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Why Amitav Ghosh matters

Amitav Ghosh has been awarded the 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. He holds a special place in Indian literature owing to the fact that he has touched themes that had long 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, the threat it is under, and the migration crisis that we often ignore. His latest crusade against climate change is new not only to Indian literature, but to literature itself. His work 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 novel, Gun Island, on the matter of climate change. In LitGleam’s first ‘Author of the Month’ section, we celebrate Ghosh’s winning the Jnanpeeth award, and take a look at why he matters to Indian Literature.

Amitav Ghosh loves history, and one can easily sense that from all his books. The history in them is by no means 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 touches 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 the details, showing the tremendous amount of research 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. 

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 a colourful cousin, and the narrator paints a picture of London so vivid that he recognizes it instantly when he visits London years later. 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.

Ghosh has a unique mastery over different languages. You will hear him talk in Bhojpuri at one moment, French in another, then in Bengali, and sometimes even in Pidgin, like in his Ibis trilogy. In Gun Island, you will witness his knack for speaking Italian. In his book, An Antique Land, you will get to read a delightful account of Egyptian history through the eyes of an Indian. In an interview, he has talked about how he had to learn the 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 Ghosh is the 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 jargon 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 of a different gender, nationality, language, or ethnicity, to a reader, the characters 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 post-colonial writers “to have expressed in his work a developing awareness of the aspirations, defeats, and disappointments of colonized people as they figure out their place in the world.”

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. It addresses the uncanny climatic events that have been happening around us, and how we have willfully chosen to ignore them. He also pulls the 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 is inking his opinions about climate change. He has already written about dolphins that are no more found in Kolkata, and disappearing mangroves when climate change was out of the 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.

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 Antique Land, two Bengals in Shadow Lines, Sunderbans in The Hungry Tide, the mystery tour in Calcutta Chromosome, migration and shipping in the Ibis books, climate change in Derangement—they are all a testimony to 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. This is why Amitav Ghosh matters

Focusing on Literature and Lifestyle of the Urban Youth of the Country, LitGleam is a monthly magazine, an intrinsic part of BlueRose Publishers.

Within its pages, our readers find provocative essays on literature and lifestyle, guidance for getting published and pursuing writing careers, in-depth profiles of poets, fiction writers, and writers of creative nonfiction, and conversations among fellow professionals.