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