Amitav Ghosh as a writer of travelogues


Amitav Ghosh as a writer of travelogues

Amitav Ghosh as a writer of travelogues: IT’S 2017, and Amitav Ghosh is entering his 31st year as a published author – quite a milestone in the life of a non-pulp writer. (His first book, The Circle of Reason, was published in 1986). Perhaps that’s why he was recently honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tata Literature Live! festival. His millions of fans in India and around the world, however, point out that they’re expecting many more books from their favourite author, thank you, so perhaps a lifetime award might have been a bit premature.

Amitav Ghosh as a writer of travelogues: Yet, at this juncture of his literary career – one that in the barren, pre-liberalisation days of 1986, he’d never thought he’d have – he’s a bit mystified by what’s happening in the world of the arts. Specifically, Ghosh is wondering why, despite the clear and present danger of climate change, few writers are focusing on the subject at all.

Amitav Ghosh as a writer of travelogues: Ghosh’s own non-fiction work on the issue, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, published last year, is still a bestseller. Amitav Ghosh as a writer of travelogues But as he points out, though there are quite a few books available on nature, very few say much about the biggest danger the earth has been in since the dinosaurs were wiped out several millennia ago.

“Climate change is the greatest crisis that human beings, as a species, have ever faced,” says Ghosh. “Yet it is largely absent from the arts. Amitav Ghosh as a writer of travelogues I think this raises many serious questions.” The Great Derangement was his attempt to answer these questions. His 2004 novel, The Hungry Tide, set in the fast-depleting Sundarbans, had dealt with the subject fictionally.

The human-environment interaction has long been a subject for books, in all the languages of the world. Ghosh names several Indian local language writers too: Bengal’s Adwaita Mallabarman (Titash Ekti Nadir Naam), Odisha’s Gopinath Mohanty (Paraja), and Maharashtra’s Vishwas Patil. “But we should note that there is a big difference between ‘nature’ and ‘climate change’, which represents a profound rupture in our ecosystem,” says Ghosh.

Amitav Ghosh as a writer of travelogues

Ghosh is an award-winning author, travel writer, anthropologist and climate change activist, writing both fiction and non-fiction. His books range from historical novels to straight out travelogues to novels set in present-day circumstances, to, well, everything that interests him. Which means that his fans are interested in everything that interests him too, because genre has no place in his works. Only the writing matters.

Amitav Ghosh as a writer of travelogues: It’s hard for his fans, just emerging dreamily from his Ibis Trilogy, a series of historical novels set in India, China and the Indian Ocean at the time of the colonisation, to believe that Ghosh never imagined he could have a literary career. But frankly, anyone reasonably adult in 1986 and reasonably bookish felt the same way. There were only a few publishers for English-language writers (aside from those publishing textbooks), so anyone burning to write just had to do it in their spare time – or become an advertising copywriter or journalist.

Ghosh chose the latter. “I took a job with the Indian Express, because it seemed to me that this was the closest thing to a literary career that was available to me then,” he says. “And I did indeed learn a great deal from my time as a journalist.”

Amitav Ghosh as a writer of travelogues: His journalistic background, combined with his Master’s degree and Ph.D. in social anthropology, comes across clearly in all his works, whether it’s his 1998 travelogue, Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma; his 1988 novel, The Shadow Lines; his 1992 work of non-fiction about Egypt, In An Antique Land; or The Great Derangement.

“I had a deep interest in human-environment relations even before I did my advanced degrees,” says Ghosh. Amitav Ghosh as a writer of travelogues “As an undergraduate, I went to Orissa and spent a month doing fieldwork in a village. It was a real revelation for me since I had grown up in cities.”  

Research is the backbone of all his books. Not just for his historical novels, but also for his travelogues and essays, even if he’s actually experienced the things he writes about.

“Writing about personal experience does not make research unnecessary,” explains Ghosh. “Suppose, for example, that I were writing about the years I spent in Delhi. Even though my memories of that time are quite vivid, I would almost certainly need to look at street maps, newspapers, etc, if I were to write about them.”

It’s because he spends so much time on research that his fans are constantly frustrated – there are always years between his new releases.

Then again, perhaps researching and writing faster wouldn’t do his fans much good: there’s a reason why Ghosh is one of the world’s most admired writers and it has to do with the fact that every piece of work he publishes has the same level of excellence, both in the research and in the writing.

Amitav Ghosh as a writer of travelogues: Bengal, Burma, London, China, North Africa, the Persian Gulf—Amitav Ghosh’s books are plotted all over the globe. Often with more than one place featuring in the same story, they blur geographical boundaries and sometimes, even time periods. Born in Kolkata to a diplomat father, Ghosh grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, studied in Delhi, Oxford and Alexandria, and currently resides in New York. It’s as if, like him, his stories too are always on the move and remind us how interconnected the world is. Amitav Ghosh as a writer of travelogues Increasingly so, since climate change has begun taking centre stage in his books starting with The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016). Ghosh talks to NGTI about his relationship with travelling and his love for Venice, which features prominently in his latest book, Gun Island. Edited excerpts from a telephonic interview:

I have been travelling since I was a kid. My father was a great fan of the railways; he knew the Bradshaw’s timetable (by London’s W.J. Adams) by heart. In those days, you could hire a saloon, which had a kitchen and bedrooms. We would rent these and travel to different parts of India with my uncles, aunts and cousins; a cook would travel along and make us meals every day. We treated the saloon like a hotel. There was no air conditioning and it required a lot of planning, but the experience was just lovely. There’s nothing like it today. So you see, travel has been the reality of my life. It also reflects contemporary life; today, tourism is one of the world’s biggest industries.

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