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What makes India’s greatest writer Amitav Ghosh so darned angry?

In a rare interview, India’s greatest contemporary writer opens up about what gets his goat

brunch Updated: Jan 29, 2017 17:40 IST
Ananya Ghosh
Ananya Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Amitav Ghosh,The Circle of Reason,The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable
(Illustration by Saurabh Turakhia)

IT’S 2017, and Amitav Ghosh is entering his 31st year as a published author – quite a milestone in the life of a non-pulp writer. (His first book, The Circle of Reason, was published in 1986). Perhaps that’s why he was recently honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tata Literature Live! festival. His millions of fans in India and around the world, however, point out that they’re expecting many more books from their favourite author, thank you, so perhaps a lifetime award might have been a bit premature.

Yet, at this juncture of his literary career – one that in the barren, pre-liberalisation days of 1986, he’d never thought he’d have – he’s a bit mystified by what’s happening in the world of the arts. Specifically, Ghosh is wondering why, despite the clear and present danger of climate change, few writers are focusing on the subject at all.

Always take the weather with you

Amitav Ghosh is an award-winning author, travel writer, anthropologist and climate change activist, writing both fiction and non-fiction

Ghosh’s own non-fiction work on the issue, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, published last year, is still a bestseller. But as he points out, though there are quite a few books available on nature, very few say much about the biggest danger the earth has been in since the dinosaurs were wiped out several millennia ago.

“Climate change is the greatest crisis that human beings, as a species, have ever faced,” says Ghosh. “Yet it is largely absent from the arts. I think this raises many serious questions.” The Great Derangement was his attempt to answer these questions. His 2004 novel, The Hungry Tide, set in the fast-depleting Sundarbans, had dealt with the subject fictionally.

The human-environment interaction has long been a subject for books, in all the languages of the world. Ghosh names several Indian local language writers too: Bengal’s Adwaita Mallabarman (Titash Ekti Nadir Naam), Odisha’s Gopinath Mohanty (Paraja), and Maharashtra’s Vishwas Patil. “But we should note that there is a big difference between ‘nature’ and ‘climate change’, which represents a profound rupture in our ecosystem,” says Ghosh.

Ghosh is an award-winning author, travel writer, anthropologist and climate change activist, writing both fiction and non-fiction. His books range from historical novels to straight out travelogues to novels set in present-day circumstances, to, well, everything that interests him. Which means that his fans are interested in everything that interests him too, because genre has no place in his works. Only the writing matters.

The write stuff

Research is the backbone of all his books. Not just for his historical novels, but also for his travelogues and essays

It’s hard for his fans, just emerging dreamily from his Ibis Trilogy, a series of historical novels set in India, China and the Indian Ocean at the time of the colonisation, to believe that Ghosh never imagined he could have a literary career. But frankly, anyone reasonably adult in 1986 and reasonably bookish felt the same way. There were only a few publishers for English-language writers (aside from those publishing textbooks), so anyone burning to write just had to do it in their spare time – or become an advertising copywriter or journalist.

Ghosh chose the latter. “I took a job with the Indian Express, because it seemed to me that this was the closest thing to a literary career that was available to me then,” he says. “And I did indeed learn a great deal from my time as a journalist.”

His journalistic background, combined with his Master’s degree and Ph.D. in social anthropology, comes across clearly in all his works, whether it’s his 1998 travelogue, Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma; his 1988 novel, The Shadow Lines; his 1992 work of non-fiction about Egypt, In An Antique Land; or The Great Derangement.

“I had a deep interest in human-environment relations even before I did my advanced degrees,” says Ghosh. “As an undergraduate, I went to Orissa and spent a month doing fieldwork in a village. It was a real revelation for me since I had grown up in cities.”

Research is the backbone of all his books. Not just for his historical novels, but also for his travelogues and essays, even if he’s actually experienced the things he writes about.

“Writing about personal experience does not make research unnecessary,” explains Ghosh. “Suppose, for example, that I were writing about the years I spent in Delhi. Even though my memories of that time are quite vivid, I would almost certainly need to look at street maps, newspapers, etc, if I were to write about them.”

It’s because he spends so much time on research that his fans are constantly frustrated – there are always years between his new releases.

Then again, perhaps researching and writing faster wouldn’t do his fans much good: there’s a reason why Ghosh is one of the world’s most admired writers and it has to do with the fact that every piece of work he publishes has the same level of excellence, both in the research and in the writing.

It’s how Ghosh feels about each of his books too. “I hold all my books in equal regard,” he says.

Follow @Ananya1281 on Twitter

From HT Brunch, January 29, 2017

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First Published: Jan 28, 2017 20:35 IST