Jnanpith Address

Chrestomather | June 16, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

For me, as for anyone who has grown up within an Indian literary milieu, the Jnanpith is an award unto itself, possibly because it recognizes something that goes beyond literary achievement: it acknowledges also the trust and affection that sometimes arises between writers and communities of readers. This bond – which one might almost describe as a kind of love – is perhaps the greatest reward that any writer can hope for.

When I started writing, many, many years ago, I could not have imagined that the Jnanpith would ever come my way. In those days Indians who wrote in English were accustomed to thinking of themselves as marginal, both to Indian and to English literature. This despite the fact that even back then writers from the Indian subcontinent had produced a corpus of work in English that was truly impressive for its breadth and quality. Many of the writers I read in my formative years are still well known, but I think it would not be out of place here to mention a few who are now at risk of being forgotten, for example Aubrey Menen, G.V.Desani, Kamala Markandeya, Attia Husain and Manohar Malgaonkar. Although these writers were better known back then it wasn’t always easy to find their books. They were often to be found, not in bookshops, but in the libraries of the British Council.

 How different things are today! It is now possible to walk into bookstores almost anywhere in the world and find many books written by talented young writers from India. Much of this of course, has to do with the increasing dominance of the English language, which is rightly a matter of deep concern to writers who write in other literary languages. Although I write in English myself, I fully share this concern for English is not, by any means my only language; nor would my work be what it is if I had grown up in a circumstance where one language predominated over all others. I am all too well aware that my work has been shaped, formed and enabled by the linguistic diversity and pluralism of the circumstances in which I grew up.

 When we use the words ‘pluralism’ and ‘diversity’ we tend to think of a multi-colored mosaic, with many solid blocs of color adjoining but not spilling over into each other. But this is a false picture. There is nothing solid about the way that languages interact with each other in the Indian subcontinent: they mingle, flow and infiltrate, not just between groups but, most significantly, within individuals. The distinctive thing about our reality is that diversity and pluralism are intrinsic to our innermost selves – simply because it is impossible for an Indian to be monolingual in the manner of some Europeans and most Americans. All Indians grow up multilingual to a greater or lesser degree: we speak one language or dialect at home, another on the streets, yet another with our friends, and still another in the workplace or when we deal with government offices. It is almost impossible to function in an Indian city or town with a single language.

 My father for example, grew up speaking Bhojpuri with his brothers and sisters, standard Bangla with his parents, standard Hindi with his friends, and English at his workplace. Which was his ‘real’ language? This question might make sense on a census form but it has absolutely no relevance to the inner worlds that writers draw upon when they write. The whirling flow of languages, and the creative tensions, they generate are precisely the wellsprings I draw upon when I write.

It should be noted that this predicament is not particular to me as a writer who writes in English; it is shared by every writer in the subcontinent, no matter what language they write in. We all contend with multiple currents of language, many of which flow across the borders and boundaries that divide us from our neighbours: for example, Bangla, Punjabi, Urdu, Bhojpuri, Nepali, Tamil, Sindhi, Gujarati, Tibetan, Chin, Tai and Nagami.

This reality existed long before the arrival of the English and their language. For thousands of years, literate Indians have been expected to be conversant not only with ‘Languages of Place’, or desabhasas, but also with at least one language that transcended place and region. Sanskrit was for millenia the exemplification of such a language, and Tamil was another. In medieval times Persian too came to be viewed in a similar light. In India, uniquely, linguistic pluralism was never seen as a source of confusion, as in the story of Babel. It was instead embraced, celebrated and incorporated into literary practices. The writer and critic Rajashekhara, formalized these practices over a thousand years ago when he wrote: ‘[One] given topic will be best treated in Sanskrit, another in Prakrit, or Apabhramsa or the language of spirits…’

The creative potential that arises from the intersection of languages can perhaps best be seen in the work of three great multilingual writers from Karnataka, two of whom stood here before me and one who, sadly, did not: U.R. Ananthamurthy, Girish Karnad and A.K. Ramanujan. The latter was to my mind, one of the greatest writers and thinkers of the late 20th century, and his works spanned Kannada, English, Tamil, Sanskrit and much else.

Even though I write in English, I draw constantly on Bangla and its vast imaginative resources. Here is an example. My last non-fiction book was called The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. In writing this book I came to the conclusion that modern literature offers few answers to what I take to be the most important literary challenge of our era: that of giving voice to the non-human. So I turned to pre-modern literature instead, and began to read the work of medieval Bangla poets like Bipradas Pippilai, Sukobi Narayan Deb and Kobi Krishnaramdas. It was through the work of these great poets that I re-discovered a legend that I had loved as a child: the story of Chand Sadagar. This legend is at the heart of my new novel Gun Island.

Apart from giving me access to the resources of an immensely rich literary tradition, Bangla also opened the door to the vibrant literary milieu of Bengal. I consider myself hugely fortunate in having been befriended by inspiring writers like Sunil Gangopadhyaya and Mahasweta Devi. Sunil-da once described my book The Hungry Tide as a Bengali novel written in English: I prize those words to this day.

Communication between languages, and across different habits of mind, always requires humility, patience, and a willingness to listen. These attributes do not come about by accident; they require a certain kind of habituation, and certain protocols, which in turn need the support of institutions that make it their mission to provide platforms where writers from many languages can meet and interact as equals.

The Jnanpith Foundation is precisely such an institution which is why the writers I looked up to held it in unparalleled esteem, as a body that was independent of the government and fair in its evaluations. Although there are undoubtedly some major lacunae in the awards, most notably in relation to gender and caste, it remains true, I think, that the Foundation has generally aspired to cleave to the principles of pluralism in relation to language, region and community.

These principles are likely to be sorely tested in years to come. We are living in a time when writers are increasingly beleaguered, embattled and marginalized. Around the world, everywhere we look, there is a closing of minds, a narrowing of horizons, and a palpable fear of the future. Nor is this fear unjustified: it is increasingly clear that the world’s dominant economic model is profoundly dangerous: not only is it corroding our political processes it is also altering the planet’s atmosphere in catastrophic ways. Technologies of communication, which once seemed to brim with emancipatory promise, are now seen to be capable of disseminating rage, prejudice and disinformation with unprecedented speed and efficiency. Under the circumstances we have to accept that the fundamental premise of modernity – that everything will always get better and better – is no longer credible. What lies ahead is a time when it will become ever more necessary for institutions like the Jnanpith to defend the ideals of plurality, diversity and fairness, ideals that were embodied by writers such as Firaq Gorakhpuri, Ashapurna Devi, Gopinath Mohanty, Qurratulain Hyder, Indira Goswami, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Srilal Shukla and Mahasweta Devi. To be chosen to follow in the wake of these great writers is, for me, an honor beyond all measure.

The journey that has brought me here was a long one, and on the way I have incurred more debts than I could possibly hope to acknowledge. But I would like to recall the memory of a man, who, would have been very glad for me today: my long-time editor and publisher, Ravi Dayal, who taught me more about reading and writing than anyone else.

Moments of celebration such as this are rare in a writer’s life. For the most part we lead lonely, quiet lives, struggling with that most elusive of instruments – language. My constant companions in these struggles have been my children, Lila and Nayan, and most of all my wife of thirty years, Debbie. Without her love, support and encouragement I would not be here today.

Amitav Ghosh

June 12, 2019


David Wallace-Wells, ‘The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming’.

Chrestomather | February 6, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

David Wallace-Wells’ 2018 article The Uninhabitable Earth became a sensation almost as soon as it appeared, quickly becoming the most-read piece ever to appear in New York magazine. Since then it has been read by millions more, giving the lie to the belief that climate change is of negligible interest to the lay reader.

But the article also attracted some criticism for its supposedly ‘alarmist’ tone. The argument went that ‘alarm’ and ‘panic’ are paralyzing emotions and can be politically counter-productive. In my view the criticism was misplaced, for the simple reason that the political effects of alarm or fear are impossible to determine with any accuracy. Academic studies of this subject have come to widely varying conclusions.

For my part I thought the article was well-researched, well-timed and very well-written, so I welcomed the news that it was to be expanded into a full-length book. Having read a proof copy I am all the more convinced that Uninhabitable Earth is a book that everyone should read.

This gripping, terrifying, furiously readable book is possibly the most wide-ranging account yet written of the ways in which climate change will transform every aspect of our lives, ranging from where we live to what we eat and the stories we tell.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, 2019.

Amitav Ghosh


Ashok Alexander’s ‘A Stranger Truth’

Chrestomather | October 6, 2018 in Reviews | Comments (0)

 

 

In 2003 Ashok Alexander left a top job at McKinsey & Co. and took on the task of setting up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s India AIDS Initiative. Under Ashok’s stewardship the Initiative soon became the world’s largest privately sponsored HIV prevention program; it is credited with having played an important part in the subsequent decline in India’s HIV epidemic.

A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, Leadership and Courage from India’s Sex Workers (Juggernaut, 2018)

 

 

is the story of this remarkable journey. Written in the form of a memoir the book is, in one of its aspects, an organizational chronicle, a fascinating story of bureaucratic and institutional infighting, enlivened by sketches of the author’s encounters with Bill Gates, Richard Gere and many other celebrities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In another, even more compelling aspect, the book is a richly detailed ethnography of sex work in India, filled with tales that are sometimes desperately sad and sometimes heart-warming. In both these aspects the book is always engaging, thoroughly readable.

A Stranger Truth is a portrait of contemporary India like no other: in its pages some of the richest and most powerful people in the world cross paths with some of the poorest and most desperate.

Having known Ashok since my college days it comes as no surprise to me that he turned out to be a managerial wunderkind.

 

What does come as a surprise is the discovery that he is also an unusually gifted writer.

 

 


‘Swerving to Solitude’

Chrestomather | July 18, 2018 in Current Reading | Comments (0)

Nice to receive a copy of the poet Keki Daruwalla’s new novel, ‘Swerving to Solitude: letters to Mama.’ It’s an interesting and idiosyncratic meditation on history with some evocative scenes of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.

Forthcoming, Simon and Schuster India.


‘What’s happening to the weather?’

Chrestomather | June 13, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

Since the publication of ‘The Great Derangement’ I’ve received many reports of freakish weather from friends and readers. One such arrived on May 31, from Turin. It was from

 

Anna Nadotti,

 

who has been my Italian translator for thirty years (see also this earlier post).

 

 

 

 

 

 

The message, which was written in Italian, was really vivid, so I decided that I would translate my translator (with her permission of course).

 

There was a hailstorm here in Torino yesterday afternoon when I was coming home, at around 4. Coming out of the Metro I found myself facing a scene out of ‘Bladerunner’. It seemed like night had fallen and the narrow streets of the city centre were literally fuming in the darkness, giving off a dense vapour that fell back upon the city minutes later in the form of hailstones, so heavy that umbrellas couldn’t stand up to them. The storm lasted just a few minutes but was extremely violent, with gusts of wind that could sweep you away.

I was just a few blocks from my house but like everyone else, had to take shelter in a shop, for the fear of giving myself a barnacled head. The sound of the hail hitting cars left quite an impression. The storm was followed by a heavy downpour that flooded the streets.

The question on everyone’s lips was: ‘What’s happening to the weather? It seems like the end of the world…’

In fact it was the infernal aspect of the city that was so striking – the sudden darkness, the vapour, the shards of hail….

 

There are a few videos of the storm on Youtube.

 

 

 


Ravi Agrawal’s ‘India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy ‘. A Review

Chrestomather | May 5, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

Ravi Agrawal (who I’ve known since he was an undergraduate at Harvard) served as CNN’s bureau chief in New Delhi from 2014 to 2017. Before that he was the senior producer of Fareed Zakaria’s television show GPS. And he has recently started a new job as Managing Editor of the influential American magazine Foreign Policy.

 

Ravi is also a gifted writer and his first book is to be published later this year. It is a remarkable work of non-fiction—India Connected: How the Smartphone is Transforming the World’s Largest Democracy (forthcoming 2018, Oxford University Press).

 

 

 

 

 

 

India Connected is a fascinating – and very well-written – account of the ways in which the smartphone is transforming every aspect of Indian life, from marriage to politics, and not always for the better. During his tenure as CNN’s bureau chief in New Delhi, Ravi traveled a great deal. It comes as no surprise then that his is a working journalist’s book, with extensive reportage from far-flung corners of the country.

 

In the very first chapter, in a village in Rajasthan, Ravi discovers that an illiterate woman can use the internet by speaking to her smartphone and asking it to play a video of the Taj Mahal. This, of course, would not have been possible without the advent of mobile technology. But that flash of optimism is immediately tempered by a dispatch from a village in Gujarat where the smartphone is banned for young girls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The book features portraits of many memorable individuals, some unknown and some very famous (like the porn star Sunny Leone). Ravi is careful to avoid big pronouncements, but it is evident from his narrative that the transformations that are being effected by the smartphone contain as many – or more – dystopic possibilities than otherwise.

 

 

‘Bangalore mom and son on cellphone November 2011’ Wikimedia Commons

He cites research in the U.S. showing a correlation between smartphone use and increased rates of depression in teenagers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quoting Dr. Manoj Kumar Sharma of the National Institute of Medical Health and Neuro Sciences, Ravi writes: ‘Dr Sharma believes India is heading toward a catastrophe unless a major awareness campaign is initiated. “We have to make sure people understand how addictive technology is, and what it can do to our brains. We don’t even know the extent of the implications right now, because things are changing so quickly here. If we don’t stop to think about this, who knows what could happen?’

In many ways India’s experience with a national digital identification system (the Aadhaar card) is a harbinger of what hi-tech portends for India. The card was, no doubt, conceived of with the best of intentions. But several instances of data leaks have now been widely reported in the press. As the activist Nikhil Pahwa notes: ‘People in tech just foolishly assume that the government is going to do the right thing … But the one thing you know about the Indian government is incompetence. We’re only just realizing how much of a mess we have created here in India.’

India Connected is a must-read for everyone who is interested in contemporary India.

 

 


Thirteen Factories Museum

Chrestomather | December 7, 2017 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

Dear Mr Ghosh,

I noticed on your blog that a number of the readers of the Ibis Trilogy have enquired about what now remains in Guangzhou from the scenes that you have described in the books. I was also inspired to visit Guangzhou in November 2017 after completing a reading of your excellent Ibis Trilogy books.

I thought that your readers may be interested in the fact that the Chinese Government has now opened a new museum on the original site of the ‘Thirteen Factories’ It is called the ‘Quangzhou Thirteen Hongs Museum’ and is dedicated to presenting the culture and history of the development of the Thirteen Factories. The museum houses a fascinating collection of around 1600 artifacts including glazed porcelain, mahogany furniture, embroidery, silverware and numerous watercolour and glass paintings, etc.

 

 

Photo: Dr Jasbir Gill

 

 

I would highly recommend a visit by anyone interested in the history of the Opium Wars and the activities of the Thirteen Factories.

Regards,

(Dr) Jasbir Gill

 

 

 

 


Two Assamese Novels

Chrestomather | November 28, 2017 in Current Reading | Comments (1)

 

Rita Chowdhury’s compelling historical novel, Chinatown Days, is about a community that was founded by a handful of Chinese workers who came to Assam in the 1830s at the behest of the British East India Company, which was then attempting to establish a tea industry in India in order to reduce its dependence on Chinese tea. The descendants of those early migrants became a thriving and prosperous part of the ethnic mosaic of Assam. Its members spoke fluent Assamese and developed deep roots in the soil of the region. After 1947, they regarded themselves as citizens of independent India. But then came the India-China War of 1962 which stirred up a maelstrom of anti-Chinese prejudice. Chinese-Indians were arrested en masse and sent away to internment camps in distant parts of the country. Their links with their former neighbours were forever sundered and they were set cruelly adrift in the world.

Chinatown Days tells this shocking story by following the life-histories of a few characters. Rita Chowdhury is an energetic and empathetic story-teller; her novel is a moving saga about a terrible injustice wrought upon a group of blameless people.

Originally published in Assamese, in 2010, under the title Makam (taken from the name of the principal Chinese settlement in the region) the novel was hugely successful: it was re-printed ten times in its first year of publication. The English translation, which appears to be the work of the author herself, is thoroughly readable: the simplicity of its diction is a perfect match for the directness of the story.

 

 

Soon to be published by Pan Macmillan India, Chinatown Days deserves to find a wide audience, not only because of its many merits as a novel, but also because it tells a story that ought to be better known.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jangam (‘The Movement’) is a translation of the late Assamese writer Debendranath Acharya’s novel about the exodus of Indians from Burma during the Second World War. Jangam won a Sahitya Akademi Award in 1982, and to the best of my knowledge it is the only Indian novel devoted entirely to this sadly-neglected episode in modern Indian history. As such it is a historical document of inestimable value.

The novel has been translated by Amit R. Baishya, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Oklahoma. In his introduction, Amit Baishya writes: ‘I learnt that the author composed the novel from childhood recollections of conversations with returning soldiers and the personal research he conducted, especially at the British Library when he attended a school for engineering in the UK. Given the relative paucity of accounts by Indian survivors, Acharya’s views on the exodus may have been coloured by the material he had access to.’

Unfortunately the novel is marred by prejudiced and stereotypical depictions of Burmese characters. Nor is the text always well-served by the translation, which is riddled with infelicities and simple errors (for example, the name of the town Myitkyina is rendered throughout as ‘Misina’; Hoolock gibbons are referred to as ‘Hooluk monkeys’ etc.).

Nonetheless, Jangam is an invaluable addition to the existing literature on the exodus from Burma and the book’s translator and publishers (Vitasta, New Delhi) deserve our thanks for making it available to the public.

 

I am told that The Glass Palace served as an inspiration to both Amit Baishya and Rita Chowdhury: this is, of course, deeply gratifying to know.

 

 


letter on the behaviour of vines

Chrestomather | November 25, 2017 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

Dear Mr. Ghosh,

I just read your notes about vine behavior in your masterful “The Great Derangement” and thought you might be interested in the following. I study vines, but over the past decades my research has become focused on tropical forest conservation and rural development through sustainable management for timber, principally in Southeast Asia. As a side project I study sea level rise in Florida (see the attached popular account of this work).

VINE BEHAVIOR
Sequential expansion of cells around the perimeter of terminal buds of most plants causes elongating shoots to circulate. Because the sequence progresses in an anti-clockwise direction, the circumnutation spirals of most plants are also anti-clockwise. In most species, the radius of the arcs of a circumnutating shoot tips are usually less than a few centimeters, but in many vines, the paths follow by ‘”searcher” shoots and tendrils can be exaggerated by an order-of-magnitude. In under an hour in completely still air, the top 10-20 cm of a rapidly growing vine searcher shoot might follow a circular path 20-40 cm diameter in under an hour. Vine shoots and tendrils that encounter an obstacle within their circumnutation spiral continue to revolve, which is how they attach to trellises. If the obstacle is too large, the angle of ascent is too shallow for the stem or trellis tissue to support against the pull of gravity, and the attempt at climbing fails and the plant falls. (Note that contrary to the old song about the morning glory and the woodbine, it is NOT because she twines to the left and he twines to the right.)
Naturalists have long noted the phenomenon of circumnutation, and I recall that Darwin wrote about it in his book on climbing plants, but I found a series of papers on this topc by researchers from the University of Besancon in France to be particularly intriguing. I do not currently have access to my files, but as I recall, back in the early 60s, Professor Baillaud wrote a tome about the behavior of climbing plants. In that monumental work, he described how when circumnutating vine shoots and tendrils detect the presence of a potential trellis in the vicinity, they switch from following a circular path to an oval, with the long axis oriented toward to the potential support. In a very French manner, he was apparently comfortable describing the support-foraging shoot tip as having detected the “essence” of a support, and change their behavior so as to increase the chance of making contact.
You should note that I never had the pleasure of meeting in person any of the people about whom I am writing, and presume that they are no longer living. In any case, I will take the liberty of “connecting some dots” so as to make sense of the drama that unfolded over the decade after Baillaud published his seminal work.
Continuing the work on vine behavior under Baillaud’s tutelage was a young man by the name of Tronchet. In a paper published in the same journal, which was presumably based on his dissertation research, Monsieur Tronchet described the results of an elegant experiment in which he explored the “essence” detected by circumnutating shoot tips. He demonstrated with a column covered by wet cloth soaked in bark extract that the shoots detected the presence of potential supports chemically.
A scant year or two later, Madam Tronchet, presumably another student of Baillaud and the wife, or soon-to-be ex-wife of Monsieur Tronchet, refuted the latter’s findings. When she presented circumnutating shoots with clear glass columns that were dry, they also elongated their path towards the potential support.
I am not aware of any really definitive follow-up to this research, but by piecing together what is known from related more mechanistic studies, I believe I can explain this phenomenon through invocation of the gaseous hormone, ethylene. In response to even very low concentrations of ethylene, the cellulose microfibrils that strengthen cell walls in plants become arranged randomly, rather than like hoops of a barrel. Growing plants release ethylene, which accumulates where there is some obstacle to its diffusion. Cells with randomly arranged microfibrils expand equally in all directions whereas cells wrapped with parallel (horizontal) microfibrils elongate more than they increase in girth. This differential expansion causes the shoot to bend towards whatever it is that causes ethylene gas to accumulate.

Beautiful, no? I am thrilled by the way that when science reveals some underlying physical explanation for an observed phenomenon, it becomes even more fascinating. I hope you agree.

Looking forward to your next book.
Jack


‘Living with Disasters’

Chrestomather | April 9, 2017 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

 

 

 

I just finished reading Amites Mukhopadhyay’s

 

 

Living with Disasters: Communities and Development in the Indian Sundarbans (Cambridge University Press, 2016). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mukhopadhyay’s study brims with insights into the life and culture of the Sundarbans. Of special interest is the author’s account of the impact of Cyclone Aila, the devastating storm of 2009. This is exactly the kind of ethnography that is required for this era of climate change.

 

Amitav Ghosh

April 9, 2017.

 

 



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