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Understanding Amitav Ghosh
|by Prof. Shubha Tiwari|
A writer gives herself/himself to the world. A secretive person cannot be a writer. The innermost processes of an individual's psyche fill the pages and then only the writing becomes valuable. What is the appeal of a piece of writing? The attraction comes exactly in proportion as to how much the author has unraveled her/him self. To what extent the author has been successful in sharing her/his self with the reader-this decides the charm of a work. To be able to laugh and cry in the pages in the criterion of ability for a writer. The story line, the plot, the movement and the structure- all these are peripheral. The core lies with the giving away of her/ himself on the writer's part. A writer must not hold back.
As we all know, the purging effect of literature is crucial. We read books to free ourselves of our pain and tensions and also to relive our joys. This is possible only when we have a candid work before us. As Whitman says of his book, 'When you touch my book, you touch my heart.' Craft may be important-yes, it is important. But sincerity is supreme. I cannot enjoy with a writer who holds her/himself back. I just want my writer to let loose her/himself. Probably, this is the reason many famous writers become unreadable for me.
Pundits of criticism forbid the use of 'I, me, myself' in criticism. But I say that everything in this world is personal; if it is not personal, it is nor real. The solidity and validity comes only when things get personal. Detached talk may be good philosophy but it cannot be good literature. And the genuineness shows, no matter what. The writer's personality spills over the pages. Objective observation, impartial judgment, detached analysis-all these are fanciful phrases with which a writer tries to positively influence her/his readers. But at the end of the day, the innermost self and experiences count. This is why when Naipaul talks about indentured labors, the world listens. Dostoevsky talks of death and dictatorship, you have to listens. Gunter Grass talks of Nazi oppression and he cannot be put aside. Gao Xingjian tells of Tiananmen massacre and you pay heed. It is like that.
Individual is everything. Individuals are institutions; individuals are governments; individuals are departments. And above everything else, individuals are books and books are individuals. Books breathe and live. The writer lives there. Her/his most private moments are there. The heart of a writer is there for everybody's inspection-open to rebuke, appreciation and analysis. It is with this attitude I touch a book. No specific technique of criticism has been followed. The concerns such as why a character acts the way she/he does or how the author must have reached a particular conclusion, fill my pages. It is a sort of an explanation of the texts; an extension of the ongoing tale. My own thoughts often muddle up things. It is the joy of saying things I wanted to say. This can hardly be called criticism. At best, it can be called 'comments.'
Amitav Ghosh is talented. He is innovative. He is an experimentalist. He experiments extensively with the form of his books. But basically ideas run his books. Ideas are the driving force of his books. Each book of Ghosh is born out of a conviction. This is great. He may be writing a travelogue, a novel or a book of essays but certain heartfelt ideas prod him on. The thought content of his books is mighty. You will not find big, long passages full of abstractions in his books. The incidents, the characters and the places convey thoughts and feelings. It is marvelous, simply lovely to see this man work book after book. He has been true to his ideas, true to himself. He does not shun away from commenting on politics, wars, economy and other worldly affairs. That way, Ghosh has not been very diplomatic. Had he joined a lobby, he might have gone places as many of his better-known co-professionals have done. But no, so far Ghosh has shown remarkable sincerity.
‘The Circle of Reason’, as the name suggests is a book written in defense of reason, logic and rationality. In practical situations, logic hardly works. Cause and effect is not a practical theory. In a laboratory, it may be that the reaction of mixing two substances can be predicted. But it is not so in real life. Especially, India is a place where irrationality is pursued almost like a religion. Superstitions, blind beliefs, prejudices, the dominance of the supernatural in the collective psyche hardly allow any fresh thinking. As a child is born, slowly but surely she/he is taken into the cult of the illogical. Investigation, first hand exposure and experience are not allowed. ‘The Circle of Reason’ is a revolt against this trend. I am saying this even at the risk of over-simplifying matters. To a new reader, it may not look so at the first reading. But if we think about the idea behind the novel, we will certainly recognize rationality as the driving force of this apparently irrationally structured novel. As a thinking Indian, Ghosh is bothered about the unhygienic conditions prevailing in the country. What is the use of Ganga Jal as a purifying agent when Ganga itself has gone so dirty? Carbolic acid may be a better purifying agent. So we have 'havan samagri' being pasted in carbolic acid.
Colonization, decolonization, neo colonization and decolonization are recurring thoughts in Ghosh's work. Ghosh compulsively turns to this perspective. In this novel also the monopoly of England over cloth market is pointed out. India and her spirit have been crushed by British domination. A new kind of thinking order is required which assimilates both traditional Indian views with western sense of rationality. But then 'traditional Indian view' may not prove to be a very simple thing. So many folds exist within the Indian view that to take the Sanskrit Brahminical cult as the authentic representative of it will lead us to new wrongs. This plurality is also the richness of Indian thought. What is required is a proper recognition of this intellectual diversity and its thorough study. At the same time the Western trends need not be shunted away. But I do not know whether Ghosh implies all this or my own view has intervened.
Admirers of Ghosh agree that ‘The Shadow Lines’ is his best book so far. I also share this opinion. What should one say about this book? It is moving. It is appealing. It affects you. It becomes your own story at some point or the other. It strikes a universal chord. At the level of reflection, it offers many suggestions. It proposes so many tentative opinions to the reader. To me, the most outstanding thought of this book seems to be its firm establishment of adulthood in its origin i.e. childhood. Adulthood is important in itself, no doubt. It has immense capacity to evolve, to grow and emancipate. But there is or there should be a logical connection between the initial stages of life and its later stages. Any psychologically well-grown person needs this connectivity. We live our childhood. We recall it. We also recreate it for our convenience for our children, and for our graceful life-story. Whatever we may do with it but we should be wired to it. Somehow an individual's growth should be honestly drawn before her/himself.
There are so many other viewpoints in this book. Commonly the most important idea drawn from this book is the shallowness of international borders, lines of control, frontiers and boundaries. Ultimately it is all in the mind. Through the description of the pain of partition, riots and communal hatred Ghosh drives home the idea of unreal borders. There is no substance in such strict borders. In his later books, we shall see the author's yearning for the good old middle ages when free trade existed between India and so many other countries. India was a geographical entity cut out by nature herself. Artificial borders did not exist. Barbed wires, fencing and patrolling were not required. All this was changed in a day- the day Vasco de Gama set his foot on the Indian soil. Western classification, division and demarcation had arrived.
Matters of heart, love and relationships form a major part of this story. Keen insights are provided into these affairs. The Indian middle class and its defensive mentality are also described. The author is somehow on the reader's side. He does not disappoint at all. The book meets our expectations.
As has been suggested ‘In An Antique Land’ is a book written to recall the spirit of a world that no longer exists. The love that once existed between a Tunisian Jewish merchant and an Indian tribal is overwhelming. It makes us sorry for our world of terrorism, riots and communal discord. This is a well-researched book based on old records and the author's tireless investigation.
In ‘The Calcutta Chromosome’ Ghosh has tried to give an answer to west's monopoly over scientific discoveries and inventions. He has tried to deconstruct the aura around Ronald Ross, the British scientist who found the cause of malaria. This is perhaps the most daring work by this author. He breaks literary traditions. At times it looks like science fiction. But the driving logic remains to undo the western sense of superiority.
‘Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma’ gives impetus to decolonization in its own way. The book proves just one thing-the colonizer or the dictator cannot kill a people. Even in impossible situations civilizations and culture and the spirit of a people survive and live. In this sense, the book is very satisfying. A nation lives in its culture and art and not in governments.
‘Countdown’ comes as a kind of shock to those who have gone used to Ghosh's pro-India, anti-West stand. In this book, Ghosh exposes the Indian and the Pakistani nuclear lobbies. Nuclearization is not going to solve anything. It is just a trick to divert people's attention from the real problems of their lives. With ever-plunging living standards and disappearing civic amenities nuclear explosion is a kind of mass-dream with which the people are expected to forget their plight.
In ‘The Glass Palace’, we find our old Amitav Ghosh again. This is basically a book about European greed and the cruelty of colonization. It is an intricate novel that covers almost three generations. It has many driving ideas. The British came to rich lands like India and Burma with an insatiable greed and drained them of all resources. The royal families suffered most. The kings and queens were reduced to puppets. With the end of the royal way of life, a whole idea of sumptuousness died. Luxury, connoisseurship and abundance ended. An alluring face of human existence was damaged. The ruthless cutting of jungles through systematized, mechanical ways feels so cruel.
For me, this is also a book about human contradictions. Any human being cannot be fully explained. No one's behavior can be totally predicted, no matter how sharp your perceptions may be. The characters take a U-turn in this novel. The element of surprise keeps the reader hooked. Raj Kumar is fascinated by Dolly. But he also ditches her. Uma mourns her husband's death but she also behaves in a loose manner. Queen Supayalat is a terrible dictator but she punishes herself with a life of exile for the love for her husband. Alison loves Dinu but she also goes with Arjun. Characters take you by surprise. In this sense, this novel is more life-like, more practical. The ability of an adult to change her/his behavior has been accepted here. The mediocrity, meanness and weakness of human nature have been acknowledged.
These are some of the books by Ghosh which I have gone through. For a regular reader, the books by Amitav Ghosh provide a delicious feast. Together, they present a way of looking at the world. They provide a perspective. Many things are clarified. Many matters are thought out. So many intricacies of human life have been revealed. As readers, we cannot help admiring the immense capacity of this man to create his own world.
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