Amitav Ghosh: The Real and the Uncanny

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Amitav Ghosh’s new novel addresses the big issues of the day. The author tells Nandini Nair why we are all migrants

Gun Island | Amitav Ghosh | Hamish Hamilton | Rs 699 | 288 pages

AMITAV GHOSH conjures up marvels with his words, he might place a flower in a black hat, but he can pull out a rabbit from it. In his hands, and on the tongue of his reader, English is not a language of imposition, but one of independence, because it can be anything it wants. It is alive; shifting and moulding into the voice of the speaker, and thereby crossing oceans and creating universes. At a time when arguments over language are being waged from news studios to the parliament, it is fitting that Ghosh win the highest literary award of the country, for his work in English. It is an English which is deeply rooted and local, as it heeds and celebrates our multiple identities.

The Ibis Trilogy, comprising Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011), and Flood of Fire (2015), and which tells of the opium trade between India and China in the mid-nineteenth century, is packed with the voices of jahaj-bhais or ship brothers. Like the character Neel from the trilogy, an aide and translator to a senior Chinese official, Ghosh has always been invested in the kismat and afterlives of words. Neel charts the ‘divinations of the fate of certain words’ in The Chrestomathy. These are words that have travelled with migrants from the east and have been naturalised into English. Neel refers to the Oxford English Dictionary as the ‘Oracle’, as it is in the OED that an expression is no longer (or no longer only) in Bengali, Arabic, Chinese, Hind, Laskari etcetera but rather ‘it is to be considered a new coinage, with a new persona and a renewed destiny.’

The Jnanpith award is proof of how Ghosh has renewed English in his fiction and nonfiction, over the last three decades. In his Jnanpith acceptance address, delivered on June 12th, in Delhi, he said that when he started writing “many, many years ago,” English was considered marginal “both to Indian and to English literature”.

Thirty years later, of course, that is no longer the case, as Indian English writing is a genre unto itself. But the wonderful thing about English (or any language) in India is that it cannot exist in a silo. As Ghosh said in his speech, “There is nothing solid about the way that languages interact with each other in the Indian subcontinent: they mingle, flow and infiltrate, not just between groups but, most significantly, within individuals.” The porous nature of language is evident in Ghosh’s own writing. He takes quiet pride in the fact that the author Sunil Gangopadhyaya described his book The Hungry Tide as a Bengali novel written in English.

The morning after the award ceremony, when I meet Ghosh in Delhi, he wears his accomplishments lightly, but his responsibilities as a public intellectual seem to weigh on him. The 62-year-old author now flaunts a rakish Van Dyke beard, but his ruddy complexion shines just as blemish-free as before. Having interviewed him multiple times from 2011 onwards, I can’t help but find that at least in his public persona, he is more the mighty statesman today and little less the beloved author. He weighs each response with greater care, choosing caution and gravitas over candour and cheer. He seems less willing to give anything away.

In the interview he speaks once again of how languages “leak” into one another. In India ‘linguistic pluralism’ is a way of life, he says, as Indians are never monolingual. We have one language for home, another for the street, and a third for office. In Ghosh’s eyes we are all Neels. We are all wordy-wallahs, creating our own lexicons, which are specific to our own needs and contexts. Speaking about the award, he says, “English is a language among many languages in India. There are a number of people for whom English is their mother tongue, so it is important that it be recognised. We are multilingual, it is a context-specific multilingualism. One language tends to permeate the other.” Ghosh tracks the Indian obsession with words and grammar from the “scientific linguist” Panini to the late Girish Karnad who “best represented our multilingualism” to the international spelling bee championships that are dominated by India-born participants and winners.

“The same political winds seem to be sweeping every country, and of course that is not a coincidence. It is because of the interconnectedness of various places through various technologies”

His most recent novel Gun Island (Hamish Hamilton; Rs 699; 288 pages) also opens with a specific word and an OED reference in the very first paragraph. The narrator says that a word launched his strange journey, one which would take him from the Sunderbans to Venice. And the word is ‘bundook’, meaning ‘gun’ in many languages.

Gun Island is a fast-paced novel, travelling from Brooklyn to Kolkata to Italy, and centred around a rare book dealer Dinanath Datta, a cetologist Piya (who readers might remember from Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide (2004)), and Tipu a restless young IT whiz whose dreams are bigger than his circumstances. Gun Island is as rich in myth and legend, as it is with contemporary issues that are roiling our world, such as climate change and migration. But Ghosh is not at his best in this novel. It lacks the inventiveness and scale of the Ibis trilogy, the heart that can be found in The Shadow Lines (1988) and the rigour of his essays Dancing in Cambodia and at Large in Burma (1998). Readers see the characters only through the narrator Dinanath’s eyes, and given his codger-like nature, the other characters are also rendered less compelling. Even though, as a reader, one roots for a character like Tipu who sets forth from Bengal towards Europe, across land, and water, he doesn’t linger in one’s imagination. The characters pale, as the plot moves from snake bites to spider appearances to hallucinations to hieroglyph puzzles. The aftertaste of this novel is too many causes, and sadly, too little soul.

In his nonfiction work The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016) Ghosh blew the alarm on climate change, and asked the simple question, are we mad; and why are we not reckoning with the fact that the planet is spinning towards extinction. In Gun Island, Ghosh explores these same concerns at the level of fiction. In the Sunderbans, the narrator finds that the river has moved, and islands that were inland are now at the water’s edge; in Venice, caught unawares by a rising flood, and swarmed upon by a battalion of shipworms, he wonders, ‘How was it possible that in this most civilised of cities we should be so utterly alone and helpless, so completely at the mercy of the earth?’

As Ghosh explains, “Planetary concerns are inescapble today. No politics is local, all politics is international. The same political winds seem to be sweeping every country, and of course that is not a coincidence. It is because of the interconnectedness of various places through these various technologies. So it is a curious reality that we all face. Our systems around the world, everywhere, are profoundly disrupted. Look at us here sitting in a historic heat wave.”

The power of technology that Ghosh mentions is central to all our lives today, and especially to the life of the migrant. Tipu, who becomes a migrant on the Blue Boat to Italy, tells the narrator, ‘The Internet is the migrants’ magic carpet; it’s their conveyor belt. It doesn’t matter whether they’re travelling by plane or bus or boat; it’s the Internet that moves the wetware—it’s that simple, Pops.’

“The people who keep Venice going are Bengalis. They are the ones making the pizzas, the hotel beds. They play the accordion even. It is such a striking thing that people don’t seem to notice”

In his work, Ghosh shows us time and again, how the migrant is not an alien, against whom walls need to be raised. Instead Ghosh does what fiction does best—create empathy, and try to make a reader walk in the shoes of the other. Ghosh says, “Any migrant anywhere, the first, most important thing that he looks for, is what you and I look for, somewhere to plug in the phone. The migrant is so much treated as the other, someone who is desperate. Indeed often they are. But really this is the thing… the technology has been a great equaliser. In fact, the migrant who is making the journey across the Mediterranean, is exactly you and me, with the same desires, the same imaginaries, the same hopes, the same fears.”

In public imagination the migrant is seen as a nameless, faceless horde, but to Ghosh they are the ones who have more in common with the great Venetian explorers. In Gun Island, the narrator’s mentor Professor Giacinta (Cinta) Schiavon, an expert in the history of Venice, asks him; if the adventurers of yore such as the Polos, and Niccolo de Conti, were to return to the Venice of today, who would they have more in common with? ‘The tourists who come in luxury liners and aeroplanes? Or those ragazzi migranti, who take their lives in their hands to cross the seas, just like those great Venetian travellers of the past?’

Elaborating on Cinta’s sentiments, Ghosh says that one day while walking down a road in Rome, he saw an elderly man being pushed in a wheelchair, by a man he is “almost certain was Bangladeshi”. The Italian gentleman was boasting to his attendant about his adventures and travels. And the migrant guy was listening. Ghosh adds with a chortle, “And I thought, ‘Oh, you’ve no idea! You think you’ve had adventures? You should as him, his adventures!’”

In his time around Italy, especially in Venice, Ghosh was struck by the fact that the language he heard the most after Italian, is Bengali. He explains, “The people who literally keep Venice going are Bengalis. They are the ones making the pizzas, the hotel beds. They play the accordion even. Bengalis have absolutely become the working class. It is such a striking thing that people don’t seem to notice. The tourists don’t notice. Even the Indians who go there, don’t seem to notice. Venice is like a gigantic stage set. So people only notice the setting. They don’t notice who keeps it going; it is literally the Bengalis.”

In his time in Italy, Ghosh spent a lot of time interviewing migrants. He was amazed by their stories, their journeys, their friendships, but most importantly, with their visceral connection back home. In a shop in a town in Sicily, run by a Bangladeshi Hindu he found that there was a big computer which was permanently on Skype. The family in a village in Bangladesh, watched the man in Italy, as they wandered around, ate food, or went about their business. He says, “It is an extraordinary mind- body divorce that has taken place. In their minds they are in one place. Physically, they are in another. To me these stories are fascinating.”

Ghosh has always been fascinated by the uncanny, things that are always just beyond our reach of language or rationality. In Gun Island, on the one hand there is a scientist like Piya who identifies logical explanations for every ‘miracle’, but on the other there is a historian like Cinta who believes that only moderns dare to say something is ‘just a story’. In the past, Cinta says, ‘people recognised that stories could tap into dimensions that were beyond the ordinary, beyond the human even’. Similarly Ghosh asserts that the faculty of telling and listening to a story is fundamentally uncanny. He says, “If you look at pre-modern stories, stories before the 18th century, almost all stories have an engagement with the uncanny. It is only in stories, for example, that animals speak. And I think, we have to ask ourselves, why is that the case? Why is it that only in stories non-human beings actually have voices? Trees don’t speak, but we do know trees communicate. To a tree, you and I are silent, at least in terms of language.”

Our myths are stories where animals and the elements speak, after all we have gods who give voice to the wind, to reptiles, to fire. He adds, “And it is a curious thing, you know, our ancestors were able to imagine these things that we have forgotten. And now we realise we’ve forgotten it at a great cost.”

In his work, Ghosh remind us what we have lost, and all that we risk losing.