Wednesday, January 26, 2005

A Tryst With Amitav Ghosh

Yesterday I had the privilege of meeting and interacting with Amitav Ghosh, renowned writer of English literature (he hates being labelled a 'Commonwealth' or 'Indo-Anglian' writer).

For quite some time now, IIT Kharagpur has been organising, under the aegis of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department, an annual Tagore Memorial Lecture in the month of January. This lecture has been delivered by many eminent personalities culled from the fields of science, art and politics. This year it was the turn of the famous author of The Calcutta Chromosome to speak on The Embattled Mind: Surviving A Fractured Society.

The programme started on time in the Netaji Auditorium, though the crowd that had gathered was spread pretty thinly. There were quite a few professors in attendance, though some questions were raised in the minds of the audience as to how many came to listen to the talk and how many turned up just to ogle at the writer. Some local Bengali scholars started the proceedings with a song rendered in the style of traditional Rabindrasangeet, after which there was a brief introduction by some "dignitaries". The Director spoke at length about Prof Ghosh's depth of intellect and wide range of interests in the field of literature, all the while reading out from a prepared text. (As we shall see later, he wasn't the only one to do so.)

Amitav Ghosh, who is a Visiting Professor at Harvard, took to the stage and started the talk with a foray into the world of information technology and how it has changed modern India. He reminded us that the future that we are creating has an "implacable gatekeeper", "computer literacy". Warning us of how we are willingly participating in the disenfranchisement of millions of our fellow Indians, he steered the talk towards the direction of parallel economies. Prof Ghosh pointed out that the Abu Ghraib prison tortures were symptomatic of how the jailers (soldiers in this case) were basically encouraging prisoners to emulate the American prison system of peer humiliation and assault. Moving on to slavery and disenfranchisement in a broader sense, he talked about the Anglo-American slave trade and how, if a slave managed to escape to England, he would be free, since "the smell of English soil is the smell of freedom".

Prof Ghosh was extremely critical about the nature of imperial peace, remarking that India was one of the very few nations which actually managed to grasp the tiny window of opportunity in the last century. This window, lasting for about 30 years from the 1940s to the 1970s, was the only period of any consequence in which the Pax Anglo-Americana was in retreat, and it was only during this period that such large-scale decolonisation and establishment of independent institutions of science and arts could be performed. An interesting idea. Quoting extensively from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, he urged us to figure out how far we must go for the pursuit of liberty and freedom - is it acceptable to destroy an entire people just for the sake of an idea?

Finally, Prof Ghosh talked about the recent tsunami and the massive humanitarian crisis it has engendered. He sketched for us a brief look at the life of a tsunami survivor who has lost his wife and one of his children. Especially interesting was the way in which the survivor managed to cope with his losses. Prof Ghosh ended his talk by pointing out the parallels of each scenario - how an embattled intelligence will survive in a hostile environment.

After the talk, Mangal, Sash and I managed to stake out some space around Prof Ghosh. I had prepared some questions, some ideas which we wanted to discuss with him. The questions were as follows:
  • Prof Ghosh, up till the advent of the Gutenberg Printing Press, the illuminated manuscript was the major form of expression in Western thought. Now, however, it is just another artifact of the Middle Ages. My question is - will the book, as an object, suffer the same fate? Or, alternately, where do we draw the line between the physical and literary natures of a book? What defines the "book-iness" of a book?
  • Prof Ghosh, we have had till now two revolutions in the realm of the expression of ideas:
  1. The transition from the spoken form to the written form (invention of writing), and
  2. the transition from the written form to the printed form (the printing press);
Each such revolution has brought with it tremendous social upheaval.

My question is - what do you think will be the next such revolution and what will be its attendant impact on human society? What, in such a case, will be the job of a writer?

Sadly enough, the answers were not what I had expected. Pat answers are traditionally associated with journalists, socialists and brain-addled teenagers. I was unpleasantly surprised to discover the same trait in Mr. Ghosh.

The answer to my first question was - "No. I do not believe there is anything sacrosanct about a book. You must be knowing that I recently won the Frankfurt E-book Award." Great. That's all the philosophy I get.

The answer to my second question was - "I sincerely believe we are entering a period of great chaos and a collapse of civilization seems imminent." Ehh?

I hung up my boxing gloves, smiled at him and turned back. Sash was next in line - she asked a pretty interesting question in her own right. Her question was:

Sir, there exists no word to describe the hatred of men, though there is a corresponding word for women. Do you think women have consistently been prejudiced against and denied a voice, and is this prejudice built in to the structure and semantics of the languages that we use?

Before Mr. Ghosh could reply, however, out jumps a lady from the woodwork, delivers a smart quote from Shakespeare, and gets a pat on her head from Chromosome-guy. Sash and I stare at each other, grimace in unison and back off.

To conclude, Mr. Ghosh spoke well, reading from an already prepared speech, with minimal audience interaction. I guess we can't have our cake and eat it too. Maybe sometime later, when we have achieved stable positions in life, the time shall come when we can interact in a more positive layered sense. Till then, Mr. Ghosh, here's to your walloping of the Commonwealth!