Weaving a literary tapestry

Celebrated Indian writer Amitav Ghosh speaks to Post about literature, politics, his thoughts on Israel.

amitav ghosh 88.298 (photo credit: )
amitav ghosh 88.298
(photo credit: )
Indian writer Amitav Ghosh is the most recent guest of Tel Aviv University's writers-in-residence program hosting international authors. Currently a resident of Brooklyn, the Calcutta native was hosted by the university for a week at the end of January to lecture on his work. He follows Chinese American writer Gish Jen and Caribbean American writer Jamaica Kincaid, as a guest of the university's English department. His visit, like those of Jen and Kincaid, reflects the changing face of English scholarship. Although Ghosh is not a well-known name in America, he has accrued a significant international audience and has won major literary prizes for his fiction in India, France and Germany. His novel, In an Ancient Land, first published in 1992, was one of his first works to garner major attention from Israeli critics. It tells the story of a Jewish-Egyptian trader and his Indian slave in the eleventh century, and is based on the Cairo geniza. It was lavishly praised by Tel Aviv University Professor Sasson Somekh, who lauded Ghosh for appropriating the geniza from the realm of remote scholarship and making a part of history accessible and meaningful to modern readers of all social backgrounds. Making time in an itinerary filled with academic commitments, Ghosh sat down to share his impressions of Israel, contemporary literature and the nature of his work, with The Jerusalem Post. Many writers resist categorization. Saul Bellow famously protested when critics tried to define him as an American-Jewish writer. Are you reluctant to identify yourself as an Indian writer? No, not at all. In every sense I am an Indian writer. But, like most writers - indeed, most people - I have many identities. I have a home in Calcutta, where I live for four or five months each year, but I have lived in different parts of the world, and am now a temporary resident of the United States. Through my journeys I have imbibed the identity of the traveler and outsider and come to understand the scope, depth and vastness of the Indian Diaspora. At the same time, I am a native of India's cultural center - Calcutta - the country's cultural and artistic capitol, which has given me the sense of being part of a long and rich literary heritage. Your novels focus on characters from diverse locations, such as South East Asia and the Middle East, and from many different eras. As a writer with such a broad array of interests, who or what have you found to be your major influence? I have been influenced by artists and thinkers from all corners of the world, and specifically in terms of writing, by Indian, American, African-American and French writers. Another influence has been India's art film tradition, and more specifically the work of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Satyajit Ray, who brought many Indian novels to the screen. That is not to say that India's popular film culture has not had an impact. While the popular film industry might seem sentimental and clich , it has an operatic, emotional quality that has affected me and many other Indian writers such as Salman Rushdie. Most recently, I have benefited from the warm reception and camaraderie I received from writers in the US. For example, I have become very close to the American-Jewish writer Grace Paley - a wonderful human being with a profound sense of justice whom I greatly admire. It seems as though New York is the center of gravity for writers, and every writer must at one time or another take up residence there. Was that part of your attraction to New York, and do you feel as though it is important to absorb New York life in the post-9/11 era? There was no specific motivation to move to New York other than my visiting professorship. I loved the city from my first visit years ago and found it a place filled with energy, vivacity, diversity and a palpable zest for life. I enjoy all that immensely. And I was living in New York during 9/11. Still, I did not go there with the intent of tapping into some sort of pulse of contemporary life. In fact, for me, the attack on the Twin Towers was almost like d j vu. India, especially during the 1980s, was rampant with terrorist violence. Unfortunately, I was already fairly accustomed to that kind of horror. In fact, I perceived the world as place where such things matter-of-factly took place. What is interesting is that before 9/11, the United States seemed so shielded from the kinds of terror and devastation that are common to so many other regions. It's as though the attack made New York and, to a lesser extent, the United States, more real in terms of what modernity is like in so many other countries. A kinship between an Indian writer and an Israeli audience might not seem immediately obvious. How did the Hebrew translation of your work come about? Actually, I had an offer to have my very first book translated into Hebrew. The book emerged, to a certain extent, before its time. It deals with the relationship between Indian and Arab laborers in the Persian Gulf and was, in many ways, quite suitable for an Israeli readership. The translation did not work out at the time, but the interest from Israel has been consistent. Many Israelis, particularly young people, have a real curiosity about India: the land, culture and spirituality. Certainly this has contributed to the fact that I have a significant Israeli audience. In fact, my novel, The Glass Palace, was released in Hebrew two years ago, and continues to sell very well. Novels by Indian writers often portray the modesty and conservatism in Indian culture. As an Indian writer, is that conservative element an asset or hindrance? I agree that in Indian culture there is conservatism, because it is a culture with well-defined rules and boundaries. But they are not a hindrance because writers are not bound by them. Instead, we can play with those boundaries, explore them, question them, celebrate them. In fiction, there is a lot of room for those boundaries. In a very open, liberal society like American or European society, it can be much harder to create fiction that has emotional impact. There are no red lines. Nothing is sacred. There is nothing to violate - or, for that matter, to cherish. Do contemporary Indian authors enjoy a warmer reception among Western audiences because of a heightened interest in the East, especially with world events over the past decade? Interest in the East is not new. There have been various periods over the past century when Indian writers in particular have attracted an enormous Western readership. Although many of them are no longer well-known, there were Indian writers in the 20s and 30s whose works were bestsellers. What has changed is the growing openness in scholarship. There is a burgeoning willingness to seriously consider foreign writers, which was not always the case. I believe this trend was influenced very much by the wave of major Latin American writers who helped broaden the spectrum of what is considered "serious literature." Nonetheless, very few foreign writers are commercially successful in the United States, which is really paradoxical. On the one hand, Americans generally embrace immigrant narratives - stories of the newcomer trying to make sense of a new home and culture, journeys of assimilation. On the other, the American market is completely dominated by American authors. There is no real curiosity about other literatures. In contrast, in Europe there is a vibrant demand for foreign literature. Europeans, it seems, are generally more informed about the world outside their own societies, and are much more willing to examine writers from different countries. This might also be reflected in the fact that almost all American literary awards are only open to US citizens, while European countries tend to have awards that are open to writers from other nations. Your writings are not always explicitly political, but have profound political significance. Do you think contemporary writers can circumvent politics? Or is the modern era too politically charged? It is almost impossible to stay away from political issues. My most fundamental belief, which has unquestionable political ramifications, is that there is a critical need for cultural inter-penetration. What I aim to celebrate is the ways in which popular culture, tradition, history and art have resulted in the inter-connection between Hinduism and Islam. Together they have formed a tapestry. The tragedy is that extremists in India - but really extremists all over the world - struggle to tear that tapestry apart. It is a crime. I myself am from the region of Bengal, and it is one of the most infected with fanaticism. It is all around, and I find it very disturbing. The merging of different cultures which creates such richness is being actively destroyed. But this is really not a regional problem. It's global. Even in my brief time here in Israel, while walking around Jerusalem, I felt the palpable tension all around. Jerusalem is exhilarating because the sense of life with deep roots is ever-present. But at the same time, it is apparent that tension permeates all aspects of life.