Amitav Ghosh is a remarkably forward-looking writer. His latest novel Gun Island is a read for the new world. Though the book revolves around present issues that threaten our future, the writer has not given to despair yet. Despite the planetary destruction, chaos and the resultant suffering, he is hopeful.
We sit at Mumbai’s iconic Taj Mahal Palace on a sultry afternoon and discuss it all—his latest book, Jnanpith win, friendships with Ram Chandra Guha and Vikram Seth, his love for the Sunderbans, fascination with emoticons, deep concern for our planet and why he thinks we still have a chance.
It’s interesting how Gun Island looks at migration and climate change through the common lens of displacement. How did the theme come about?
Both those themes are very important for me. I have been thinking about them for a long time. It’s also a reflection of my own history because I have travelled a lot, been in lots of different places.
In 2015-2016, I became very interested in the big European refugee/migration crisis. However, the news stories always focused on Syrians, Iraqis and Africans. But I could see from the pictures that there were many South Asians also and that really caught my interest and I wondered why people were not writing about them, why were they not a part of the story.
So in 2016-2017, I spent a long time in Italy just travelling to the migrant camps, refugee processing centers, meeting migrants, speaking to NGOs, other people who have been working on these issues. When we read about migrants, journalists mostly give you a certain kind of idea but you very rarely get a sense of hearing actual voices of the migrants—why are they travelling, setting off on these journeys. I wanted to get a sense of that. That was certainly one source.
Your last book The Great Derangement, in which you discussed climate change, was non-fiction. Why then choose fiction to discuss migrant crisis?
By the time I finished writing The Great Derangement, I was really eager to get back to fiction. I think of myself as a writer of fiction. It’s very hard to explain but if you are accustomed to writing fiction, it’s somewhere you always want to return.
Does writing fiction give you more room to explore your characters?
Writing non-fiction is much more restrictive in that sense because I feel one has to be true to the facts. Writing fiction, on the other hand, gives you freedom and allows you to see the world through the eyes of your characters, which is to me the most interesting thing.
Several of your books are based in the Bengal Delta. What is it that makes you revisit the Sunderbans time and again?
The Sunderbans are a beautiful, powerful landscape. Once you’ve been there, it kind of haunts you. It’s also a place that’s changing very fast in rather catastrophic ways. It captures my imagination.
How much of Gun Island derives from your own life and experiences?
I’ll give you two examples. There’s a scene in the book where the narrator is walking in Venice and something drops in front of him and someone shouts. That is taken from my own experience. In 1988 when I visited New York for the first time, I was walking down a street and suddenly I heard someone shout “shabdhaan” which is Bengali for careful. And the next moment, this masonry fell right in front of me. I looked up and realised that if I’d taken another step, I’d have been seriously injured. But because I understand Bengali, I stopped. It was just so uncanny. I remember it to this day and it somehow made its way into this book.
Now I’ll tell you something which is the exact opposite. The book has this scene in Los Angeles where there is a wildfire coming towards the museum. This actually happened recently, but after I’d written it.
Don’t you find it uncanny—life imitating art this closely?
It is uncanny. Gun Island is all about the uncanniness of the world we live in now. There is something so strange, so not at home, so uncanny about this world and it’s partly because of the weirdness of the politics, because of climate change itself.
It’s fascinating how the novel deals with what’s real and what’s not. It dabbles with myth, folklore, legends while discussing issues as real as climate change and migration…
That’s exactly what one is trying to understand—what is real? If you look at the newspapers, on the one hand there is the reality of this extreme heat wave in Delhi. At the same time there’s a terrible drought in Maharashtra. It’s been going on for years and seems to get worse. There’s terrible suffering involved. But then on the other hand there’s the reality of a cricket match happening in England, there are films that are coming out. Can we really say which is more real?
For those who follow cricket and movies, that is just as real as this reality that others are dealing with. I think these questions of what makes reality constantly permeate our lives. We find ourselves dealing with them all the time.
Despite natural calamities staring us right in the face, most of us are blissfully oblivious. Why do you think there’s such indifference, disassociation?
I really can’t answer. It’s like people just don’t want to know. This is the strange thing. We consider ourselves modern, rational but in most obvious ways, we are neither. What can you say?
What is the way forward?
I really think it’s a question the coming generation will have to answer and must answer. I am from a generation which has lived off the fat of the land. Greta Thunberg points the finger at my generation and says, ‘You have not done what you should have.’ And she’s right. The fault lies with people of my generation. So it’s really for the young to decide how this should be approached, solved.
You were contemporaries with Vikram Seth and Ram Chandra Guha in the Doon School. How has your equation with them evolved over the years?
Vikram was a couple of years my senior and Ram was one year my junior. We read each other’s work. If I am in Bangalore, I always see Ram. I have a lot of affection, warmth and the deepest respect for both of them.
In the time of Netflix and Amazon Prime, how does one get more people interested in reading?
I don’t know. I think people are now increasingly getting their information from other sources. But one thing that’s really changed and has been an important factor in even publishing is that people are listening to books a lot more. Audio books have come up in a major way.
I don’t think the effectiveness or circulation of books is ever going to go out. But I do think that this new way of watching narratives is very exciting.
Don’t you see it as depletion of language with digital slang and acronyms like lol, fomo, ott entering everyday vocabulary?
Not at all. The function of slang is to shut out some people so that you can communicate with your own group. It’s always existed like that. The whole idea of it is exclusionary. In fact, I find emoticons very interesting and encouraging. It is the return of the ideogram. This is a different way of communicating.
You don’t consider that as a threat to languages?
No, not at all. Because historically, whenever people created a text, they always included pictures and illustrations of various kinds. It’s only in the 19th century that language started becoming completely logo centric, which is only words. This process really accelerated in the 20th century and it is kind of an absurdity.
When I was a kid, my parents would get very angry if they saw me reading comics, thinking I’d become stupid. But it’s ridiculous. I don’t think I became any more stupid because I looked at pictures. In fact, you might say that this exclusive focus on the written word is actually preventing us from understanding what is happening in the natural world.
What do you feel about promotional tours and press interactions?
I have come to appreciate the process. We live in an attention economy. When everyone is striving for your attention, I think it’s a privilege to actually have someone interested in what you’re saying. One should be grateful for it.
You’re the youngest and the first English language writer to win the Jnanpith Award. How important is a recognition like this?
The idea that I, with my grey hair, am the youngest to win the Jnanpith, in itself there is something almost absurd in it. That’s partly because the Jnanpith is the recognition of a lifetime’s work rather than a single book.
Within our world, the Jnanpith is something very special, quite unique because it’s been around for a long time and it has a selection process which is respected, there are major scholars who are on the jury. It’s quite overwhelming in a way because so many of the figures I looked up to, who are very important writers for me, they won the Jnanpith and had the greatest respect for it.
One big learning that you would want to share with young writers?
Get yourself a standing desk. I spent most of my life at a sitting desk and I think it’s not good for you to be always sitting. For the last several years, I have been working on a standing desk and it’s been a very good thing.