Deep into the novel, one of his characters, Uma, is on her way to England by ship. She meets a Mrs. Kadambari Dutt, of the famous Dutts of Hatkhola, related to the noted poets Aru and Toru Dutt. Aru and Toru Dutt, my mother reminds me, belong to the Dutts of Rambagan, a family from which she herself is descended. I tell Amitav Ghosh this as he pours himself a cup of tea in the lobby of the Prescott Hotel in San Francisco. He is astonished “Really? My friend in Kolkata insisted it was the Hatkhola Dutts. Oh dear.”
“Indeed,” I reply in full-throated defense of my mother’s heritage. “They are all Rambagan Dutts—historian Romesh C. Dutt, communist intellectual Rajani Palme Dutt, actress Sadhana Bose, and the poetesses Aru and Toru. The Hatkhola Dutts apparently just had money.”
“My goodness,” says the writer smiling disarmingly, “Money, it seems, can even buy some family glory these days.”
But he could probably be forgiven for mixing up his Dutts. It took him five years to write this novel, much of which he spent talking to survivors of the Indian National Army, poring over documents of the last Burmese king Thebaw, even trekking into the dangerous jungles of the Burma-Thai border with the Karenni insurgents and coming under fire from the Burmese army!
“It was beyond research,” he says. “It was an odyssey!” But the most unexpected moment came in the remote jungles of northern Thailand. “I kept hearing of this guy called the Commander who led one of the Burmese student forces and was quite a legend in guerilla warfare. Through many secret ways we made contact and someone took me to see him. We drove for half a day up a mountain. Then we started walking through pristine jungle. Night fell. I was really scared and exhausted. You couldn’t see anything. I could hear gunfire in the distance. By the time we get to a little campfire I am about to drop dead. And then someone comes up to me, puts out his hand and says ‘I am Sunny.’ I looked at him and said ‘You are the Commander?’ He said ‘Yes, my name is Sunny but people call me Mohinder Singh.’ And this was the most amazing thing—he was Indian. There he was in the jungle fighting for the Karenni—a third generation Burmese but of Sikh and UP descent. He was a wonderful man—really intelligent and deeply dedicated to the people he was serving.”
Borders and what happens to people on either side of them have always intrigued Ghosh. Its not surprising someone like Sunny whose very existence flies in the face of man-made borders drawn by some committee, should fascinate Ghosh. He realized the meaning of borders when he found while traveling in the Sahara, that his European visa meant nothing from one side of the Tangiers Straits to the other. He has always been a restless traveler, his works spanning countries, even genres, now mapping The Calcutta Chromosome from New York to India to Egypt, now tracing the The Shadow Lines of family secrets in London and Dhaka and Calcutta. In discussion lists of Egyptian literature a reader assumes he must be Egyptian because of his workIn An Antique Land, but wonders if he is Muslim or a Coptic Christian. Ghosh’s face creases into a smile when he hears that. “It’s true though—people will just assume things about you,” he says. “My mother called me to say that afterGlass Palace everyone is saying she is Burmese!”
Living now in New York with his family, he is truly a globetrotter, proficient in five languages—English, Bangla, Hindi, Arabic, and French. But when it comes to storytelling, he says, “there is certainly a very distinctive Bengali voice. It’s very hard to explain. It’s kind of an intimacy of tone. It’s not even a voice—it’s more like a tonal color.” All he knows is when he is stuck, he just sits down and listens to it. Though his Calcutta Chromosome is marketed as science fiction mystery, buried in its heart is the ghost story of the abandoned station of Renupur and the eerie glow of the stationmaster’s lantern—a quintessential goose-pimply under-the-quilt Bengali bhooter golpo (ghost story) if ever there was one.
Ghosh has commented before that the whole point of literary masterpieces like the Panchatantra was, “their translatibility, the dispensability and inessential nature of their locations.” By that yardstick, his own work seems very rooted—inThe Shadow Lines he carefully builds up a picture of not just Calcutta, but the Gol Park neighborhood with its multi-storeyed apartments, second-hand book stalls and the placid greenery of the lakes. He admits that for him locations are not dispensable. “In Glass Palace” he says, “I wanted to create a very livable tactile sense of four or five places. One was of this house in Calcutta. One was Rajkumar’s house in Rangoon, one was of Morningside plantation in Malaya and the other was Ratnagiri.”
Ratnagiri in India was where Thebaw, the last king of Burma, and his Queen Supayalat were exiled by the British. Glass Palace starts with the English guns rolling into Burma and the fall of the royal palace. In the night of looting that follows, Rajkumar, an orphaned boy working in a tea stall comes face to face with one of the Queen’s maids in waiting, Dolly. It could almost be a Hindi film moment, except the story it spawns is more of a mini-series enveloping a subcontinent in turmoil and generations struggling to stay afloat on the shifting sands of history and rubber and teak.
Ghosh journeyed back to the city of Ratnagiri to see what traces of King Thebaw were left there and was amazed. “It was very touching. It’s almost like Thebaw is a living presence inside this town. Even more so than he is in Burma. Everything is named after him from Thebaw Palace to the Thebaw Hotel to a Thebaw dosa house! I went to have a haircut and the barber held forth about Thebaw as if he was his own uncle. Of course he still has descendants there—since the first Princess stayed back. “But in the end, Ghosh’s story is not about royals. His hero, though named Rajkumar or prince, is very much a commoner. Ghosh was actually inspired by his uncle, Jagat Chandra Dutta of Rangoon, who was also known as “The Prince” to his family. He reflects, “He and my pishi(aunt) played a really large part in my literary imagination. They used to live in one of those apartments in Golepark and that area became the setting for my second novel Shadow Lines. He was a great reader and I would spend a lot of time with him. And he talked a lot about living in Burma as did my aunt.” To a young boy, Burma with its stories of elephants pulling great teak logs and glass palaces was indescribably exotic and fantastic. Going to modern day Burma, he was struck by how Rangoon was “uncannily like Calcutta—the same sorts of buildings. The strand is just like the Calcutta strand. But it’s actually not that surprising since the British built both.”
The British Empire is very much the backdrop of the novel but strangely for a 500-page book there are very few British characters. And the ones that are there, are certainly not the chhota peg drinking irascible jaldi-jaldi stereotypes so beloved of Indian nationalist films. Ghosh says writing the book made him realize that, “when you look at South East Asia from the Indian point of view, that’s one thing. But when you look at India from the South East Asian point of view you suddenly realize that Indians and Indian soldiers have been very active in the destruction of indigenous traditions there. It was Indian soldiers who went in and helped conquer these places. Some 40,000 Englishmen could rule over millions of people because of the complicity of a huge enthusiastic collaborator class. As Indians we have not faced up to that historic responsibility.”
It is a reckoning that Ghosh is facing in his own way with the Commonwealth Writers Prize. After winning the Eurasia regional Commonwealth Writers Prize, Ghosh decided to withdraw The Glass Palace from the competition stating, “The Glass Palace is eligible for the Commonwealth Prize partly because it was written in English and partly because I happen to belong to a region that was once conquered and ruled by Imperial Britain. Of the many reasons why a book’s merits may be recognized these seem to me to be the least persuasive.” In his soft-spoken style he goes on to wonder if we are to classify books as Commonwealth Literature, might we not rename English literature as the “the literature of the Norman Conquest?”
Another reckoning The Glass Palace brought him face to face with was the role of the Indian National Army (INA) in the struggle for independence. His characters Arjun and Hardayal, both soldiers, have long impassioned debates about the meaning of loyalty and who one owes it to—one’s country or one’s government, when the two are different. Ghosh feels that the INA has generally been viewed as traitors and collaborators with imperialism. “But that’s the way Indian history is always seen,” he exclaims. “You are either puppets of the British or puppets of the Japanese. But the INA were agents, they were in a deep and serious way considering political issues. You can disagree with decisions they made and I think many of us would, but that they had agency and responsibility that is undeniable. Perhaps it’s the disillusionment with the Congress, but Subhash Bose is increasingly seen as the figure who did not get to fulfill the promise of independence.”
It’s a massive undertaking—to pick up a story in a tea shop in Mandalay and follow it across a century and leave it at the doorstep of Burma’s dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Ghosh is optimistic that the days of the generals in Burma are numbered because they have no way of legitimizing their rule, but he is not sure Aung San Suu Kyi, for all her charisma, would have an easy time keeping Burma together. He can easily see civil unrest breaking out like it has done in Indonesia and thinks it is that fear (and massive Chinese support) that keeps the junta in power. A power it enforces through ironclad control over information. In fact the famous Burmese writer Mya Than Tint told him they got their news from rag-pickers who picked through the discarded magazines and newspapers in the garbage bins of the embassy staff.
For a reader, like Amitav Ghosh, that must have been both chilling and completely understandable. Right from his days in Doon School he was a voracious reader, devouring both Sir Walter Scott and Sigmund Freud. Going back to Doon with his sons, he was amazed to find many of the books he had checked out as a boy. “I saw my own handwriting where I had taken it out. And I was the last person to have taken it out.” Though he remembers his first three years there as desperately unhappy, he did settle down and now feels, “Life there was brutal, vicious. But at the same time I don’t know if I would gotten an education of that quality anywhere else in India.”
As he looked at the careful archives Doon maintained on each student which included letters from his father which he had never seen, as he met boys who said to him, “Sir you went to school with my father,” he realized that what this mysterious “Doon thing is—it’s continuity. Your past is memorialized there and there is something quite remarkable about that.” Doon was a great school he reflects, “but for reasons that belong to another time. The virtues it teaches you, the discipline—I don’t know. I think these kids that come out into the freewheeling world of the e-economy need other skills.”
Amitav Ghosh came out of Doon School knowing he wanted to write. He talked about books all the time with his friends at St. Stephen’s College—friends like Mukul Kesavan and Rukun Advani who all went on to write their own books. Ghosh admits, “When I finished college, I knew I did not want to share in the St. Stephen’s ambition to be an IAS-wallah. But in those days there was no place for us as a writer. So there was an embarrassment about it. And a fear surrounding it. Who would pay attention anyway?”
Certainly he does not have to worry about that anymore. When he withdrew from the Commonwealth Prize, that august body was forced to issue a statement expressing its regret. But Ghosh does not need his 15 minutes of fame. He says he is remarkable untrendy in a world where, “people burst out like supernovas when they are in their teens and then they are gone forever.”The Glass Palace he feels is a book he could not have embarked on without the confidence of his other books behind him.
“This is a very very big book” he says quietly “There is a lot of historical material, a lot of knowledge of people. The ripeness of experience. Ripeness is all Shakespeare said. I felt the book called upon domains of emotion that I simply did not have 10 years ago. The book is full of children and the way that children perceive the world, the way that children grow up. And that’s because I know now what it means to have children and be connected with children.”
Now he is back with his own children after his odyssey through a century of history. I wonder if when he started five years ago, he could see the end or whether the research in Malayan kampongs and dusty libraries led him off track like that ghostly stationmaster’s lantern of Renupur. He agrees saying, “E.L. Doctorow used a very fine metaphor for writing. He says it’s like driving a car in the dark. You can see as far as your headlights but not beyond that. Yet you know if you follow the headlights you will get there in the end.”
Anitav Ghosh’s headlights have led him to the end of his magnum opus. But there is still one loose end to be tied up. My mother, no doubt will be perusing the second edition of The Glass Palace to see if the Hatkhola Dutts have been put in their place and the Rambagan Dutts restored to their rightful glory.
Sandip Roy Chowdhury’s works have appeared in A Magazine, Pacific Reader, and Jinn (Pacific News Service). He is an occasional commentator on the New California Media TV show.