literary lives” of formerly colonised nations. He would return to the theme of empire in Poppies, but language, translation and emotional affinities across linguistic divides preoccupy The Hungry Tide, a novel set in the mangrove swamps and river islands of the Ganges delta, a landscape which resists human colonisation and permanence. The constantly shifting terrain of the Sunderbans provides an extended metaphor for the fluid interaction between different languages, faiths and ways of thinking for “the mudbanks of the tide country are shaped not only by rivers of silt, but also by rivers of language: Bengali, English, Arabic, Hindi, Arakanese and who knows what else? Flowing into each other they create a proliferation of small worlds that hang suspended in the flow”.

Recurring theme

One of the running themes in Ghosh’s work is this: despite the relative newness of capitalism and the violence of the imperialism that put it in place, globalisation in the sense of trade, migration and cultural contact is not itself new. Although European colonialism would constitute a great rupture in the histories of Asia and Africa, out of these often tragic upheavals communities were unmade but also made again. Poppies tells the compelling story of how it is that in the ship Ibis, headed to Caribbean sugar plantations, small new worlds are forged, bringing together North Indian women, Bengali zamindars, black men, rural labourers and Chinese seamen.

Great novels in any language help us inhabit the worlds we live in more intelligently and less obliviously, and to understand how we became who we are. Amitav Ghosh’s work, like that of other major subcontinental writers — Tagore, Premchand, Senapati, Chughtai —is imbued by a deep commitment to humane values. In a world so palpably ravaged by greed and intolerance, this literature is surely no luxury but a necessary reclamation of all that in our heterogeneous culture is valuable, possible and, ultimately, utterly indispensable.


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