AMITAV GHOSH is one of the most important Indian authors writing in English today. Born in Calcutta in 1956, he has published five internationally acclaimed novels, including The Shadow Lines and The Glass Palace, as well as In an Antique Land, a non-fiction book that weaves social and historical research with travel memoir. A widely travelled journalist, Mr. Ghosh reported on the devastation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands following the tsunami of 26 December 2004. A collection of his essays was recently published under the title Incendiary Circumstances.
Mr. Ghosh spoke with Hasan Ferdous and Horst Rutsch of the UN Chronicle on the occasion of the publication of his most recent novel, The Hungry Tide.
On literature in a globalized world
I think the world has been globalizing for a long time. It is not a new phenomenon, but one that has achieved a new kind of intensity in recent years. The only real barrier to a complete uniformity around the world is not the image but language. Images can be exchanged between cultures, but the domain where globalization has truly been resisted is that of language. We can send e-mails, which can be instantly translated, but that is shallow communication. For any kind of deeper, resonant communication, language is essential. All such communication is always deeply embedded in language.
As a writer, thinking back to the birth of the novel, it really coincides with the development of monolingual cultures in Europe, which is also a fairly new phenomenon. It is only since about the beginning of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries that you have people who only spoke German, as opposed to Latin and German, or similarly, French, English or whatever. The decline of dialects happened at exactly the same time. So the novel coincides with the rise of monolingualism. I remember when I first started writing, the comments I would get in Europe were, "what you are doing is very peculiar because you are writing in languages other than those you spoke at home". I think that is true. It is also true that writers like me have been pioneers. Everybody is going to have to deal with multilinguality and interlingual communication. The old monolingual worlds are in some way not the same as they used to be; that is why translation is such an important part of this book. I feel that this is the crucial sense in which writers are figures in the emergent culture we see ahead. In a text like mine [The Hungry Tide], you see the possibility of deep communication, which you would not see in films or in any kind of image-based representation.
On exploring cultural gaps
I find history completely absorbing and fascinating. I'm always interested to discover aspects of history; it adds a kind of richness to one's experience of a place. Speaking about history, one of the very important things in a text is that it becomes a place where those cultural interactions are performed in the most difficult possible ways. The two central characters in my book can't speak to each other. Yet I feel it is exactly that form of cultural gap that you have to explore. Someone who has experienced non-communication must try to represent it in some sort of truthful or interesting way.
The novel is such that it is impossible to have formulae about it. Look at Herman Melville: we have certain autobiographical elements in his writing, but when he decided to write Moby-Dick, he picked a historical incident--the sinking of the whale ship The Globe, which had been attacked and sunk by a whale. On that he built his story. Similarly, he did that with many of his works. His novella Benito Cereno was actually founded upon a fragment that he took from someone else's autobiography. I find this very interesting. I think the imaginative procedures of novelists are neither easily exhausted nor sufficiently accounted for. There can be remarkable novels that come out of journalistic experiences. …