Amitav Ghosh is a writer that I never really cared about. His book The Shadow Lines (1988) was part of my Post Graduation course in the University. So, I read it, a very passive reading at that. I didn’t really like it. But then, I didn’t really like many things that came along with the tag ‘Syllabus’. It was easy to dissuade me from reading a book; put it on a syllabus. My roomie at that time was a Bengali and a fan of Amitav Ghosh. I borrowed his copy of The Calcutta Chromosome and was kind of happy with it. But then, The Glass Palace (2000) and The Hungry Tide (2004) did not make any impact in me. Please don’t get me wrong. These are all books that have won many awards and are widely read. It’s just that I, as a reader, have not really enjoyed Ghosh as a novelist. It is some strange and unexplainable reason. I just can’t say what it is about Ghosh’s writing style that I do not enjoy. May be the historical setting that he usually resorts to does not match my sensibility. But then, I’m someone who reads anything that comes with a stamp of ‘History’. It is possible that I’m stuck in some bygone era’s fiction writing technique that I find it a great discomfort to move on and gel myself with a newbie like Amitav Ghosh.
I know Ghosh isn’t a newbie. Someone who published his first novel in 1986, the year I was born, shouldn’t be called a newbie writer. It is just that my sensibilities were formed by reading O.V Vijayan, M. Mukundan and Anand. I had to read this trio in order to be a part of my parents’ dinner table conversations. My Dad used to teach the novels of these writers and my Mom’s opinions on them were widely acknowledged by Dad. And I used to sit at the head of the table, my head going from Left to Right and Vice Versa, trying to decide whose side I would join, in case an argument erupts. I also remember the first time I raised an opinion on Anand’s novel, ‘Marubhoomikal Undaakunnathu.’ My dad just stared at me. I, on the other hand, felt like I insulted him (or Anand) and went silently back to whatever was left on my plate. But, next morning, when I was taking my bicycle out, to go to school, Dad stopped me and asked if I believed in what I said the previous night, about the novel. I nodded. He told me that it was a very valid point.
Coming back to Ghosh and his writing, I enjoy his essays more than his fiction. His essays look more convincing to me, than his fiction. It is like he is on a whole new level of comfort when he is writing those brilliant pieces. For example, let’s take a look at this wonderful book that I am currently reading, ‘Dancing in Cambodia and at Large in Burma’ (1998). I realize that I am a little late to pick this book up since it was published when I was in the eighth grade but I’m sure it is never TOO late to pick a book up. This collection of essays make a great read as the writer goes through the civil and cultural spaces of the people of Cambodia and Burma, two countries that are so close to India but never make it to our imagination much.
We Indians have a bad tendency to ignore whatever doesn’t give us much of a benefit. We think/talk about whatever happens to the gulf countries because we have a large population over there, sending us back money in bulk. We think about the U.S.A, the U.K because that is where half of our dumbos want to migrate to, thinking that they’re migrating to some sort of human-made heaven. We don’t really think about countries that are right in our neighbourhood, people that have ethnic connections with us, because they don’t give us anything. India shares a border with Burma (Myanmar, according to the Military Junta that rules it) but we hardly give a damn about them. We think about Bhutan more. We raise flags at the Sri Lankan President and we hate the guts of the Chinese Army and we closely keep an eye on news related to Pakistan. How many of us actually care to talk about Aung San Suu Kyi and her struggle against the Junta? How many of us actually think about Cambodia? Many of us might associate it with Angkor Wat but what do we know about them more than that?
I have to assume here that we, Indians, as a people, have lost our ability to sympathise. We live in a safe country. We seldom open our eyes and look around. We just sit and whine about how much the Gandhi family robbed us… we sit and brood over what would happen if Modi comes to power… in all these meaningless, simple worries, we forget to see the everyday reality of the rest of the world.
We do not see the constant confusion that Pakistanis live in. Anybody could just blow up any place in Pakistan because some Mullah had a constipation.
Look East. You’ll see China. Nothing comes out from there other than their President and cheap products! Nothing gets in.
Look further East; Burma and Cambodia. Read Ghosh’s book to understand the struggle of the ‘peoples’ there.
Afghanistan in the North West and Bangladesh in the South East. Sri Lanka in the South. Any comments?
We don’t even live in the constant cloud of terror attacks like the Americans and the British. ‘Bomb’ is not ‘Bomb’; it is the ‘B’ word. I have seen so many Americans and Brits getting paranoid if you mention some of these things; Bomb, terrorist, plane, gun… the list goes on.
In the middle of all this, there’s us. A country that still broods over its 220 years of foreign rule. For fuck’s sake, we fucked the Brits more than they fucked us. They’re yet to realize it. We got English, the Railways and all the states got kicked right in to the place in this grand Indian Jigsaw Puzzle. What did they get? Don’t tell me ‘The Great Economic Drain’. It was like giving a blank cheque to a teenager. Whatever the Brits drained from India, they destroyed it playing ‘The First World War’ and ‘The Second World War’. What did we get? We got the tiny monarchs here kicked out and the great Indian ‘Democracy’. Imagine Americans coming over here to give us ‘Democracy’. If you can imagine that, then you know that we got a better deal already in place. We were stupid. A portion of our population went nuts over religions. They clashed with each other and killed each other. Some innocents died too. There is poverty. But that is hardly an Indian problem. Every nation has poverty. Ours is actually one of those countries that has a decreasing rate of poverty. How about that, huh? We did not get invaded by anyone after Babur (although the British did a very systematic invasion!) nor did we suffer any direct damage from ‘the Wars’. All the other countries in the South East Asia had the ruthless Japanese Army marched all over them. When the Japanese retreated, they burned everything on their way back. Ghosh mentions how countries like Cambodia never really overcame that shock.
These essays are not to be considered as mere records of the different ethnic groups and their conflict with each other. They are to be treated also as a means to look upon ourselves and where we stand in this planet. Why are we what we are? What shaped our common destiny? What can we do as one people? These are the questions that should be asked at the end of this self-realization.