Photograph: Samiksha Sharma
It is impossible to describe the brilliance that is Amitav Ghosh. The winner of the 54th Jnanpith award, Ghosh's mastery over storytelling is surpassed by none. His fiction, from The Shadow Lines to the Ibis Trilogy, has garnered immense critical acclaim, making him a true literary icon. Even his non-fiction, The Great Derangement, delved into issues so necessary that his work has become a rather significant contribution in the discussion about climate change. Yet, Ghosh decided to return to fiction recently with Gun Island, and has managed to, yet again, elevate his craft to the realm of the extraordinary.
Gun Island is a paramount piece of fiction that spans across time and space and addresses some of the most pressing issues of our time. From migration to myth, the book explores important themes and paints a picture of the brutal reality that the human kind has created for itself. Quite masterfully, Ghosh also does that which is unique to this work as he dismantles the binary between the human and non-human, giving voice to the latter. In its almost breathless examination of the denial that humanity is in regarding issues like climate change, Ghosh pushes these issues back into the spotlight, popping the bubble of collective amnesia that we've managed to build around ourselves.
We got around a table for an insight into the writer’s mind. Excerpts from our conversation.
Soumya Mukerji: Let me begin by asking how it feels to join Instagram - it's surprising and amazing to see the kind of photographs that you post because it's a refreshing change from the overly polished stuff that you generally see.
Amitav Ghosh: I’ve always liked taking pictures even though I'm not a very good picture taker or photographer. So, you know, I should've got on it before; actually I did get on it actually two years ago. But then you know what, there's only so much you can handle.
SM: Do you think social media in a way is an obstacle when it comes to writing, especially for young writers?
AG: I think social media can be very distracting. I mean, it can be distracting for someone like me, you know, who grew up without social media. Now for people of your generation really who grew up so much with social media always around you, I imagine the distraction is constant, you know, it must be hard to get off it.
SM: That’s true. And how do you feel about winning the Jnanpith award this time?
AG: It was wonderful to get it, really wonderful. I mean, so many of the writers I really looked up to have won this award; all these writers who I have really respected and admired. If you grew up within an Indian literary milieu, this is a very special award because it reaches into parts of India that you otherwise can't reach. And I already see the difference, you know, I get letters from faraway places that you wouldn't normally be able to reach. So the reach of this award, the very fact that it's been around for a long time, the fact that it's not government sponsored, the fact that it's independent, is really special.
SM: Would it have made a difference if it were government sponsored?
AG: Look at this moment, I think all of us feeling, certainly I’ve felt this long kind of exhaustion with, what'd you might call politics with a big P. So that's why the Jnanpith is very special. You know at the ceremony, Gopal Gandhi made a wonderful speech where he said that the Jnanpith award is like an embrace. It comes from your peers, unlike most government awards.
Nidhi Verma: What is your first memory of writing?
AG: That’s a very difficult one, I suppose. I remember one of my strongest memories, I must've been six or seven when I started typing on my father’s typewriter and he was not at all pleased about it. And ever since I've had a sort of great affection for typewriters.
NV: Now it's been more than three decades since your first book, The Circle Of Reason released. How has your writing evolved in these past three decades?
AG: Well, it's changed alot and it's inevitable, as you grow, you write in different ways. So, today they asked me to read out a little bit from a book I'd written many years ago called The Shadow Lines and as I was reading, I was constantly startled because it seemed to be written by some other person.
Actually often when I've thought of my language and its evolution, for example in The Shadow Lines, I was really trying to write long, complex sentences. I was sort of consciously trying to do that because that sort of mirrors the structure of the book. In another book called The Calcutta Chromosome I was trying to preserve a kind of spontaneity in the writing, because like most writers, my habit is to polish a lot and to try and make it seem to have a very glossy surface. But in that book I tried something in something different because sometimes it's good to have that sensation of spontaneity and rough edges.
“I've always been a daydreamer. I used to get really get into trouble as a kid for it. And I think that's the most important part. This is one of the great gifts of childhood and our youth, how much one daydreams, and I feel so bad when I see, our kids being told don’t daydream because you're going to pay attention all your lives. Daydreaming isn't easy and not everybody has that faculty, and it's out of daydreaming that stories come.”
NV: I read somewhere that after you'd finished your PHD at Oxford and you'd come here, you did not tell people that you wanted to be a writer because you thought they'd laugh at you. Could you tell us more about the time and what at that time made you consistently pursue your passion for writing.
AG: Things have changed so much today that it's kind of hard to even explain those days really. There was no sort of a publishing industry in India and it was almost unheard of for people to publish a book. For a young person to nurture that kind ambition was unheard of really. So yeah, I didn't feel that I could talk about my ambition of being a writer until I'd actually written something. Now there are writing courses, writing workshops, writing groups, et cetera. None of that existed. Writing was a kind of profoundly lonely pursuit.
SM: Was that a good thing or a bad thing? It could be good in some ways also because it led to who you are now.
AG: Yeah, that's right. As with most things that are there, there's the good and the bad. I mean in those days simply because our writing was so not a kind of profession or not something that you would expect to do are, you did it against the odds as it were, you know, you were going against the grain and doing it.
My family was kind of shocked and it didn't really matter because I was very headstrong and I said I am going to do whatever. I mean I just knew that this is what I wanted to do. But, the challenges right in the beginning are mainly economic. How do you sustain yourself and so on. I remember when I was finishing my first book and I had something called a research fellowship at Delhi University. My total income was 600 rupees a month. It wasn't even really enough to sustain. And I think most of it actually went on my rent. And I remember one day sitting on a bus going to the university and I had just taken out the money right from the bank or whatever. And I felt my pocket and the money wasn't there and I thought, oh my God, where am I going to get this money? What am I going to do? It's was very crowded bus as you can imagine. And I was just sitting there thinking, oh my God, I'm finished. And as I was looking down, that ward of notes, just appeared between my feet. It was a miracle. It really felt like a miracle. Otherwise I would have had some sort of breakdown because I mean money was really short. I was maybe 26. And my parents were having trouble getting by themselves. So it wasn't that easy. I just wouldn't go back to them to ask for more money because in any case at that time they would have said, so why aren't they doing a proper job? I think themes difficult thing about taking that kind of decision at that age is not just the money, it’s also that all your contemporaries are moving forward and you are in the same place.
NV: The book that you wrote before Gun Island was The Great Derangement and it was nonfiction on climate change and you've come back to fiction after the Ibis Trilogy. Which genre of writing do you prefer now, fiction or nonfiction?
AG: You know they both serve different purposes. I’ve done a lot of nonfiction writing. I began my career as a journalist, so it's been an important part of my life, doing what you're doing. And I think it taught me a lot and it's something very interesting to do. And every now and again, I feel that I have to have my say on things so I like doing nonfiction. I find it very stimulating. Very interesting. But you know, by the time I finished writing The Great Derangement, I was longing to get back to fiction. So it was nice to come back to it.
SM: What was it that made you choose fiction again?
AG: Its kind of hard to explain but you know, writing fiction is, like you enter a kind of dream world, a kind of space, which is completely free and outside the ordinary. It’s a wonderful space to be and it's, it's like spending a long, long time in some kind of daydream. And I've always been a daydreamer. I used to get really get into trouble as a kid for it. And I think that's the most important part. This is one of the great gifts of childhood and our youth, how much one daydreams, and I feel so bad when I see, our kids being told don’t daydream because you're going to pay attention all your lives. Daydreaming isn't easy and not everybody has that faculty, and it's out of daydreaming that stories come. So at this point, you know, as you grow older, you get so used to paying attention to, you know, your bank, you're this, you're that. So making space to daydream is a very important part of a writer's life.
NV: And what kind of writing has influenced your work?
AG: In relation to this book, I would say there are two or three writers I thought about a lot. Uh, you know, uh, one is John Steinbeck and his book, the Grapes of Wrath. Another is Tayeb Salih. You He wrote a wonderful book called Season of Migration to the North which I read in Arabic.
But I must say for this book the writers who were very important for me were certain pre-modern Bengali poets. Like Shukubi Narayan Dev, Bipradas Pipilai, Kashiram Das. These are very long, epic poems, you would call them, in a sense, devotional literature, but the ones that were really influential for me were the ones that were dedicated to Manasa Devi.
“I think this is the fundamental literary challenge of our time, how do you give voice to the non human. In silencing those voices is how we have created the catastrophe we are in. We think that only we matter, and everything else is really nothing.”
SM: Could you tell us a little bit about how your creative process unfurls?
AG: Oh, that's very difficult. Again, I think daydreaming is fundamental to it. For days and days, nothing will come to you. I mean, with this book, I actually know how it started. I know the date because I had promised to send a friend an article and I thought it was going to be a very short article. I think it was March 2016, and I sat down at my desk and I was racking my brains thinking, how am I going to write this? I started trying to write it like an essay and then suddenly just out of nowhere I thought, why I can do it like this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this!
SM: And are you a regimental writer?
AG: Look, if you write novels, no novel is written without effort. Novels require a lot of hard work. To write a thousand words takes effort. So to write a hundred thousand words is like a thousand times more work. So writing is not something that you can do absent-mindedly. It takes intense discipline. When you think of what writing entails, you should think of the analogy of music. You know, as with music you have to practice, you need that daily riyaz (practice). Without that, it doesn't work. You lose the touch; you lose your ability to hear what it is that you're doing. So you really have to think of it in terms of music. Because we all write on an everyday basis; we write e-mails and texts. We think writing is just an easy thing, but it's not. I think it requires a lot of thought and effort and most of all, practice. Writing is an everyday challenge. Every day you're sort of battling yourself or you're trying to bring your mind into focus.
SM: And what is it that brings you back every time you are unable to focus?
AG: See, again, writing is like music; writing is its own reward. You know, being able to live in that world of your dreams is an extraordinarily gratifying experience. I mean at this point too, I could just stop writing. It wouldn't matter. But I just love it too much. It's just; I just enjoy it too much.
NV: Coming to Gun Island, there are so many themes that are at play in the book, especially issues like migration. What, for you, was the main driving force?
AG: For the last many years, I felt an increasing anxiety and urgency really about what's happening in the world, especially in relation to climate change because, what we are in the midst of is absolutely an emergency. It's a crisis on a scale which is almost unimaginable. Since I have had children I can't help but worry about their future and the world that they are going to face and the world that you are going to face. You just think of you living in Delhi, in 48 degrees heat during summers now. It's unprecedented temperature. Do you know, at this temperature, if you're outside for more than 15 minutes, you risk heat stroke? It's an unimaginable kind of stress upon the body. Human bodies are really not adapted to these extremes. So there's that and in 2020, they say that we will run out of ground water in so many Indian cities. We already see these incredible water stresses, we see this drought, which is now raging across much of India. We’ve also squandered our resources. Our Upper Ganga Aquifer which essentially feeds something like 400 billion people in India as well as in Pakistan is almost out. It's almost completely depleted and once the upper Ganga Aquifer is exhausted you'll see a collapse of agriculture across Northern India.
Migration is also such an important issue in the world today. During the sort of what they call the refugee crisis or migration crisis of the last few years, I became really very interested in this phenomenon of people crossing the Mediterranean, in those boats. When I looked at the pictures, I noticed something that really startled me, which is that a lot of the people who are crossing the Mediterranean are actually South Asians, they're from, they're from our part of the world. So I began to ask myself, who are these people? Why are they doing this?
These are questions that are so pressing, so urgent, and yet, you know, when you have this whole spectacle of an election of politics, none of it matters. None of it ever seems to figure. Now if you ask me that where everything has failed, can literature succeed? I don't think so. I really don’t. And you know, that's in a sense is not the point. I mean, I'm not a writer writing a book in order to make propaganda but I do think that I myself have a fundamental commitment to reflecting the reality that I see. That's really what motivates me. I want to be able to reflect in some truthful way the world I see. It's out of that urgency that The Great Derangement arose and this book arose and not that this book is directly addressing any of those problems, but you know, something happens in your imagination that, at several removes from the immediate where something interesting happens.
NV: There is a very intriguing aspect of the book which is that the binary between the human and the non human sort of collapses. How challenging was that, to give the nonhuman a voice?
AG: I’m so happy to hear you say that because that was certainly something that I was trying to achieve whether one can actually achieve it or not. I think this is the fundamental literary challenge of our time, how do you give voice to the non human. In silencing those voices is how we have created the catastrophe we are in. We think that only we matter, and everything else is really nothing. You see that so much in poetry. Like in Tennyson, and its interesting because the only poet I was made memorise at school was Tennyson strangely. He's from that late Victorian period and he's very influenced by science. At one point, it's one of the verses in his long poem called In Memoriam where he says the tiger must die and the ape must wither, for a man to achieve his full potential. So can you imagine the sort of violence that's implied in that? I mean, these people really thought that you have to just wipe out all of the creatures in order for man to become what become God in fact. I mean, that's kind of such a horrifying thing. I mean, this thought would be so utterly abhorring to the pre-modern poets I was talking about earlier.
NV: Lastly, if you had to give one advice to budding writers right now, what would that be?
AG: I would say, pay attention to the real world that's around you. That's really the most important thing to do. Just pay attention to it. Forget about yourself, forget about writing about yourself and your journey or whatever, and just pay attention.
Text Soumya Mukeri and Nidhi Verma