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Venture into the unknown


IN an era so chilled out on post-postmodernist cool as to be almost gelid, his enthusiasm is refreshingly heretical: the novel, Amitav Ghosh declares, ‘‘is the most complete form of utterance available to us''.


He goes further: novel writing itself, he says, ‘‘is utterly exciting because there are no limits -- I can write about anthropology or history, ecology or zoology, and all of that is incorporated with human beings, with emotion and the way life is lived''. In some ways, he QEDs, the novel ‘‘is the most challenging form of art there is, the most challenging form of imagination''.


Them there are fightin' words. People tell me this, he responds to my novel-is-dead reality check, but in his book the only true reality is ‘‘checking your own compass''. The Calcutta-born but New York-based author, now a visiting professor at Harvard University, has an international reputation for lucent prose; his work is often complex and always deeply researched, yet his six novels and three nonfiction books are compassionate if unflinching investigations of the human condition. Which is why he is amazed that so many novelists ‘‘now limit themselves to writing only about interpersonal relationships -- that's fundamental to a novel, certainly, but life is not just that. So many seem afraid to deal with anything other than who's seeing whom in the suburbs -- it's sad, really, to have such an impoverished idea of fiction.''


For him, the whole excitement lies not in ‘‘writing only about what I know but writing as a form of inquiry, an exploration or expedition into the unknown.'' Writing is my life, he says with a smile, ‘‘and I never quite feel alive unless I am doing it''.


As if on cue, a monsoonal storm crashes in, forestalling response and bending coconut palms with geometric cruelty as horizontal rain obscures the sweeping beachfront before us. Then, like a frown of concentration lifting with solved-it suddenness, it passes and the coastline once again spruiks its Come to Goa billboard charms.


We've met in a resort bar overlooking the former Portuguese colony's historic Fort Aguada because Ghosh is taking a short break from what is proving a triumphal book-launch tour for his latest novel, The Hungry Tide. It's hardly an Indian summer but I'm not complaining and neither is he, even though his schedule is tight: tomorrow it's Bombay, last week it was Delhi and Calcutta, before that New York and London, and later this month comes Australia. His itinerary is surely a fair indicator of his transnational status, I suggest. ‘‘I'm lucky to have found an audience in so many different places,'' he demurs. ‘‘It's not necessarily the largest audience but it seems very devoted.''


His understatement is born of modesty. How many other writers have a launch tour encompassing three continents plus the subcontinent? Or can boast such glittering prizes on their CV as France's Prix Medici Etranger, India's highest ranking Sahitya Akademi Award, sci-fi's ‘‘Oscar'', the Arthur C. Clarke Award and a Commonwealth Writers Award? And how many would so emphatically refuse the last, as he did for his 2001 bestseller The Glass Palace, because it is ‘‘tainted by the memorialisation of empire'' whose written-in-English qualification clause excludes the ‘‘many languages that sustain the cultural and literary lives of the countries it covers''?


Then again, few writers have such an exotic background, including a childhood spent in Calcutta, Sri Lanka, Iran and East Pakistan. Or can claim an academic record that spans a BA in history from St Stephen's College in Delhi, a sociology MA from Delhi University and a diploma in social anthropology as well as, after research fieldwork in the Egyptian fellaheen village of Lataifa, a D. Phil from Oxford.


Now 48, Ghosh has the patrician good looks of a Bollywood star, the polite authority of a don and the amiable manner of one who has survived the best and worst of mankind's foibles. The previous day he had hosted me around Goa's ramshackle fecundity and colonial grandnesses, the latter slowly being colonised by humidity and vegetation. The scenic tour had included the ancient cathedral incongruity of the body of St Francis Xavier lying in glass-entombed state above the congregation, and village swirls of dogs and cows and hiving people, all accompanied by droll asides and learned commentary. In its own way, the excursion was an apt simile for the Ghosh approach to novels: exotica with erudition, high ideals with humanity.


A dedicated tennis player who speaks Arabic and French, thinks in Bengali and writes in English, he crafts fiction that has at its heart communities coming unmade or remaking themselves. Homelessness, he has said, is a historic condition and ‘‘in the communities into which I was born, a state of mind. You always expected to be flooded tomorrow. The houses were made of mud, never built for permanence, because Bengal is a land of floods and tornados. As we speak, 30 million people are displaced in Bangladesh -- that's 1 1/2 times the population of Australia.''


His childhood also set the pattern for a nomadic nature. Sent to boarding school at 11, he would spend eight months of the year there, then four months wherever his army officer father's posting had landed the family. ‘‘And that's pretty much how my life is now -- eight months in Brooklyn, four months in India, mainly Calcutta.'' Whenever, that is, he's not in Burma or Cambodia researching his novels.


For the past decade he has lived in the United States, moving to Brooklyn a year after his 1993 marriage to American author/editor Deborah Baker. Calcutta, though, is where he finds cultural and spiritual regeneration, although ‘‘as with any home town, you always have very ambiguous feelings about it. But the longer I'm there, the more I appreciate what Calcutta represents. It's the place where intellectual dialogue between India and the West was first created in the 19th century. And I feel I'm really a product of that, so whenever I venture into the history of Calcutta, I'm venturing into the history of my own mental make-up in a way.''


Ghosh has been described as ‘‘a traveller, both physically and metaphorically, who inhabits the borderlines between cultures''. It's a tag he tolerates ‘‘when it means I am straddling that line where a translated conversation occurs'', but one he rejects if it means ‘‘I am marginal to the cultures I deal with''. Even so, his writing displays strong empathy for the marginalised. He acknowledges that his imagination ‘‘is drawn to the margins, more so as I grow older. If you look at anything, no matter how peripheral, with deep attention and a deep respect for details, its particularity reveals itself and it becomes interesting to everybody.''


Particularity is the key to The Hungry Tide, set in the Sundarbans, an immense shoal of islands that make up the Ganges delta. Life within these treacherously attractive mudlands is precarious and primordial, the inhabited islands resisting twice-daily inundation only through unreliable embankments; there are also mosquitoes, mangrove forests and man-eaters such as the odd tiger or crocodile.


Whereas The Glass Palace had a rollicking saga-ish sweep of history and grand events, The Hungry Tide is deceptively slower, tinged like the tides that dominate it with a moody and brittle beauty. ‘‘It was completely magical to me,'' Ghosh enthuses, ‘‘to be there on the rivers amid this mysterious landscape that is like none other. You go to sleep on the boat in this creek gully where mud rises up like canyons on either side of you. And when you wake up, all you can see is water and the shore has receded two miles [about 3km] away -- it is totally disorienting.''


The Hungry Tide repays perseverance, seducing readers into its weave of nature and human resoluteness, of science and superstition, of personal and political dramas, and of history and modernity. At its core are dual triangles of relationship, each with intersections, tangencies and echoes between and within each other. The novel is also about language and translation, both literal and metaphoric -- in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘‘We are not comfortably at home in our translated world.'' Yet Ghosh wanted his novel to be less concerned with remoteness than with ‘‘what my life is about -- unexpected encounters, and the intersection and juxtaposition of the modern and that which lingers of the past''. In this he has succeeded brilliantly.


He suspects, he admits, that he may be driven; he knows he is obsessive, especially with ‘‘finding stories and following them through''. His novels come at four-year intervals, with half that time spent on research. ‘‘That's the part that makes writing worthwhile, because I so enjoy it. But the delight is less the uncovering of details as what I take away from meeting people I'd otherwise never encounter.''


As illustration, he cites the environmentalist marine scientist Piyali of his latest novel. ‘‘I wanted to get the details absolutely right, but how to find a scientist working with river dolphins? I bought books, looked up names, went on the internet and wrote to about 10 people. Only one answered, a legendary Australian biologist from Queensland called Helene Marsh who teaches at James Cook University. She's one of the great world figures of marine mammal studies and she guided me to some of the literature, and then to a student specialising in Irrawaddy dolphins.''


The latter, a 26-year-old New Zealander, invited him to Cambodia, where she was based, to show him what she did. ‘‘That encounter was one of those that so much enrich your own understanding of the world. She's from a sheep farming family deep in the heart of New Zealand, she can't speak much Khmer, she's very isolated, yet she is completely devoted to her work.'' The day he arrived, her only companion, a little dog she had adopted, went amok and savaged her, completely stripping her leg and her arm. ‘‘I was upstairs and by the time I got there she was completely torn up. We caught a cyclo to the hospital, where she was sewn up, surrounded by villagers and bantering with the crowd. But she refused to cancel our trip and for 10 days, bandaged from head to foot and vaccinating herself against infection, she stood in the boat under the blazing sun from morning 'til night, doing her research. That's when I realised people of her generation get a bad press.''


Outsiders such as this intrigue him, as do the political and emotional ramifications of an enclosed community's interaction with the invasive outsider. But although the political is very real in a personal sense, ‘‘it is not the main thrust in my work. What concerns me more is what part of our lives we can rescue from politics -- it has become so completely invasive and predatory. The most important question now is not where we stand politically but what the content of our private life is. Our minds seem to be so invaded by the collective in terms of imagery, in film and books that there is no space for the individual interior. That genuinely worries me: although there are collective ways we want our lives to go, we don't want our individualities to be totally invaded.''


By coincidence, he was in Delhi in 1984 to witness the political carnage of the anti-Sikh riots, and in 2001 he was in New York when the World Trade Centre was attacked. In both places, he says, ‘‘what I saw was not the horror of violence but the affirmation of humanity''. New Yorkers won his admiration for the dignity of their grief, ‘‘but the way that tragedy was hijacked by a very small part of the American political establishment for its own ends is one of the great scandals of modern times''.


At the time, as veterans of upheaval and catastrophe, ‘‘many of us in the South Asian community convened a town hall meeting the day after 9/11 to plan what we would do if retaliation started -- we expected it, yet it was one of the most ennobling things that it did not occur. Delhi in 1984 was horribly different, an actively cynical exercise in violence. Yet even there one saw instances where amid the mayhem people tried to act with dignity.''


Ghosh is enthusiastic about returning to Australia later this month for the Brisbane Writers Festival. He has been here twice before for festivals and counts Australians among his closest friends: one of them, James Simpson, ‘‘has been my first reader in almost every book'', while Ghosh's son attends the same school in New York as Peter Carey's children. Beyond that, this self-confessed cinema tragic also cites as an important influence on his vision Australian film-maker Peter Weir who, along with Satyajit Ray and Werner Herzog, has inspired him through his focus on ‘‘the out of the way, the unusual''.


Yet his own books, although cinematic, would defy any transition to the screen: ‘‘You couldn't in film reach back into time, as I try to do in The Hungry Tide, to discover the way in which sensibilities are so intricately located. Films' strengths are the visuals and the sense of immediacy; the novel most powerfully allows you to enter the interior states and examine every side of a question.


‘‘But a novelist is not a sage, even if at some stage every novelist who is any good has to confront ethical issues. There are not necessarily neat solutions in any novel but they can expose the dilemmas and bring you to what the heart of the predicament actually is.''
The rest, he is too polite to say, is up to you.

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh is published by HarperCollins ($32.95).




This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian, 4 September 2004. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren


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