Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

‘Acrobat’ Poems by Nabaneeta Dev Sen

February 23, 2021 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

The late poet and essayist Nabaneeta Dev Sen was a great writer and a dear friend. She was a woman of extraordinary warmth, generous to a fault and wonderfully witty. She was also a fine cook and gourmet. I treasure my memories of evenings at her house in Kolkata: they were filled not just with great food but also laughter, scintillating conversation and music. Her death on November 7, 2019, was an incalculable loss, for those who knew her, and for Bengali literature.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen, 1938-2019

Even though Nabaneetadi was a towering figure in Bengali letters, very little of her work is available in English. This is all the more reason to be grateful to her daughter Nandana Dev Sen, who is a hugely talented writer in her own right, for translating a selection of her poems into English. The collection, which is to be published in April 2021 by Archipelago Books is titled: ‘Acrobat: Poems by Nabaneeta Dev Sen’.

These translations of Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s poems capture her quirky yet profound voice so beautifully that I felt I could hear her reading them aloud.  These are the poems of an adventurous and indefatigable traveler, observing the world with deep understanding and sympathy, through the prism of a sensibility that is securely rooted in the culture of Bengal.

Jyoti Pande Lavakare’s ‘Breathing Here Is Injurious To Your Health’

January 27, 2021 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Breathing Here Is Injurious To Your Health (Hachette India, 2020) is a compelling first person account of the struggle to bring India’s air pollution crisis to the forefront of the country’s policy priorities. Packed with information, this well-written book also bears witness to the appalling personal losses caused by the subcontinent’s poisoned air. 

Particularly striking are the author’s descriptions of the many forms of denial that India’s air pollution activists have to deal with: assertions that ‘you’re over-reacting’, or that Indians have developed immunities to bad air, and so on. As Lavakare points out: ‘inhaling even small amounts of microparticles reduces immunity rather than building it. Simply put, inhaled microparticles cause inflammation and oxidative stress on every organ they touch, beginning with the lining of the nose all the way to the lining of the lungs and beyond, releasing free radicals and reducing overall immunity. Unlike immunity to bacteria and viruses, the build-up of particulate matter over the years probably explains reduced immunity, greater sickening, faster aging and many other symptoms. People confuse immunity with endurance.’ 

In recent years the world’s focus, so far as air pollution is concerned, has been on China, not India. In the mainstream media narrative, it was China that had the worst air quality problem in the world. Yet, the data shows that through much of this time New Delhi’s air quality was much worse than that of Beijing. Yet, India’s air pollution crisis was ignored, by the local media as well as by foreign journalists. 

Why the disparity? Lavakare’s book suggests that there were two reasons for this. One was that there was much more public concern about pollution in China than in India. The second was that Western diplomats and journalists generally avoided talking about India’s air quality even though they knew very well how bad the situation was. The reasons for this are not hard to discern; they are the same as those that shield India from international criticism on many other counts as well. It is because India serves as a convenient ideological counterweight to China, as a different model of development. In effect, it was for ideological and strategic reasons that India’s air pollution problem was long overlooked, at immense cost to ordinary Indians. The silence was not broken until the New York Times’s South Asia correspondent, Gardiner Harris, began to write about the subject in 2014. 

The rise to dominance of neo-liberal ideologies also has much to do with India’s failure to confront the pollution crisis. Lavakare is by no means a critic of neoliberalism, but her book provides a telling example of its effects. Over the last decade, vast clouds of smoke have been descending on the region around New Delhi in late October, making the area’s already catastrophic air quality even worse. This annual plague of smoke is caused by the burning of crop stubble, by farmers. Lavakare quotes the journalist Arvind Kumar, who has traced the problem back to a series of decisions taken by the government of Punjab, between 2007 and 2009, when a law was passed that effectively forced farmers to change their patterns of cropping such that they were left with a very small window between the harvesting of one crop and the planting of the next. Hence the hurry to burn the remnants of a harvested crop, in October – at exactly the time when the prevailing winds carry the smoke in the direction of New Delhi and its environs, which are home to 46 million people. 

But there is a further twist to the story: the primary beneficiary of the change in cropping patterns is none other than the mega-corporation Monsanto, which has long sought to control the world’s supply of food. ‘The push for Punjab’s law came from another source,’ writes Arvind Kumar, ‘the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which has acted as a shill for Monsanto around the world.’ Kumar’s conclusion is that ‘the people of Delhi have two choices. They could either take to the streets and march against Monsanto and evict the corporation from India and restore the previous cropping pattern, or they can wait to get suffocated when Delhi once again becomes a gas chamber this year.’

Indeed, it is increasingly clear that post-war American policy interventions in India, such as its advocacy of the ‘Green Revolution’ have been largely responsible for creating the compounding environmental disasters that underlie the currently ongoing farmers’ protests. These protests are said to be the largest in human history, yet the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains unmoved in its determination to impose a set of laws that will benefit mega-corporations that are close to his party. 

India’s failure to adequately address its air pollution problem is a grim portent for the future: it suggests that the country will be similarly unable to deal with other aspects of the intensifying planetary crisis, such as climate change. It is perfectly clear now that India’s government, and its political class, have been captured by corporate interests to such a degree that they have become incapable of acting in the public interest. 

Amitav Ghosh 

January 27, 2021

‘Powershift’ by Zorawar Daulet Singh

January 24, 2021 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Given recent developments, few will deny that the increasingly adversarial relationship between India and China is one of the most important factors in the emerging geopolitics of the 21st century. Zorawar Daulet Singh’s Powershift; India-China Relations In A Multipolar World (MacMillan, India, 2020), is therefore a timely addition to the literature on a subject of compelling urgency.

            Daulet Singh’s most interesting contribution lies, I think, in his analysis of the larger geopolitical picture, particularly in his examination of the Sino-Indian relationship through the contrasting perspectives of two of the founding fathers of strategic theory: Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), who believed that strategic power depended on the control of the oceans; and Halford Mackinder (1861 – 1947) who saw the Eurasian heartland as the ‘geopolitical pivot of history’, on which strategic dominance depended. ‘India’s geostrategy,’ writes Daulet Singh, ‘is being contested by two somewhat competing images: the Mackinder image – or the idea that continental spaces are what really matter in power politics – and the Mahanian image – or the idea that maritime spaces in the seas are what ultimately account for the power of states.’ (185)

            After Independence India’s leadership adopted a Mahanian view of maritime power, a vision that was essentially borrowed from the Anglosphere. ‘In the 1950s,’ writes Daulet Singh, ‘India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had remarked, ‘To be secure on land, we must be supreme at sea’. This assertion reflected an uncritical acceptance of an old British adage despite a vastly different geopolitical context. Separated from continental great powers, the British and Americans could shape the balance of power at sea without worrying about their land frontiers.’ (198). But this Mahanian view, Daulet Singh points out, is completely inadequate to India’s current circumstances: ‘For India, continental geopolitics can never be compensated by a maritime geostrategy.’(198).

            In terms of global geopolitics what is truly epochal about the rise of China is that it has begun to move the locus of strategic power away from the oceans and back to the continental heart of Eurasia. This is indeed the aim of the Belt and Road Initiative, which inaugurates, for the first time in five hundred years, a strategic shift initiated by a non-Western power. In opposing this initiative, Daulet Singh suggests, India has more to lose than to gain: ‘India’s main concern has been that the BRI is designed to stamp China’s geopolitical dominance. Some argue that such a fear might be misplaced for “all great infrastructure and  connectivity ventures – throughout history – have altered the prevailing geoeconomics matrix, and hence the resulting geopolitical balance. While the geopolitical effects are short-lived, the geo-economic benefits survive over time”. Or put simply, new trading linkages eventually trump geopolitics.’(242)

            In cutting itself off from a major geo-political and geo-economic shift, Daulet Singh suggests, it is India that risks isolation within its region: ‘In an ideal world, a South Asia in splendid isolation, and, an India with the economic and institutional capacities might have produced an order for the entire region. But India’s internal preoccupations, a lop-sided growth model with a weak state, and, China’s rise has exposed the idea of South Asia as an exclusive sphere of influence. It is no longer a viable venture.’ (253).

            A better alternative, Daulet Singh argues is for India and China to ‘learn to sensibly manage their complex relationship and evolve their existing modus vivendi to incorporate a framework where a gentler rivalry or competition is handled maturely and at the same time does not inhibit the pursuit of their common or overlapping interests.’ (ix).

            Despite its strengths Daulet Singh’s book also has some major weaknesses, due mostly to the fact that his book is written within the shallow historical frame that is characteristic of strategic studies. He makes no reference, for instance, to the Qianlong Emperor’s intervention in South Asia in the late 18th century, even though it was largely responsible for the continued existence of Nepal as a sovereign state. Astonishingly he makes no reference to the most important work on Qing xenology and the evolution of the dynasty’s foreign policy: Matthew Mosca’s From Frontier Policy to Foreign Policy: The Question of India and the Transformation of Geopolitics in Qing China (Stanford University Press, 2013). Nor does he make any reference to the First Opium War, which was largely fought by Indian soldiers and financed by Bombay merchants. India may have chosen to forget this chapter of the past, but I am sure Daulet Singh is well aware that in China this war is seen as the beginning of its ‘century of humiliation’. I am sure he is aware also that according to the theorist Dominique Moïsi, humiliation is one of the key emotions for the analysis of contemporary geopolitics. The Chinese view of the Opium War can be contested of course, but to omit it entirely from an assessment of Sino-Indian relations in the modern era, is, frankly, unconscionable.

            But the book’s most important oversight, in my view, lies not in its approach to the past but rather in its assumptions about the present and the future. Daulet Singh treats time as linear, assuming that the geopolitical constraints under which nations make strategic calculations will remain substantially unaltered in the future. This is a cardinal error: the Earth is now in the grip of a planetary crisis that is unfolding in a non-linear fashion, changing everything, including geography, and therefore also geopolitics. Daulet Singh mentions, but does not take proper stock of one of the most momentous of these changes: the opening up of a new maritime passage through the Arctic. This route will not only lessen China’s strategic dependence on the Straits of Malacca, it will also create an entirely new maritime choke-point in the Bering Straits. Similarly, non-linear changes are now unfolding rapidly on and around the Himalayan plateau, the ‘Third Pole’ from which both India and China receive much of their water. These changes are sure to transform Sino-Indian relations in totally unpredictable ways.

In short, Daulet Singh writes as though we were still in the stable Earth of the Holocene – but alas, we are on a different planet now. It is perhaps unfair to single him out for an oversight that is all too common. But he would do well to heed the words of his fellow geostrategist, Brahma Chellaney, when he warns that security and geopolitics ‘need to be thought of differently now that we are beginning to understand the new context of the Anthropocene.’

            That being said, Powershift remains an insightful and timely re-examination of the increasingly volatile relationship between India and China. Zorawar Daulet Singh asks some important questions about India’s interests and capabilities in relation to China, and makes some sensible suggestions for de-escalation.

            Daulet Singh is right, I suspect, to suggest that entrenched attitudes within India’s strategic communities are an impediment to fresh thinking on these issues. It is to be hoped that a new generation of strategists, like Daulet Singh, will expand the discussion. This publication is itself an important step in that direction.

Amitav Ghosh

[This review appeared in The Wire on November 13, 2020]

Ben Ehrenreich’s ‘Desert Notebooks’

March 12, 2020 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

It’s been a long time since I read anything as exciting and illuminating as Ben Ehrenreich’s superb new book, Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time (Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2020). Very few writers have addressed the current planetary crisis as powerfully and insightfully.

Ehrenreich’s book is extraordinary as much for the rigor of its thinking as for the manner of its writing; its form both narrates and performs the crisis, while also exploring its antecedents. It is, among other things, a remarkable venture in intellectual history, especially in its juxtaposition of the pre-Columbian mythologies of the Americas with the post-Enlightenment mythologies of progress that remade the continents.

“Before it was anything else,” writes Ehrenreich, “the doctrine of progress was a theory of white supremacy… a cocksure expression of what even then was a highly parochial and amnesiac variety of chauvinism, a way of celebrating European dominance by anchoring it in time, and rendering Europe, and specifically Bourbon France, the very apotheosis of human achievement.”(211)

Desert Notebooks is also an extended meditation on the very nature of writing and thought, words and images, and their relationship with a world in torment. This is a powerful, urgently necessary examination of the civilizational roots of the planetary crisis.

‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar

December 10, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Megha Mazumdar’s soon-to-be published A Burning is the best debut novel I have come across in a long time. In telling the story of a young Muslim girl whose life is undone by a single social media post, it creates a kaleidoscope of contemporary urban India, with its internet-driven hysteria, religious fanaticism, rampant corruption, poisoned air, random violence, enraged mobs and pervasive misogyny. The interconnected stories seem to leap from the headlines and the picture is often horrifying – yet somehow Mazumdar also succeeds in capturing the boundless energy and starry-eyed hopefulness of the country’s youth. A Burning signals the arrival of a new voice of immense talent and promise.

US: Knopf, June 2, 2020
India: Hamish Hamilton, June 2020.
Canada: McClelland & Stewart, June 2, 2020
UK: Scribner, January 2021

Letter from an 11th grader

August 27, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Sir, this is to let you know that as a reader and a lover of arts, I am so glad to have read this piece of work by you. ‘The ghat of the only world’ is a part of my 11th grade English curriculum, and in my few years as a student, I have never been so struck by a lesson from my English textbook, as I am by this. Which is why it also amazes me that how did something so beautiful and so amazing as your memoir land up amidst this awful anthology (apologies, but I choose not to whitewash my opinion of art). 

I’m not going to lie that I completely understood Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry, because I didn’t, and I’m only 16, so no big surprises there. But I see how this memoir is not only about his time in the mortal world, but also a lot of other things of the likes of Kashmir. And it scares me to think that my generation is so indifferent to these other things (I presume you know what things I’m talking about). I say this because nobody asks questions in class anymore. Nobody asked ‘why’, when the lesson was being taught, and the teacher didn’t care to elaborate, and I didn’t want to look like a wiseacre talking about these things; plus, I doubt the teacher would have had any answers at all. But it’s just so scary to think that most of my generation will never know, and never care a dime about the plight of the past.

In conclusion, I would only like to thank you for writing something so symbolic, and fulfilling your dying friend’s desire. There is nothing more precious in this world than being immortalized by words, as established by Shakespeare himself in his Sonnet 55, which was also a part of our curriculum last year (although I’m not a huge fan of the guy, honestly). Thank you, and thank you again.


S. B.

Bathsheba Demuth’s ‘Floating Coast’

August 21, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

In 2018, I heard Bathsheba Demuth deliver what is possibly the best talk I have ever listened to. It was on whales and the indigenous peoples of Beringia (the region around the Bering Sea).

            Demuth has now written a book: Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait. Having read an advance copy I can confirm that it fully lives up to the promise of that talk.

            Although the subtitle describes Floating Coast  as an ‘environmental history’, the book’s scope is much wider: it is a narrative about the ways in which beings of all sorts – animals, human, plants, spirits – interact with each other over time.

            Beringia is a region where historically neither animals nor people have paid much attention to natural boundaries. But it is also the region where US-style capitalism and Soviet socialism stood face to face for the better part of a century – and strangely, in their stance towards indigenous peoples, animals and the environment, they were not very different from each other. Christian missionaries on the US side, and socialist workers on the other, both came to the conclusion that the indigenous peoples of the region were ‘backward’ and needed to be weaned away from their beliefs and practices, forcibly if necessary.

            ‘The instinct of capitalism and communism,’ writes Demuth, ‘is to ignore loss, to assume that change will bring improvement, to cover over death with expanded consumption. Such modernist visions are telescopic: from the present, each leaps into a distant world, a future place of freedom and plenty. The present must accelerate to reach that far country. Speed is quantified in what can be converted to material value for sale or the state.’ [134]

            In respect to whales and walruses there was a chronological difference between the two sides. The slaughter wrought by American whalers peaked in the 19th century whereas Soviet industrial whaling only got started in the 1930s. But by then whaleships were more mechanized and efficient so the slaughter they wrought was on par with, or exceeded, that of American whalers. Driven by socialist (Stakhanovite) work incentives Soviet whalers massacred whales with a blood-lust that defies belief.

            Some parts of Demuth’s narrative are so gruesome as to be difficult to read. She writes of Soviet whalers that ‘they learned to use young whales as lures and to tie carcasses to their ships as “fenders” to insulate contact between vessels. For objects do not suffer, even when nursing calves paddled up the slipways after their mothers’ corpses, still lactating and covering the decks in mil.’ [292]

            The slaughter ceased only forty-one years ago, in 1979, when the USSR phased out its industrial whaling fleets. But in a sense it has not ceased at all, but only mutated, for many of the industrial needs that led to the mass slaughter of whales are now being met by palm-oil, which is proving to be just as destructive.

            Anyone who believes that capitalism is the sole defining feature of the Anthropocene needs to read this book. It establishes beyond a doubt that Soviet-style socialism was no less violently extractive that capitalism. They are in fact two related avatars of the same phenomenon: industrial modernity. ‘In Beringia,’ Demuth observes, ‘the Soviet experiment showed to whales and other beings that socialism and capitalism could look similar, and transform the world on remarkably similar terms…’. [305]

            Elsewhere Demuth writes: ‘There is not a history yet that puts in human terms the cetacean experience of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this great annihilation of generations of whale minds: minds that listened as their seas grew quiet, watched as their clans shrank, fled as their families were consumed year after year in the adrenal chase, the strike, the final gouting blood.’ [295].

But Demuth has now herself written the history she calls for. Floating Coast is a historian’s Moby Dick, a great white whale of a book that spans centuries and links landscapes, living beings, and the flux of time, into a marvelously readable narrative.

Amitav Ghosh

Letter from a Reader

July 17, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)

Dear Sir,
A decade and a half back, my elder brother (a voracious reader) gave me (an occasional reader, at best) The Hungry Tide and told me in an offhand way, “ney, pore dekhte parish“. He had an impish smile on his face and a glint in his eye. I started reading the book somewhat reluctantly. At that time, I barely knew anything about you. By the time I finished The Hungry Tide, I was spellbound, captivated. I made a couple of decisions. First, I would read whatever you wrote. Second, I would not read everything at once. Your writing is like the finest of wines – to be taken in small sips with every sip meant to be savoured.

With the exception of The Great Derangement, I have now read all your books.I finished reading Gun Island a couple of days back. All I have to say you is: Thank You. This comes from the very depths of my heart. Your books have opened my eyes to a myriad of things – language, history, folklore, trade, nuclear armaments – and, good heavens – even horticulture! And it is not just books. Of others, I recall an article you wrote in The Outlook about Spice Trade. That was such an eye-opener!

Gun Island, to me, was not just a story about Bonduki Sadagar’s journey. Throughout this book, I could hear echoes of the books you have written so far. The sense of a voyage from Circle of Reason, the references to Misr and Jews from Imam and Antique Land, two Bengals from Shadow Lines, Sunderbans from Hungry Tide, the ‘magical mystery tour’ from Calcutta Chromosome, migration and shipping from the Ibis books, climate from Derangement – they are all there. To me, Gun Island is also about your own journey – as the thinly disguised Deen – through your own creations back in time.

I had been wanting to write to you to thank you for a very long time, but nervousness held me back. Gun Island felt like a culmination of all that you have written. That is why I felt that now is the most appropriate time to write to you.

The only book of which I could not find a reference was, incidentally, my favourite book – Glass Palace. Maybe it is there, lurking somewhere where I cannot see it yet!And the only regret I had after reading Gun Island was that – and I hope I misunderstood – I felt a shift in your writing, an ever so mild but nonetheless, a perceptible movement to an ism of your comfort, just a few millimeters away from that solidly neutral perspective of yore.

In both Calcutta Chromosome and Gun Island, I felt that your blending of fact and imagination was outstanding. Indeed, who knows what where the circumstances that led to a tale like Manasa Mangal. I am so glad that you have been mining the folklore of Bengal for some of your books. Bengal’s folklore is interesting as it is curious. I recall that many years back, I happened to read a book named Bangalar Puranari, a compilation of (now) lost epics by Dinesh Chandra Sen. The beauty of the old verses and the mystery behind the incidents described in them left me in a trance for many days. Reading about Bon Bibi and Bonduki Sadagar in your books took me back to those days of wonder. As an aside, I hope Bon Bibi remains Bon Bibi, I heard reports that Bibi is morphing into Debi faster than we can imagine.

A curious question to you – as somebody who is a genre-defying author – would you fancy yourself as a ghost story writer too? I find it astonishing that while talking about your fiction, nobody talks of this dimension of yours. I say this because each of the three ghost stories that you wrote – whether it is the elephant episode in Glass Palace, or the Phulboni train incident, or the translation of Kshudita Pashan – were terrific. I would like to specially mention the Phulboni train incident. That was an extraordinary piece of writing. It is only an author of supreme ability who can make every single hair on the body of a fully grown adult like me stand on its end. Probably the only other ghost story which nearly gave me as cold a chill as yours was Sharadindu Bandopadhyay’s Oshoriri. I sincerely hope that in the coming books, we can get one more peek of you as a ghost-story writer.

And coming back to magic and mystery, indeed it seems unlikely that the coincidences and connections what you described in Gun IslandCalcutta Chromosome or Glass Palace can happen in real life. However, strange things do happen. The way certain words kept recurring in Deen’s life reminded me of an incident in my life. At the risk of sounding like a bore, let me share it. A few years back, I had started reading the Ibis Trilogy. The very next day that I started that book, my manager in my office informed me that I needed to switch to a new project code named – Ibis. A day or two from thence, a mail was circulated in our office that owing to construction works, our parking lot would be unavailable. We were asked to keep our cars in the basement parking of a hotel across the street, named – Ibis. A few days later, I took my family for our maiden phoren trip to Singapore. At the Jurong bird park, of all the birds, my wife and I were most captivated by a beautiful white bird with a slender black neck and beak. As I leaned over to read the name of the bird in the board, I got a mild jolt when I saw that it was nothing but Ibis! This incident is absolutely true and I have not made up anything at all. The string of coincidences of utterly unrelated objects named Ibis was beyond my explanation. After all, Ibis is not such a common word that one comes across everyday.  

Let me also take this opportunity to let you know another point which I simply loved in Gun Island. Just two little phrases – “Buzla” and “Shomoshya Nai“. I could hear them being spoken in my head, with the correct intonation, and I could even get a feel of what kind of social background the speaker had. There are many Bengalis who have and will read Gun Island. But I wonder how many will realise how beautifully you hit home with these two little phrases.

I had meant to write just a Thank You note to you. Unfortunately, I could not hold myself back in writing such a big mail to you. I know you are a voracious reader as well, and so, I apologise for taking your time. I look forward eagerly to many many more fascinating books from you in the coming days. 

Satyajit Dutta


El arroyo de la sierra
Me complace más que el mar

Sugata Ray’s ‘Climate Change and the Art of Devotion’

July 13, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Over the last couple of decades a deepening awareness of human dependence on climatic stability has created a surge of interest among historians in earlier eras of climatic disruption. Much of this interest has been focused on the so-called Little Ice Age that peaked in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

This fascinating, and rapidly growing, body of work has tended, however, to be centered on certain specific themes and regions. Thematically the focus is usually on political issues, broadly speaking, rather than literature, culture and the arts. Geographically the focus is usually on Europe and North America, rather than, say, Asia or Africa.

This is why Sugata Ray’s Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna 1550-1850 is doubly welcome: because it is focused on the art and architecture of the city of Mathura, in ‘the enchanted world of Braj, the primary pilgrimage center in north India for worshippers of Krishna, (where) each stone, river and tree is considered sacred.’

Climate Change and the Art of Devotion is a wonderfully imaginative addition to the growing body of literature on the Little Ice Age. Sugata Ray traces the influence of climatic variations on South Asian art, architecture and devotional practices with extraordinary interpretive skill. This book is a must read for everyone with an interest in human responses to climate variability.

Jnanpith Address

June 16, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments (3)

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

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