The Times of India, May 1, 2001

Interview with Amitav Ghosh

By Salil Tripathi

NEW YORK: The British literary world was astonished when the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, a coveted award in the community of nations that share a colonial past, became controversial for the second year running. Last year, Shashi Deshpande exercised her prerogative as the chair to vote against the award going to Salman Rushdie for "Ground Beneath The Feet". This year, Amitav Ghosh was expected to walk away with the award with his magnificent novel set in Burma, "The Glass Palace". But Ghosh turned down the nomination, and in a sharply logical yet polite letter, informed the jury that he wished to withdraw the novel from the awards.

Ghosh put his money where his mouth is; he has after all been critical of colonialism in all its forms, and in novel after novel he has talked about the incredible ability of individuals to erase artificial constructs and borders, to blend and create newer identities that cartographers and ethnographers are incapable of understanding. His public readings in the US are usually packed affairs. In between his book tour in the US, Ghosh spoke to Salil Tripathi in New York about the Glass Palace, the themes that dominate his work, and what does it feel being called the elder statesman of Indian fiction.

ST: I take it you were surprised when the Commonwealth Awards committee nominated a book like The Glass Palace in the first place.

AG: Indeed it did. It surprised me that they had nominated me. It seemed like the establishment was throwing me a challenge: you can say what you have to say. And I said what I had to say. I had no idea that they had nominated me at all. It was a challenge to everything I believed in, and I had to respond.

ST: Salman Rushdie got a fair share of criticism for his views on Indian writing in English. He said, in 1997, that the best writing to emerge in post-Independent India was in English. When you responded to the Commonwealth Award the way you did, do you think you were making a point to Rushdie's assertion as well?

AG: Salman Rushdie's view on Indian writing in English was not in my mind at all. That's his opinion, and it is worthless. He doesn't know any other Indian languages at all, a fact he admits in that essay.

ST: One abiding theme in your work has been of circles. Stories begin, move in concentric circles, and then, in the end, everything is resolved, but not before a journey that spirals in many directions. Is that conscious?

AG: It inevitably emerges that way, I agree. But it is not a conscious effort at all. I do like multilayered stories because there are usually many layers of meaning to stories and I like exploring them.

ST: You have written fiction and you have written journalism of the highest order. Where does one end and the other begin, given that you research the subject thoroughly, and you travel extensively trying to understand the world you are going to write about?

AG: The Glass Palace is a good example: it joins reality and fiction. It emerged out of talking to people who had lived through that time. It is outstanding what that writing has meant to the people. The history is the backdrop, but the characters are overwhelmingly imaginary.

ST: And the Lacquer Princess?

AG: I know of that novel. I had never read it. I began to feel that our view of ourselves is too often determined by the way the British looked at us. In my research I did not want to repeat that aspect of colonial understanding of ourselves.

ST: Typically, how long does it take you to research a novel of this length?

AG: Well, this book took me five to seven years. But then this has been the longest phase.

ST: Not In An Antique Land?

AG: Yes, that too stayed with me for long. It took over five years, too. It was a long process for me.

ST: Your novels have been translated in Indian languages, something that has eluded other Indian novelists who write in English.

AG: Yes. "The Shadow Lines" has been translated into Bengali, Urdu, Tamil and Hindi. My work is constantly translated in Bengali and sells well. In Calcutta they say I am a Bengali writer. This is what I like about Calcutta; here in New York and elsewhere I am known as a writer in English, but in Calcutta, all of us are Bengalis. And I have many friends who write in Bengali, and many of them are very good.

ST: But they haven't had the same level of acclaim. Do you think writing in English gets disproportionate attention, and if that's the case is it fair?

AG: Fair? I don't know. I do know that Sunil Gangopadhyaya is widely translated. I agree that my writing is more accessible internationally.

ST: How does it feel being called the Elder Statesman of Indian writing in English?

AG: Pico Iyer called me that. I suppose that's probably because of my white hair.

ST: Can you say anything about your next project?

AG: It is an India-related theme. It is fiction. I have been going down to research it. It should be ready by end-2002. I don't want to say more.