Jnanpith Award

Stories from solitude

Print edition : January 18, 2019

Amitav Ghosh at the launch of his book “The Great Derangement” in Chennai in July 2016. Photo: Shaju John

The Jnanpith award for Amitav Ghosh marks the ultimate acceptance of English as an Indian language.

A FEW summers ago, when the enervating heat of Delhi had reduced many a road to a mirage and forced most people indoors, and some to escape to the hills, Amitav Ghosh, sitting by a small pool of glistening water with barely a ripple at the Aman Hotel in New Delhi, cut a perfect picture of peace and quiet; he looked splendid, his white hair gleaming as the rays of the early evening sun slanted across the room. Outside, people could be sweating it out. Inside the cosy environs of the geometrician’s delight that is Aman, we could be in another world.

Yet meeting Ghosh, quiet and unflappable as he usually is, can still be disquieting, even daunting. Not a million mutinies but a thousand questions rage: how difficult was it to put together in some 1,600 pages the story of the Opium Wars in China, and the India connection for the Ibis trilogy encapsulating Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire; how emotionally depleting must have been the exercise to step into a world where historians have often feared to tread; how did he hold on to storm-tossed characters of the Ibis from the profundity of the Indian Ocean to the raging storm that was Canton; and how did he use his skills sometimes as a pair of scissors to cut through slack, at others as a brush to impart new hues, and maybe as a scalpel to heal many a wound left open by history.

Yet, before one could frame a complete question, Ghosh was almost ready with the answer. “Writing is a lonely pursuit, requires solitude. The world is full of temptations and distractions. Often you feel tempted, particularly when you get asked to write a guest piece or two, but a book like this requires a long span of concentration, a lot of discipline.”

It is this ability to shut out the world for long periods, to stay disciplined, keep the concentration going without a moment of lapse that was rewarded amply, and admirably, in the Ibis trilogy. It is this ability too that has been a contributory factor in the veteran author being honoured with the Jnanpith award, the ultimate statement of acceptance of English as an Indian language. For years, the Jnanpith award has lent grace to the mantelpiece of Indian writers writing in Indian languages. Even as the world recognised Indian writers writing in English, from Mulk Raj Anand and R.K. Narayan to Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy, the Jnanpith eluded writers in English. The language continued to be perceived as foreign, probably a residue of colonial days. The Jnanpith was somehow considered the privilege of those writers who expressed themselves in a native language. But as notions of nativity, inculcation and assimilation pierced boundaries, the Jnanpith made history. So did Ghosh. Thanks to him, Indian language writers have an enviable companion. The award has come not a day too soon. Behind his sweet success, as evidenced by the award, lies a tale of sweat, lonely pursuit and years of self-denial.

Not that rigorous discipline and an ability to sustain long research are Ghosh’s sole assets. Much before the Jnanpith, his works attracted dream merchants, leaving cinemagoers wondering just how a multilayered literary masterpiece could be reduced to a cinematic exercise where you often get only what you see. Never mind, Ghosh’s genius is not dependent on reflected glory. For years, he has built his reputation on his immaculate detailing, on his ability to look at the past not as deadwood but as a force that seeps through to the present. History, for him, is like water. It finds its way to move forward. Be it his The Imam and the Indian, In An Antique Land or even The Calcutta Chromosome, each of the works commanded the attention of patient readers.

Each asked disconcerting questions. The value of each went way beyond Ghosh’s ability to use words to tell a tale. Each word by itself seemed to have a destination, and a destiny. He is no prisoner of his words, rather, he sets them free, all of them carrying with them a vast potential for myriad interpretation. Each word is part of an understatement. After all, when Ghosh writes, he lends an extraordinary quality to moments of ordinariness. For instance, when reminded of the calm pool next to his seat in the hotel, he said: “Water is anything but calm, quiet or tranquil. It is a restless element,” and with that went away all those inherited expressions like calm as the sea or tranquil waters.

Indeed, reading Ghosh can be a learning experience. It is a quality that has in some way led to the latest award for the man who has in the past accepted awards or rejected them with a lot of care. Nominated for the Man Booker, Man Asian and Man Booker International Prizes and translated into 20 languages, he was asked about accepting the Israeli Dan David Prize, and defended himself thus: “For me there is a difference between the state and a civil war. I am clear on the Palestine issue and have said whatever I had to.”

Fuel from non-fiction

It is a charge that can often be laid at his door. After all, his writing, even under the garb of fiction, can often come loaded with political commentary and historicity. If no man is an island, for Ghosh no work is without a history. Not just the Ibis trilogy, even works like The Shadow Lines, The Glass Palace, The Imam and the Indian and The Hungry Tide have been replete with understatements about the people we were, the people we became, about displacement often leading to disorder, about denial of history leading to repetition of the same. If in The Shadow Lines he confronted the communal riots that marred the landscape of Calcutta and Dhaka in the early 1960s, in The Glass Palace, set in the Third Anglo-Burmese war, he prepared the ground to hit China afterwards with the long take on the Opium Wars. Ghosh’s fiction almost always derives its fuel from non-fiction.

Take for example his description of the healer-priest in The Imam and the Indian where he talked of the declining prestige of an ancient healer even if he was an imam in a village leading the five daily prayers. He wrote, “People didn’t often talk of the Imam in the village, but when they did, they usually spoke of him somewhat dismissively, but also a little wistfully, as they might of old, half-forgotten things, like the annual flooding of the Nile. Listening to my friends speak of him, I had an inkling, long before I actually met him, that he already belonged, in a way, to the village’s past. I thought I knew this for certain when I heard that apart from being an Imam he was also, by profession, a barber and a healer. People said he knew a great deal about herbs and poultices and the old kind of medicine. This interested me. This was Tradition.”

It is this interest in Tradition that has helped Ghosh see the past to make sense of the present. And then to juxtapose cultures in contemporary times. In The Hungry Tide, he talked of displacement of people from Madhya Pradesh to the Sunderbans, leaving them cultural orphans. No plaint, no sermon, just a clear vision that drew parallels between what was and what is.

And to think he addressed the rupture of the caste system too! About Khamees in The Imam, he wrote in a singularly insightful manner, drawing ironies and similarities between cultures removed by thousands of miles: “I liked him at once. He was about my age, in the early twenties, scrawny, with a thin, mobile face deeply scorched by the sun. He had that brightness of eye and the quick, slightly sardonic turn to his mouth that I associated with faces in the coffee-houses of universities in Delhi and Calcutta; he seemed to belong to a world of late-night rehearsals and black coffee and lecture rooms, even though, in fact, unlike most people in the village, he was completely illiterate. Later, I learned that he was called the Rat—Khamees the Rat—because he was said to gnaw away at things with his tongue, like a rat did with its teeth. He laughed at everything....That day he decided to laugh at me. ‘All right ya doctor,’ he said to me as soon as I had seated myself. ‘Tell me, is it true what they say, that in your country, you burn your dead?’...‘You mean,’ said Khamees in mock horror, ‘that you put them on heaps of wood and just light them up?’”

Melting pot of life

For Ghosh, land has never been a mere geographical space. Be it New York or Canton, Burma or Egypt, he always uses places to tell the stories of people who populate them, people who rule them, and people who covete them. Throw in elements of man’s desire, greed, conceit, even love and affection, and you have a melting pot of life. Or, in other words, the canvas of Ghosh’s works across 30-odd years. It is a canvas that will doubtlessly be enriched with the conferment of the Jnanpith.

Fittingly, the award creates a bit of history; no Indian writer writing in English can be denied the hope that one day he or she can follow in the footsteps of Amitav Ghosh. And history may just repeat itself.

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