Amitav Ghosh: Writing Through Turmoil

Amitov Ghosh
Amitav Ghosh (Photo: Jerry Bauer)

Violence and riots have a way of walking into Amitav Ghosh’s living room. It happened in 1984 when the events following Indira Gandhi’s assassination overtook him in Delhi, and it happened again in New York when he watched from his window as the World Trade towers crashed. Fortunately, the only menace in this comfortably middle-class south Delhi home where he conducted this interview was the sultry weather outside. But in its uncanny way, violence worked its way into the interview, as it has worked its way into Ghosh’s life and his writing, especially in his latest book of essays, The Imam and the Indian.

You make an interesting connection in your book between violence and banality—how violence in the ultimate analysis is so banal and devoid of all meaning.
It’s an extension of the famous phrase about the banality of evil. When I was talking of banality and violence, I was speaking in relation to the riots in the ’60s and ’70s. Because in some way, the riots didn’t change anything. You had this “disturbance”—in those days it was always called a disturbance. It would last for a few days, then end, and then things would carry on much as before...until the next riot. To me that was the most disquieting aspect of that kind of social violence. But since Sept. 11, something has changed very drastically in the world.

And what is that?
Perhaps it is a symptom rather than a cause. The whole system of nation- states is coming under increasing strain. The rich countries are essentially more and more a single unit: Borders don’t really apply. At the bottom of the scale, in countries like Pakistan and Burma, again borders have melted away and there’s a general collapse of the state. I think we are at a point where the ideal of the nation as a way of organizing society is no longer holding.

Post-Sept. 11, what is the role of a writer, especially in a world where the threads of the old stories have broken?
I think the stories are fundamentally, radically changed. If I would make a claim for myself and my work, I would say that I’ve been aware of the way things have been changing for a very long time. I’ve lived in the Middle East and in Burma, I’ve been in places where changes are occurring. My fiction has always been about communities coming unmade or remaking themselves.

So 9/11 has posed the biggest challenge to writers of the West?
I think it is impossible to say that writers as a collectivity have a single challenge. Every writer responds to this in his or her own way.

But there is no way a writer can’t respond to this challenge?
Of course it is possible. There are a few writers who are writing tender love stories, and that has its place in the world. I think it is completely authoritarian to say everyone has to write about this.

Not that everyone has to write about this, but that everyone is changed by it, both in the decision to write about it and the decision to ignore it.
I think it is in that sense a historical event that has become a huge block we have to walk around. But in the long run it is also important to remember that it’s only one event.

That is true. But do you find it becomes more difficult for you to go on writing after the events of last September?
One of the strange things I’ve found is that whenever these eruptions have occurred, somehow I have been in the middle of them. When it happened in New York, I was watching from my window. My daughter was in school across the river. Two of our neighbors and friends died. Two of my son’s classmates lost their parents. For one week we had these two children living with us whose father had died. I was reminded very much of [the riots and turmoil following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in] 1984.When a city is in that kind of turmoil, there are always some similarities: There’s the sense of terror, of a mass of people responding in a certain way. But these are coincidental things; it’s not for me to tell other writers what they should write or not write. This is my life, this is what I write about.

You have talked in one of your essays of the close connection between modernity and religion, how religion is often used as a weapon against modernity.
Yes, fundamentalists often use the word pseudo-secularist to describe those who are opposed to them. But I think it is they who are pseudo-religionists. Name me a single fundamentalist who has anything to say about the spiritual content of religion. They have nothing to say; they are interested in politics. And that’s why so many of these young fundamentalists are actually engineers and so on who have the most banal ideas about religion.

You talk in your recent book about the “aesthetics of violence”—how in writing about violence, writers sometimes sacrifice truth and goodness for the spectacle.
I think it’s a real problem when you have an aestheticization of violence. As writers we have to resist the temptation to make violence seem heroic. When you just hold up a mirror to violence, all you see is more violence.

Modern literature seems to have moved away from celebrating emotional and spiritual life. Why?
I don’t disagree with the thrust of your question. Certainly in literature one of the things we see increasingly is a view of the world where everything is treated ironically, and I think it is a very sad thing. But I feel that a strength of Indian writing is that it is not afraid to tackle those things, and that’s why people around the world respond to it. I could give you any number of examples—in a way, The God of Small Things is a very emotional book. I think Michael Ondaatje has been an incredibly intensely emotional writer. Or Agha Shahid Ali, the poet, has the most vaulting ambition, where he was looking at Sufi poetry, contemporary politics, and trying to find a form that holds it together. Similarly, over the last few years, many, many South Asian writers have given me the feeling that they want to express some sort of moralistic truth, even if they’re not successful in realizing that ambition.