The world according to Amitav Ghosh
On the day of journey, when I boarded the aircraft, I was aware, for the first time in many months, of a pleasurable sense of anticipation. My seat, with its console of buttons and its elaborate entertainment system, was all that I could have asked for; I settled in contentedly, intending to make the most of the next seven hours.
But just as I was about to try out the noise-cancelling headset, I caught the sound of an excited conversation across the aisle: an elegantly dressed blonde woman and a suntanned man in a business suit were loudly exchanging words like 'fire' and 'evacuation'.
I thought, at first, that they were talking about a film (they looked like Hollywood people). But then, as others joined in, it became clear that they were concerned about some sort of emergency that was currently unfolding in Los Angeles. I had not kept up with the news that week. Now, looking at my smartphone, I learnt that massive wildfires had been raging around Los Angeles for several days. Thousands of acres of land had been incinerated and tens of thousands of people had been moved to safety.
Startled by the news, I rose inadvertently to my feet... but no sooner had I stirred than two uniformed members of the crew came barrelling down the aisle to tell me, very brusquely, that I couldn't get up, the fasten seat belt sign was on, and the plane was about to start taxiing. 'Sir! You need to lower your voice... 'But I just saw this...' I held up my phone to show her a news item about the wildfires. In the process my forefinger inadvertently touched an icon on the screen and suddenly an eerie, keening sound burst out of the overhead luggage bin, filling the whole cabin and turning every head in my direction....
Such was my state of mind that I did not immediately recognise the sound that was pouring out of the luggage bin as one of my favourite pieces of music, a passage from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's 'Allah Hoo'. Although I loved this recording dearly, no sound could have been more unwelcome to my ears at that moment, especially when I saw its effect on the people around me.
"...Instead of tapping my phone, to turn off the app, I panicked and leapt up to reach for the luggage bin - and the stewardess in turn leapt to intercept me. There followed a short scuffle. It ended with me collapsing on my seat while the stewardess stood in the aisle, hands on hips, glowering at me. 'Sir, if you don't calm down immediately you will be removed from this aircraft.'
'I'm sorry...I'm sorry...I'm sorry...'
"In the meantime, 'Allah Hoo' was still blasting from my Bluetooth speaker... As my gaze rose, trembling, from my phone, it encountered ranks of faces staring at me with expressions that ranged from bewilderment to terror."
"I shrank into my seat, mumbling abjectly: 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry...'
His new novel is being spoken of as the book of the year in India's literary circles. Gun Island takes its protagonist Dinanath Dutta on an adventurous quest across the Sunderbans, Venice and Los Angeles chasing the legend of the 'Bonduki Sadagar.' Although some parts of the book read like a thriller, the author also revisits some of his familiar tropes along the way, think etymology, seafarers and penguins who beach themselves. Days after receiving the Jnanpith award, in an exclusive interview to Aasheesh Sharma, Amitav Ghosh speaks out his heart to discuss climate change, right wing politics, Boris Johnson, his love for racquet sports and his writing rituals. Edited excerpts.
Although you say fiction shouldn't be didactic, you've often said that novelists need to critique the world around them. This was an argument in your last work of non-fiction. Do you think Gun Island is an answer to the questions you raised in The Great Derangement?
I suppose you could say that. At least my work is attentive to the world around me and that's exactly what I tried to do. I've tried to write a book about the real world we live in and a world that doesn't get the attention that it should.
How different was setting your new novel in this century, a break from your Ibis trilogy?
It sure is a departure from the last three novels that I've written, but I have written a number of other books set in the here and now. The Calcutta Chromosome that I wrote in 1995 was very much involved with the way the Internet works, even artificial intelligence. The Shadow Lines and Circle of Reason were all contemporary works. But Gun Island is attentive to the emergent reality that we see around us today, this incredible climate disruption, the weird events that are happening around us. One of the roles of a novelist is to be attentive to things around and put them in our books.
You've said about Cinta's character in Gun Island, "The more I wrote about her, the more important she became."
How did her character evolve?
Yes, she is a standout character for me in this novel. Sometimes, when you are writing a book, certain characters assert themselves over the book and you can feel their presence growing stronger and stronger. That was really the case for Cinta. She became more and more interesting and I found myself really drawn into that.
Right wing governments are resisting the influx of climate refugees around the world, including Italy, where parts of the book are set. Are climate change and migration, subjects close to your heart, the biggest challenges staring at us?
I would say we are facing multiple interlocking crises. For example, 15 years ago, if someone had said to me that the issue of immigration will completely change the politics of England, Europe and America, I would have laughed at them. But I am just coming from England. When one thinks of a well-run government, one thinks of the UK. They have had this stability and continuity for hundreds of years. But today, it is all gone. They are in a complete crisis that has been brought on almost unnecessarily, a crisis caused by an imaginary threat of mass immigration, which hasn't actually happened there. After all, the migrants were not taking boats to England. You know, societal sensitivity to climate disruption is much greater than we thought. Simply because they are so complex, our societies are much more vulnerable to disruption than we imagined.
Trump's visit to the UK evoked protests there. How crucial are such voices of sanity for our society?
That [the protest] was one of the encouraging things. You mentioned Italy, even though the right wing government gets much more attention than anything else there, there are many, many people there who speak the language of compassion and humanity. Of course, the most powerful voice of compassion, humanity and common sense is Pope Francis. It is not fair to identify all of Italy with the government. But sure, we do need to pay close attention to Italy, because it has been Europe's political laboratory for a hundred years. The precursor for Trump was Silvio Berlusconi and if Boris Johnson does become PM, we'll see an acceleration of this trend.
There is talk of an ontological turn in Gun Island with incidents that can best be described as chance. How important is it for us to accept facts that can't be described by reason, science and rationality?
I think it is very important to acknowledge the limits of reason. That's one of the most interesting points Pope Francis makes in his encyclical on climate change. If everything were rational, everything were reasonable, we wouldn't be where we are. He is speaking as a man of God and I am speaking as a storyteller. Stories have always been about things out of the ordinary.
You travelled extensively across refugee homes in Italy for Gun Island. Are you an incorrigible note taker in real life like your protagonist Dinanath?
I am very much an incorrigible note taker (laughs). I like to talk to people and I take notes all the time.
What explains your fascination with merchants and seafarers?
Bengal is unique in the way that its myths and folklore feature merchants. If you are brought up as a Bengali, you hear these stories about Manasa Devi and Chand Sadagar. In some way it must have lodged deep in my conscience.
There were long queues at Stein Auditorium for your launch. Should book launches or literary festivals be ticketed?
Book launches may lead to people buying books, so those shouldn't be ticketed. But literary festivals should be ticketed and writers should be paid. I constantly get invitations from litfests writing 'we have 60,000 people there'. They seem to think it is some sort of an incentive. For me it is exactly the opposite. I don't want to meet 60,000 people! Even the number is inconceivable to me. If you ask these 60,000 to pay half the price of a cinema ticket and if that scares them off, they are obviously not serious about literature.
Goa or Brooklyn, where do you feel most at home?
Home is where my desk is. I write in two places, Brooklyn in New York and of course Goa.
You follow racquet sports closely, we hear...
I follow racquet sports because I like to play racquet sports. Most people who like to watch cricket or football don't play them. I really enjoy watching badminton on You Tube. PV Sindhu is just mesmerising. The kind of energy she brings to the sport is just wonderful.
How else do you unwind?
By listening to qawwali. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a wonderful qawwal but there are others. Aziz Warsi's qawwali Maula Salim Chishti in Garm Hava is a beautiful moment in a beautiful movie.