METRO PLUS

Gosh! What a charmer!

Amitav Ghosh: his erudition sits lightly on him — Photos: K. Gopinathan  

HE'S NO million-selling author. He never follows the fate of his books once they're out of his hands. And he is what every reader would want her favourite writer to be: committed, accessible, charming. Amitav Ghosh has earned loyal readers and the respect of his peers on the strength of his writing alone, and his fame does not ride on the back of mammoth advances or large publishing houses. To this day, he has stuck to Ravi Dayal, a small publisher who virtually runs a one-man show. And, oh, by the way, he did happen to win the Sahitya Akademi Award in '89, and a few other major literary prizes, besides.

At the Oxford Bookstore last Wednesday, Ghosh read a short extract from The Glass Palace and answered questions posed by an audience that sat on chairs, stood at the back, or sat cross-legged on the floor. His eyes twinkled, his wit sparkled, and his learning sat lightly on him. It was no wonder that an eagle-eyed reader noticed the wedding ring on his finger and realised, a tad wistfully, that he was spoken for. And to think that he was nearly killed by a falling brick! But that's a tale that will have to wait — the story of a life-saving mother tongue.

Gosh! What a charmer!

If you need a reminder of how long Ghosh has been around, despite his being only 47, read this line from Anthony Burgess's review of his first book in 1986. The Circle of Reason, wrote Burgess in The New York Times Literary Review of Books, "smells of cow dung fires, and it tastes of chillies". The Orientalist condescension that characterised the Western world's approach to Indian fiction has practically vanished. IWE (Indian Writing / Writers in English) has entered the lexicon. Attitudes have "completely changed", says Ghosh, who is delighted with the IWE boom. "The writers of my generation have produced a very rich body of work. It's a wonderful experience to walk into a bookstore like this and know you can spend the whole day looking at books by Indian authors. Sharat Chandra and Bankim Chandra, however wonderful, didn't reflect my life as an urban Indian child."

Ghosh does not "keep mining his own life over and over again" for material for his books, said his old school chum Ramachandra Guha while he introduced the author. But, said Ghosh, "you must allow yourself some core of what you know to be your own experience" in your writing. The experience of the boy in The Shadowlines ('88), who completely blocked out the memory of the January '64 riots in Calcutta, is taken from his own life. He did look up old newspapers ("sitting in the Teen Murti archives"), and yes, he did read about the parallel riots in Dhaka and receive the breathtaking revelation about mirror images. To quote from the book: "I, in Calcutta, had only to look into the mirror to be in Dhaka... each city was the inverted image of the other, locked into an irreversible symmetry by the line that was to set us free — our looking-glass border."

Gosh! What a charmer!

Ghosh's wanderings have taken him beyond the confines of lines on maps, across India, the Persian Gulf, Egypt, and Algeria (not to mention Britain and America). It is fortuitous that midway through his degree in English, he switched to History, and later did his doctorate in Social Anthropology from Oxford. This gave his writing the scope and depth that a mere literature degree would perhaps not have, notably in In An Antique Land ('93) and of course, The Glass Palace for which he famously refused the Commonwealth Award. (He finds the idea of a Commonwealth Award for literature as ridiculous as saying that "only a sprinter who knows English can run in the Commonwealth Games"!)

Try as he might, Guha couldn't bring him to evince interest in writing a biography. "If it was the history that interested me, I would be a historian. But it is the people that interest me," said Ghosh. Being a biographer is like being a potter because "you can't invent the material"; the clay is already there. "A novel, in a sense, is a collective biography." He last came to Bangalore in '90 when researching for In An Antique Land, and architect, Tara Chandavarkar, guided him to those who could inform him about Tulunadu. How does he ensure he gets his facts right in fiction when writing on a culture he knows little about? He doesn't claim infallibility. "When writing about Burma (in The Glass Palace) I'm sure I've got many things wrong, but even to get it wrong is more important than not to speak of it at all." Without being "vainglorious", he pointed out, nobody else has told the story of Indian slave labour in Burma.

Gosh! What a charmer!

In his many essays, Ghosh has written on subjects as diverse as the Babarnama and the Mughal empire, and nuclear tests on the subcontinent (Countdown, Ravi Dayal, '99). Literature, history, anthropology — and, of all things, microbiology? I asked him about the preponderant references to germs and Pasteur and malaria in his fiction, and he said: "I've always been interested in science. Growing up in Calcutta, I read a lot of science fiction by the Bengali writers." Satyajit Ray, of course, was a prime example. In school, he used to change buses at the Ronald Ross Memorial and would see the plaque surrounded by rubbish. The image stuck in his head and entered The Calcutta Chromosome ('96) in a major way. "It was the most pleasurable to write," he said of the book that was written in a startlingly different style — that of a racy thriller. And there's more on the malaria front: "I had a bad bout of malaria when I was writing Shadowlines. I never imagined what it would be like. It was hallucinogenic. I had deliriums, visions... " No wonder the title of The Calcutta Chromosome has the tagline: "A Novel of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery." Many a film-maker has wanted to make a movie out of it, the first being Shyam Benegal. Now an Italian-Indian production is underway.

Ghosh lives and teaches in New York, but says he speaks more Bengali there than in Delhi. The cabbie, the corner shopkeeper, the waiter in the fancy French restaurant they're all usually from Bangladesh.

Gosh! What a charmer!

Which finally brings us to the story of the brick. He was walking down the pavement on his first day in New York when he heard a cry in Bengali: "Shavdhaan!" He stopped instinctively, and a brick came crashing down to his feet. He looked up and saw a construction worker. "Mosai," he told him, "what if it had been someone who didn't know Bengali?" "What can I do?" the man replied, grinning sheepishly. "I landed here just yesterday."