Author Amitav Ghosh became the youngest and only Indian English writer to get the Jnanpith Award this week. It is the highest literary honour in India. While presenting the award, Gopalkrishna Gandhi praised Ghosh as the “philosopher of the environment” and “sailor among novelists”.
A relatively low-key author, who fortunately uses his social media presence to talk more about climate change than promote himself, Amitav Ghosh with his Jnanpith Award and new book Gun Island is ThePrint’s newsmaker of the week.
The Calcutta chromosome
Born in 1956 in Kolkata, Amitav Ghosh was educated in the elite Doon School in Dehradun. His contemporaries were writers Ramachandra Guha and Vikram Seth, and journalist Karan Thapar. In fact, it was Thapar who urged Ghosh to take up prose, not poetry. Ghosh would later earn a DPhil from Oxford University in social anthropology.
His debut novel, The Circle of Reason, published in 1986, about an Indian who has to leave his country after being suspected of terrorism, was the first sign of what Ghosh would deal with in his subsequent eight novels: diaspora, displacement and our complex relationship with identity.
The novel that dealt with how the home becomes the enemy has lessons for today’s India grappling with religious clashes, ethnic questions (read, Citizenship Amendment Bill) and Hindu majoritarianism.
The shadow lines
Amitav Ghosh’s 1998 novel The Shadow Lines was the book that ensured the author a place as a lifelong member of postcolonial literature syllabi across India. The novel on two families – one in Kolkata and one in London – weaves together history, memory and the power of connecting lines across space and time. It won him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1990.
In two decades, Ghosh created a niche for himself. His books are translated into several languages and dissected by readers and academics alike. He received the Padma Shri in 2007.
The Calcutta Chromosome, The Hungry Tide and the Ibis trilogy have their own fan following. Each intricately done, Ghosh’s novels do not suffer from the want of complexity. Yet, they are real, simple human stories.
It is said that the fall of the USSR was actually triggered by the dissemination of information. And the 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was definitely a catalyst. The author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn follows a fictional prisoner for 24 hours inside a Gulag in Serbia. Although it was a novel, it rang with truth. For the first time, readers got to know of the miseries of the oppressed in Soviet Russia’s labour camps. Similarly, Shyam Selvadurai’s 1995 novel Funny Boy traces the journey of Arjie, a boy growing up queer during the Sri Lankan civil war and Sinhala-Tamil riots. It shows that people had a lot more identities to deal with at the time, apart from just the ethnic.
Amitav Ghosh, too, by fictionalising history, gives the truth veracity. He makes it more visual. In The Hungry Tide, he tells us that Bengal is more than bhadralok Kolkata, and was never the peace haven of the Revolution’s posters. He does this not only by taking us to the islands, south of the state, which is at the frontlines of a looming environmental crisis, but also for the first time exposing a shameful, hidden massacre from the Communist era.
The great derangement
Only a great ‘derangement’ in these times can force public personas to talk about issues that matter: climate change, toxic majoritarianism and dwindling space for free speech.
And yet, Ghosh does so. During his speech at the 54th Jnanpith Award ceremony, he pointed out how authors these days are feeling “embattled, beleaguered and marginalised” in an increasingly narrow-minded world.
He has also become a fierce crusader for the earth. In his book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Ghosh says it must be a great derangement of the human kind that has led us to ignore the sirens of climate change and its potential to wreak havoc.
In an interview, Ghosh said: “I think our descendants will not forgive us. They’ll look back at us and ask, what were you doing at that time?”
The question will not apply much to Amitav Ghosh.