Amitav Ghosh - The Writer of Truth

He made headlines for withdrawing his latest magnum opus “The Glass Palace”
   from the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, but Amitav Ghosh, one of the most
   successful Indian-born authors, is more interested in depicting the truth than being
   mired in controversy. The prize-winning author explains why.


“You must see the truth of your subject in your mind…if you know the truth of what you see, the rest is mere execution.”
- Amitav Ghosh in The Glass Palace


When Amitav Ghosh wrote these lines in his latest book The Glass Palace, he might as well have been describing his craft. The well-known critic Shyamala Narayan said of Ghosh, “I keep looking for a word out of place in Amitav Ghosh’s writing. I haven’t succeeded.”
In person, Ghosh is a charming, reticent, and refreshingly humble man, who laughs at Narayan’s comments and says, “It's not true. I think every time I do a reading I see words that are out of place! I am glad she didn’t see them.”

An anthropologist-turned-author, Amitav Ghosh’s books stand out not just because of the amount of research he puts in to each one (“The Glass Palace took five years of research and has exhausted me completely”), or even because he travels extensively through the places he writes about. Each one of his books is special because it is uniquely different, refreshingly elegant, and written with lyrical simplicity -- each word, each description etched with impeccable finesse and economy, and a delightful turn of the phrase. {“She (grandmother) saw research as a lifelong pilgrimage which ended with a named professorship and a marble bust in the corridors of Calcutta University or the National Library. It would have been a travesty to think of an irresponsible head like Tridib’s mounted in those august corridors” - The Shadow Lines}.

Ghosh’s very first book The Circle of Reason won the Prix Medici Estranger, one of France's top literary awards, and The Shadow Lines won the Sahitya Akademi Award, India's most prestigious literary prize. Ghosh was also the winner of the 1999 Pushcart Prize, a leading literary award, for an essay that was published in the Kenyon Review. The Calcutta Chromosome won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 1997 and is to be filmed by Gabriele Salvatores, the Oscar-winning director of Mediterraneo. In 1999, Ghosh was a finalist in the reporting category for the National Magazine Awards, and recently his latest book The Glass Palace, won the $50,000 Grand Prize at the International Frankfurt eBook Awards ceremony. The book was also named the Eurasia regional winner for the 2001 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize – and was a finalist for the overall contest, before Ghosh withdrew it from the competition stating that he does not like literature being classified under the “Commonwealth” category, a courageous decision applauded by many of his peers and admirers.

Nursing a headache, Ghosh nevertheless graciously sat down for an in-depth interview. 

Tell us something about your early years. 

My father was in the army initially and later joined the civil services -- mostly attached to the foreign ministry. I grew up partly in Dhaka, partly in Sri Lanka, and from very early on I was used to traveling a lot. Later, when I finally began to write, that was a profound influence.
My family is historically from Bangladesh and so when we were living in Dhaka we were actually going back to our roots. We went to look at our ancestral home. That was a very interesting experience. I guess there was already a very strong sense of sub-continental displacement. I went to school in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka, then in boarding school in Dehradun, and to St Stephen’s College in Delhi. I initially started in college with English Literature, but hated the course so much that I switched to History. I don’t think that kind of English literature training is very good training for a writer. It just kills your pleasure in literature.

You always wanted to be a writer… 
The year I finished college in 1976 I decided I was going to be a writer and got a job with the Indian Express. In those days there was no such thing as a literary career. At that time as an apprentice my salary was 300 rupees. My parents would have preferred me to be a chartered accountant, but when I chose writing, I must say they were not as hostile to it as I might have imagined.
Working for the Indian Express taught me a lot. It was during the Emergency, and it was perhaps the only newspaper that was anti-establishment. There was very tight censorship because of the Emergency and you had to find ways around that, so it was very exciting.
When you do that kind of close up journalism in India it shows a lot of what society is like. You get to see massive corruption and all the bad stuff very close up. But I soon realized that in the long run, journalism in India and racking 1000 words at the end of each day was not what I was looking for.

Then you got a scholarship and left to study anthropology at Oxford. What were your first impressions of England and your subsequent experiences there? 
It’s very strange, we had read so many books about England, but when you actually go to a place that you know very well through its literature, you find that what you know of it is in abstract concepts, and the reality is always different and surprising.
I don’t think going to England had anything to do with getting an education, or for intellectual or identity development. When I was in college I used to travel a lot in the countryside and was very interested in how things were the way they were. Once in my 3rd year in college I went to Ranthampore, a very beautiful place, now a big tourist spot. We witnessed an amazing event -- a kind of exorcism. It was so mysterious and intriguing that I got very interested in anthropology, which thus seemed a natural choice for further studies.
I was 20-21 when I went to England, so in the intellectual sense, Delhi University was more of an important influence on me. But being in England did allow you a certain measure of flexibility. When I was there, I went to do my field work in Egypt and that was very exciting. In 1979 I went to Tunisia to learn Arabic, and found they were actually teaching Arabic through French, so then I had to learn French in order to learn Arabic!! At the end of it I hitchhiked to Morocco all the way through the Sahara and that was exciting too. Parts of that experience went into my first book, The Circle of Reason and the last part of that book ends in Algeria.

It must have been a novel experience. 
Writing a first novel is a strange and unusual thing. I started writing it literally six months after leaving Egypt and my stay and experiences there form a very large part of The Circle of Reason. A lot of the young people I knew in the village where I stayed had lived in the Middle East in such communities. In some ways this book is about creating communities of their own. Again, I lived with weavers in Bengal for a long time to get a sense of what it was like. This is entwined with family history, family stories, with so much about an engagement with ideas of science, which is something which runs through life in Calcutta in a deep way. So it was many different things coming together.
Again when I was living in the village I was writing a lot and learning a lot, not just about anthropology. I was writing about people, about my life in the village, and a lot of that became a part of my book, In an Antique Land. I find my work overlaps my experiences. I traveled in Cambodia in 1993 and then wrote Dancing in Cambodia, and a lot of it is about the King of Cambodia; and then I went back to work on South East Asia and wrote about the King of Burma. If I hadn’t written about the King of Cambodia, it would have been hard to write about the King of Burma in The Glass Palace.

The Glass Palace is an amazing book, spanning several decades, generations, the royalty and history of Burma, with many characters and layers of stories within stories, and yet it is tightly knit, lyrical and simply written.
Thank you. The Glass Palace took a really long time and an unbelievable amount of traveling. It was both incredibly exciting and exhausting. I was traveling to places I would never have gone to under normal circumstances, with insurgents in Burma, being shot at by the Burmese army while going through the jungle with these insurgents, being bitten by leeches, attacked by snakes, all that stuff deep in the jungle. It’s an extraordinary thing to come under hostile fire. It is indeed a complex story with so much history. I didn’t want to mess it up. Sometimes writers do need to get out of their own way, and so I tried to write it simply. The one thing that guided me in The Glass Palace was that I wanted to write the kind of book I would enjoy reading if I were at the other end. I love reading about photography, timber farming and things which may not be closely connected, but which may, in the totality of things, make up your sense of the place. The wonderful thing about writing a novel is that it gives you the liberty to do that. I don’t think there was any deliberate attempt at conciseness or economy of writing. You instinctively decide how far you can go with something.

There has been all this talk about you being passionately anti-colonial and withdrawing The Glass Palace from the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize because of that sentiment. Yet your books, though acknowledging India’s colonial past, do not portray a man who is anti-colonial with a vengeance. 
I can’t give any particular reason why there is so much written about my being anti-colonial. Perhaps it is because of the Commonwealth prize issue. It’s not that I have a very intensely negative feeling towards colonialism. It is an undeniable part of our past, but it seems to me it’s not that part of our past that we should either be complacent about or be glorifying. For me, as an Indian writer, this Commonwealth demarcation is totally unacceptable. What do we for example, have in common with writers from New Zealand? It’s just a stupid thing and unless someone stands up and does something about it, this will go on.

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