Apolitical to the core

For a writer whose concerns include statehood,boundaries and nationalism, Amitav Ghosh professes to be apolitical, says URVASHI BUTALIA.

AT a crowded evening to launch his latest book, The Glass Palace, in New Delhi, Amitav Ghosh told the audience that he did not think of himself as a "political" writer and was taken strongly to task for this. Why did he fear the label, "political"? Given that the question of nationalism had been a major concern of his in his writings, how could he think of himself as anything other than political? Given that both his non-fiction and fiction writings had a strongly political content - whether it was to do with India or Cambodia or Egypt or Burma, surely he could not entirely wipe out the politics from his writing?

Ghosh, however, chose to interpret politics in the somewhat narrow sense of the word - as having to do with electoral politics, with politicians, and with their machinations. "I am not naive about politics," he said, "I have written and thought about it. But if there is one noble project that we should take up in our lives, it should be to rescue it from this monster of politics." Of the wider sense of politics, he refused to accept what he saw as the rather simplistic claim that everything in life is political. "If we say everything is political," he said, "then we might as well say nothing is political. In our contemporary world, everything is cannibalised by politics. I want to salvage something from this."

Ghosh has published several books in India by now, all with the same publisher (though this time, there are two imprints sharing the credit on his title page), but this is the first time he has had a formal "launch" so to speak. And yet, as the mix of people present at the evening last week showed, Ghosh hardly needs to be "launched" for his following of admirers is as varied as it is large. This is not surprising, for Ghosh is one of the few Indian writers who have a range and versatility that is both unusual and remarkable. He straddles the two rather different worlds of fiction and non-fiction, often deliberately blurring the lines between the two. He eschews gimmicks and linguistic gymnastics, keeping close to the "old-fashioned" "straight" writing, and a sense of old world wanderlust, a fascination with the links between ancient and modern geographies and histories, informs much of his writing. It is not surprising then, that he is one of the few writers who is taken seriously both within India and outside, and who is never castigated, as others are, for living "outside" so to speak. Clearly, he is as much someone who belongs to Calcutta as he does to Columbia.

At the book launch, Ghosh responded to questions about his writing, his use of the English language, his politics, his travels and what, he as a writer, was ultimately looking for. "I just went to Hindu College today," he said, "to speak to the students about my book and felt, at the end of that meeting and discussion, an extraordinary sense of achievement, and to me, that is reward enough - the knowledge that people are reading my books and responding to them in immediate and important ways."

Equally, his response to his choice of English as the language of writing was as matter of fact. "I do not wish to make prescriptive statements about whether we should or should not write in English. But my process of writing has led me to this language." At the same time, he admitted that as a writer you cannot hope to represent the entirety of your experience if you are writing in a language that is not your own. Thus, according to him, Indian writers writing in English work under some formidable technical constraints - which, for example, do not hold for an English writer writing in English.

But writing itself, even though it is his chosen form, is the most difficult of things to come to. When you wake up in the morning, said Ghosh, the most difficult thing is to cross those five or so metres to your desk to begin writing, and you will invent any possible excuse to avoid doing so - whether it is to take your daughter to school, or go out and do the shopping or whatever. But when he did manage to begin, it was always with drawing the outlines of different characters, and placing them in relationships, dialogue, interaction with others.

The author might well have added his own long-standing preoccupations - with ancient histories, with the close links between civilisations and the constant exchange that seemed to take place almost effortlessly across different cultures, with the coming of statehood and the drawing of borders, with the turning of people into refugees, with the making of nations, and indeed, running through all of this, with the narrative form itself and its varied and various uses in his work.

Clearly, for Ghosh, the business of writing is a serious business. On the evening in question, he spoke admiringly of writers in Burma, pointing out that it was writers who were, at this moment, the most important democratic activists in Burma. "If you look at writers there," he said, "you cannot escape the fact that they are political. It is just there." Writing was the one forum where some sort of resistance was being kept alive to the regime and in that sense, he seemed to indicate, coming back to the question of whether or not he was a political writer, he was a much less politically "engaged" writer than, say, the writing community in Burma. "I believe it is important for us to respond to the collective life around us," he said, "but it is equally important for me to be true to my inner life, to hold close to ourselves some spiritual area or core that is away from the public world."

Perhaps it is this unique combination that makes Ghosh's writing so powerful and so well received by people across the world. My own favourite story about Ghosh has to do with my favourite book (so far) from his oeuvre: In An Antique Land. Some years ago, travelling in Egypt, I took along this book to read it a second time, and took along a second copy to give away as a gift. The pleasure of reading In An Antique Land in the land about which it is written, was surpassed only by the fact that both my copies of the book were taken away by my Egyptian friends who said they had been unable to get it in Egypt and wanted to possess the book, and I came home with orders for several other copies. At the launch evening last week I bought another copy for myself - and this time had the author sign it to make sure no one could take it away again.

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