Amitav Ghosh 1956-
Indian novelist, essayist, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Ghosh's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 44.
Ghosh is a popular and highly respected Indian author. In his novels and essays, he draws heavily upon the character, traditions, and dichotomies of his native land, yet Ghosh's protagonists and themes often extend beyond India's actual boundaries, most notably toward the Middle East and Great Britain. Through this discourse, Ghosh's works expose the cross-cultural ties between India and its former colonial ruler as well as with its kindred neighbors. Ghosh has been hailed by critics as one of a new generation of cosmopolitan Indian intellectuals writing in English who are forging a contemporary literary metier.
Ghosh was born on July 11, 1956, in Calcutta, India, to Shailendra Chandra, a diplomat, and Ansali Ghosh, a homemaker. He traveled frequently in his youth, living in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Sri Lanka, Iran, and India. Ghosh attended Delhi University and received his B.A. with honors in history in 1976 and his M.A. in sociology in 1978. In 1978, he began studies at Oxford University in social anthropology. While at Oxford, Ghosh studied archives of documents from twelfth-century Egypt and was granted a scholarship that allowed him to travel to a small Egyptian village in 1980 to further his research. The village was located in the delta of the Nile River and Ghosh lived among the fellaheen, or Egyptian peasants. He graduated from Oxford earning a Ph.D. in social anthropology in 1982. From 1983 to 1987, Ghosh worked in the Department of Sociology at Delhi University. In 1986, Ghosh's first English-language novel, The Circle of Reason, was published and was awarded France's Prix Medici Etrangère. In 1988 and 1990, Ghosh returned to the Egyptian village he visited previously to continue his research. His third book, In an Antique Land (1992)—which is both a travel-memoir and a historical study—resulted from Ghosh's continuing interest in twelfth-century Egyptian culture. Ghosh has won numerous awards, including the Annual Prize from the Indian Academy of Letters in 1990. In 2001, Ghosh declined a nomination for a regional Commonwealth Writers Prize. Ghosh has served as a visiting professor at several universities, including the University of Virginia, Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, and American University in Cairo. Ghosh has also held the title of distinguished professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at Queens College, City University of New York, and has worked as a contributing writer to Indian Express, Granta, and New Republic.
The majority of Ghosh's writing focuses on exploring geographical and social boundaries. His first novel, The Circle of Reason, is a complex tale of a young Indian boy, Alu, and his adventures in India and abroad. The novel was inspired by Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Alu becomes an apprentice weaver and, after a tragic event, flees across the ocean to the Middle East, eventually traveling to North Africa. In his travels, Alu encounters a myriad of eccentric characters of varied nationalities. It is in this atmosphere that Ghosh provides commentary on the nomadic proclivities of southern Asian and Middle Eastern societies. The work is divided into three sections, comprising the three main phases of Alu's life. Each of these phases also parallels a trio of concepts—reason, passion, and death—characteristic of ancient Indian literature and philosophy. In The Shadow Lines (1988), Ghosh juxtaposes the lives of two different yet intertwined families—one Indian and one English—to question the boundaries between their cultural and geographical settings. The title alludes to the blurring of the lines between nations and families, as well as the blurred lines within one's own self-identity. Ghosh depicts the characters of the novel as caught between two worlds, and the struggle to come to terms with both their present lives as well as their past forms the core of the narrative. In an Antique Land is based on the historical and anthropological research that Ghosh conducted in Egypt during the 1980s. In the twelfth century, Jewish settlers in and around Cairo were reluctant to discard written documents for fear that the name of God might be contained within and they would therefore be desecrated if the paper was soiled. The synagogue created a geniza, or cellar, where people could dispose of written material without fear of desecration. For seven centuries, local Jews deposited everything from shopping lists, letters, religious texts, and legal documents into the Cairo Geniza. At the end of the nineteenth century, Western scholars discovered the geniza, appropriated its contents, and its wealth of history was divided among the Western scholarly communities. While studying at Oxford, Ghosh discovered records of these documents and noticed a reference to a slave named Bomma. Ghosh traveled to Egypt in an effort to uncover more information about the slave and the time period in which he lived. In an Antique Land recounts both Ghosh's research and his experiences while living in a small Egyptian village. His descriptions of his adjustment to the rural Egyptian way of life, and the curiosity with which his neighbors viewed him, form a large portion of the work. The Calcutta Chromosome (1996) is a science-fiction thriller set in three different time periods—late nineteenth century, 1995, and the near future—and three different locales—Calcutta, London, and New York. The mystery novel centers around the research for a cure for malaria. The narrative switches back and forth between time periods, revealing more and more clues to the puzzle. In The Glass Palace (2001), Ghosh revisits his recurring themes of displacement and the examination of boundaries. The novel begins with a young Indian boy, Raj, who witnesses the expulsion of the Burmese royal family by the British. The story follows both the forced exile of the royal family in India as seen through the eyes of Dolly, their loyal maid, and Raj's adolescence and success in capital ventures. As a prosperous young businessman, Raj travels to India and asks Dolly to marry him. She accepts and they move to Burma together. The novel recounts the lives of their family as they struggle to define their place in the world. One of their sons, Arjun, enlists in the British Army and transforms his lifestyle with an almost zealous energy—by eating taboo foods, dressing in Western style, and speaking British slang. He believes that, by becoming like the English, he is making himself a more ideal specimen of man. His blind faith in the British Empire quickly dissolves during the Japanese invasion of Malaya. Arjun discovers that, as an Indian, he has become a pawn to be used by the Empire, and he eventually rediscovers the beauty in the Indian ideology and culture.
The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, The Calcutta Chromosome, and The Glass Palace all received sharply mixed assessments from reviewers. Some critics argued that the narratives—particularly in Ghosh's first two novels—lacked unity and suffered from the presence of too many characters and distracting digressions. Nevertheless, Ghosh has received overwhelmingly positive reviews for his arresting language and original prose style. Several critics have commented on the similarities between Ghosh's narrative style and traditional Indian and Arabic folk tales. Ghosh's work has also been favorably compared to the work of fellow Indian expatriate writer Salman Rushdie. The critical response to his nonfiction work In an Antique Land has been largely positive. Commentators have found his anthropologic comparisons between twelfth- and twentieth-century Egyptians to be interesting, well-researched, and thought provoking. His descriptions of his social interactions with the Egyptian villagers have also been commended for their insight and wit. Critics have noted Ghosh's strong affinity for the people and places he writes about and have argued that his empathy adds a warm, almost protective personality to his work.
The Circle of Reason (novel) 1986
The Shadow Lines (novel) 1988
In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler's Tale (nonfiction) 1992
The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium, and Discovery (novel) 1996
Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma (essays) 1998
Countdown (nonfiction) 1999
The Glass Palace (novel) 2001
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SOURCE: “Threads and Shards,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4465, October 28, 1988, p. 1212.
[In the following excerpt, Couto praises Ghosh's characterization and storytelling abilities in The Shadow Lines.]
In his first novel, Circle of Reason, Amitav Ghosh wove a complex pattern of histories connecting lives in rural Bengal and remote Al Ghazira with a linguistic verve and technique clearly influenced by Midnight's Children yet without that book's power and impetus. In Shadow Lines, Ghosh has found his own distinctive voice—polished and profound. A narrative of three generations—the narrator's Bengali family in pre-Partition Dhaka and Calcutta, and their English friends, the Prices, whose histories encompass both world wars, the Left Book Club and shades of contemporary London—The Shadow Lines does not tell yet one more tale of the Raj but sets out to illuminate the absurdities of borders and frontiers, the lines of disillusion and tragedy that intersect with private lives and public events.
As in Circle of Reason, Ghosh's narrator is a spectator. Here, engagingly introspective, he has many different faces: a wide-eyed boy in suburban Calcutta for whom the world is revealed in snatches of overheard conversation; a poor relation who awaits the intermittent visits of sophisticated relatives with their accounts of a charmed life in foreign...
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SOURCE: “Life on the Edge,” in New Republic, Vol. 201, No. 6, August 7–14, 1989, pp. 37–39.
[In the following positive review, Klinkenborg expresses admiration for Ghosh's ability to capture the essence of human emotions and relationships in The Shadow Lines.]
Halfway through Amitav Ghosh's new novel, The Shadow Lines, the narrator says, “I no longer existed, but as a chronicle.” That is a striking statement, a testament of personal extinction before one's story, the tacit confession of every omniscient narrator. In this novel, it implies the ability to repose on language as if it were a hammock, to trust the way its weave keeps one's haunches off the ground. It implies certitude, competence, judgment, meaning—all the trappings of what the narrator calls his “tidy, late-bourgeois world,” whose genteel borders are rigorously defended against India's seething masses. To reduce (or enlarge) oneself to a chronicle demands the balance needed for the kind of storytelling that aspires to the composure of omniscience. The smaller your world and the tighter your borders, the easier omniscience comes.
In The Shadow Lines two families, one Indian, one English, engage each other in friendship, romance, and tragedy over a period that stretches from 1939 to the present in England and India. On the surface, this makes The Shadow Lines sound like a dying Raj epic...
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SOURCE: A review of The Shadow Lines, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, p. 365.
[In the following review, Taneja offers a positive assessment of The Shadow Lines, complimenting Ghosh's ability to create a non-chronological yet cohesive story.]
The new Indian English fiction of the eighties is free from the self-consciousness, shallow idealism, and sentimentalism that characterized the work of the older generation of novelists such as Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan, or Mulk Raj Anand, who started writing in the thirties. The fiction of the eighties takes a maturer view of Indian reality. There is freshness and vitality, and the writers betray remarkable confidence in tackling new themes and experiment with new techniques and approaches to handle those themes. Amitav Ghosh, whose first novel The Circle of Reason appeared in 1986, has strengthened the new English novel in more than one way.
The Shadow Lines takes us into the mnemonic fund of a young narrator who as a wide-eyed adolescent worshiped Tridib, an uncle who fed him on his memories of his one visit to London during the war, and his grandmother, who shared with him her nostalgic memories of East Bengal, where she was born and spent her childhood. Then there is Ila (his cousin, for whom he nurtures a secret passion), who travels all over the world with her globe-trotting diplomat parents...
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SOURCE: “Sea Changes,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 5, No. 222, October 2, 1992, pp. 48–49.
[In the following review, Howe offers a positive assessment of In an Antique Land.]
For most of recorded history, cultures, civilisations, and economies are better defined by oceans than by land masses. Until very recently the sea connected where mountains and deserts divided.
Historians learned from Fernand Braudel in the 1950s to think of the Mediterranean world as a unity. Soon after wards, the notion of an Atlantic world took hold: first an Atlantic “from above”; but increasingly, in the reconstructions of Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, Paul Gilroy and others, one criss-crossed by sailors, pirates, migrants, adventurers, religious and political rebels and visionaries, many of them of African descent. Ideas about what is “European,” what “American” and what “African” get dramatically shaken up in these perspectives.
Now the world of the Indian Ocean is being brought into focus. Before the coming of European domination, which constructed the ideas of “Europe” and “Asia” themselves, the lands bordering that ocean were bound together by networks of trade, migration and cultural interchange. Its world, magnificently mapped by the Indian historian K. N. Chaudhuri, was a predominantly Islamic one; but religions mingled and interacted across...
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SOURCE: “Intimately Egyptian,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4685, January 15, 1993, p. 7.
[In the following mixed review, Soueif argues that, although In an Antique Land is an admirable attempt at recreating the past, the book seems incomplete.]
It is a habit of certain traditional Jewish (and indeed Islamic) communities to preserve everything they have ever written. Special chambers are used for this, and the aim is to protect any written form of the name of God from inadvertent mistreatment. Such a chamber (a “Geniza”) was attached to the Synagogue of Ben Ezra in old Cairo; members of the city's Jewish community from well before the tenth century until the end of the nineteenth deposited all their writings there. The story of how the Geniza Collection came into the possession of Cambridge University Library is, sadly, the story of so much of the heritage of our so-called Third World: a fragment finds its way into the hands of a western scholar—in this case Solomon Schechter, reader in Talmudics at Cambridge—who then, armed with embossed letters from the “protecting” country, heads East—or South. Schechter arrived in December 1896 in an Egypt presided over by Sir Evelyn Baring, and soon “the Chief Rabbi of Cairo and Joseph M. Cattaoui Pasha [head of a prominent and wealthy family of Egyptian Jews] came to a decision that seems little less than astonishing in retrospect....
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SOURCE: “Out of the Dustbin of History,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXII, No. 13, March 28, 1993, p. 6.
[In the following positive review, Irwin compliments Ghosh's technique of comparing and contrasting present-day and twelfth-century Egypt in In an Antique Land.]
About a quarter of the way in to this curious book [In an Antique Land] (a mixture of history, travelogue, social anthropology and personal memoir), Amitav Ghosh has occasion to remark that “it is not easy, after all, to see oneself sitting down to leaf through a collection of eight-hundred-year-old documents, written in a colloquial dialect of medieval Arabic, transcribed in the Hebrew script, and liberally strewn with Hebrew and Aramaic.” But that is what Ghosh did, and his account of the difficulties involved can be appreciated as treasurable understatement.
While still a student, Ghosh, an Indian who studies anthropology in Cambridge, became interested in the Geniza, a body of documents whose existence is hardly known, save to specialists in medieval Middle Eastern studies. The Geniza can be thought of as a kind of sacred wastepaper basket—a very large one. The Geniza that was attached to the Synagogue of the Palestinian Jews in Fustat (the oldest part of Cairo) was two-and-a-half stories high and contained over a quarter-of-a-million leaves of paper. The Jews of the Medieval Fustat had an...
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SOURCE: “The Nile of Time,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 11, 1993, pp. 2, 11.
[In the following review, Iyer offers a positive assessment of In an Antique Land, particularly praising Ghosh's descriptions of his experiences in Egypt.]
Modern Egypt is in part a swirl of Mexican restaurants and chador boutiques and guides speaking Japanese. But in its alleyways and souks, and all around the villages in the countryside, Egypt still clops to a surprisingly ancient rhythm: boys wandering through mazes of mud-colored houses, date-palms under washed-out skies as in every other 19th-Century English print, women carrying baskets of vegetables on their heads. In Egypt, as in India, centuries co-exist like artifacts on a museum wall (and sometimes weirdly intermingle too, as in the 3000-year-old treasures kept in 2000-year-old conditions in Cairo's infamous Egyptian Museum).
That sense of agelessness—and the way it translates into placelessness—is the driving engine of Amitav Ghosh's new book, In an Antique Land a book that appealingly excavates a little-known corner of Middle Eastern history (the Jewish traders commuting between the Arab world and India in the 12th Century), and beautifully lights up the laws and losses of a typical Egyptian village today. In 1978, Ghosh, one of the leaders of India's New Wave of younger novelists (his Shadow Lines belongs...
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SOURCE: “A Passage to India,” in New Republic, Vol. 209, Nos. 8–9, August 23–30, 1993, pp. 38–41.
[In the following review of In an Antique Land, Geertz praises Ghosh's ability to capture the social interactions and dynamics of the people, past and present, of the Persian Gulf.]
The world, by now, is fairly well cut up into distinct pieces, stretches of space with borders around them and inhabitants within them. People move about a good deal, and some may change their residence and become inhabitants of some other piece. Nor are the pieces themselves entirely fixed; they can merge, divide, swallow one another up, or, like the Soviet Union, just disappear. But all of this occurs against the background of the peculiar idea that all individuals, however drifting, belong somewhere, to some bounded territory housing some population, even if they may have to be deported or walled in before they will live there.
One part of the globe where this conception of social and geographical interconnection was never very strong, however, is that great strip of mercantile civilization that, from about the tenth century to the sixteenth century, ran from Fez and Seville in the West, through Cairo and Aden around the Red Sea, across the Indian Ocean to Calicut and the Malabar coast. In this mobile, polyglot and virtually borderless region, which no one owned and no one dominated, Arabs,...
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SOURCE: “Cairene Treasures,” in American Scholar, Vol. 63, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 137–40.
[In the following positive review, Elukin argues that aside from Ghosh's occasional political diatribe against Western imperialism, In an Antique Land is an otherwise thought-provoking and well-written undertaking.]
Like the Cairo Geniza, the wellspring of this seductive book, In an Antique Land, Amitav Ghosh's scholarly memoir is a treasure of interconnected historical ironies. The thriving Jewish community of medieval Cairo deposited many of its documents in the Geniza—a kind of cellar in the synagogue—in order to avoid inadvertently desecrating the biblical passages and invocations of God that peppered the writings. Letters, accounts, biblical manuscripts, and printed texts piled up in the Geniza until its discovery at the end of the nineteenth century. One Geniza text happily brought Amitav Ghosh to the Egyptian villages of Nashâwy and Lataîfa.
Ghosh, who comes from a Hindu family, was an anthropology graduate student at Oxford in 1978 when he came upon a collection of Geniza letters translated by the famous scholar S. D. Goitein. In the twelfth century, the Cairene Jewish merchant Khalaf ibn Ishaq wrote a routine letter to his protégé and business partner, Abraham ben Yiju, in Mangalore, on the southwestern coast of India. Amidst business concerns and gossip,...
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SOURCE: “Looking for Bomma,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 6, No. 6, March 24, 1994, pp. 26–27.
[In the following review of In an Antique Land, Clifford explores the differences in religious tolerance, cultural exchange, and political attitudes between the Indian and Arabic societies of the twelfth century and the twentieth century.]
In his novel, The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh writes of an Indian family whose members cross and recross two geopolitical borders. One border joins and divides Calcutta and London, the other Calcutta and Dhaka. Toward the end of the book the narrator's failing grandmother prepares for a return visit to the city she left, years before, when India was partitioned: Dhaka, East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. It is only a short flight from Calcutta. The old woman asks whether she will see the border from the plane. Her son tells her that it won't look like a map, with different colours on either side of a dark line. ‘But surely,’ the old woman persists, ‘there's something—trenches perhaps, or soldiers, or guns pointing at each other, or even just barren strips of land. Don't they call it no man's land?’ Her son laughs: ‘No you won't be able to see anything except clouds and perhaps, if you're lucky, some green fields.’ She remains puzzled:
But if there aren't trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean,...
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SOURCE: A review of In an Antique Land, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring, 1994, p. 430.
[In the following positive review, King states that In an Antique Land is a skillful mixture of history, travelogue, fiction, and anthropology.]
Amitav Ghosh's novels The Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines are somewhat difficult to place on the current literary map; they have an unusual perspective and cover unexpected territory. In an Antique Land fills in some of the picture of how Ghosh sees the world and, besides the interest of the book itself as social anthropology and what it tells us about Ghosh, might be a starting place for future critical discussion of his fiction.
Ghosh is a New Delhi and Oxford-trained social anthropologist, and In an Antique Land is a complex book which uses for its narrative his attempts to trace the lives of a twelfth-century Indian slave and his Jewish master. The story of the preservation and dispersal of the documents is itself a revelation of earlier Jewish customs and of the close former relationships between the Jewish, Indian, and Arab worlds which were disrupted by European imperialism and scholarship. Ghosh's main concern is to restore a cultural, social, and economic map that stretched from Spain through the Middle East to India for many centuries until it was redrawn by European military...
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SOURCE: “‘Travelling in the West’: The Writing of Amitav Ghosh,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 3–24.
[In the following essay, Dixon examines The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, and In an Antique Land to demonstrate Ghosh's discontentment with the Western imperialism imposed on Arabic and Indian cultures.]
In the geography of human history no culture is an island. … In effect Tulunad was a region in the sense of the word desa, or the French pays—“country” is too loaded a term to use—an area … not “independent” but distinctive and singular, and precisely because of that, enmeshed with its neighbours in an intricate network of differences.1
Is this, then, another irony of history, doubly confirming the appropriative powers of the dominant discourse: that like the subaltern himself, those who set out to restore his presence end only by borrowing the tools of that discourse, tools which serve only to reduplicate the first subjection which they effect, in the realms of critical theory?2
This paper is in one sense a survey of the increasingly substantial body of writing by the Indian novelist and anthropologist Amitav Ghosh. Born in Calcutta in 1956, Ghosh has a Ph.D. in social anthropology...
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SOURCE: “Post-Colonial Pox,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4870, August 2, 1996, p. 23.
[In the following review, Baker offers a positive assessment of The Calcutta Chromosome.]
The existence of “research luck” has been often remarked; a serendipitous book almost leaps from the shelf, and fortuitous pieces of evidence obtrude themselves on the researcher in ways that seem almost supernatural. Scientific breakthroughs, too, have famously happened as happy accidents. These phenomena are given uniquely sinister treatment in The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh, an ingenious and bewitching novel which proposes a dark, secret history of malaria research.
It opens in a near-future New York, where a computer clerk named Antar is having his daily battle of wills with his computer, Ava. Ava has no qualms about reporting him to his employer, the International Water Council, if she senses she doesn't have his full attention, and they have already threatened to reduce his pension. Today, Ava has trawled up a mystery item in one of her filing inventories, which Antar recognizes as the burned remains of an ID card; more than that, he recognizes the man it belonged to, Murugan, an eccentric colleague who went missing in Calcutta back in 1995.
Murugan's hobby-horse was the research career of Sir Ronald Ross, who won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for discovering how...
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SOURCE: “Oh Death, Where Is Thy Bite?,” in Spectator, Vol. 277, No. 8771, August 24, 1996, pp. 25–26.
[In the following review, Hulse offers a negative assessment of The Calcutta Chromosome, criticizing the characters' grating slang dialogue and the improbability of the plot.]
Immortality has not figured very prominently in literature since Swift's Struldbrugs, and Amitav Ghosh's donné ought by rights, in the age of genetic engineering, to have fired a fiction of unusual trajectory. His subject is malaria, and its transmission by the anopheles mosquito. What if the principle by which the disease is imprinted on the mosquito's target could be adapted for genetic imprinting, so that an entire personality, by being imprinted upon succeeding generations of host bodies, might be chromosomatically granted immortality?
That immortality, if I understand Ghosh's bee-in-bonnet protagonist Murugan correctly, has been achieved by a bizarre Indian conspiracy overarching the generations, a conspiracy in which a select community of the living dead seek new host bodies as they extend their franchise. The Calcutta Chromosome is a melodramatic thriller set simultaneously in three periods: the 1890s, when the anopheles mosquito was identified as the carrier of malaria by Sir Ronald Ross, who received a Nobel Prize for his work in 1902; the 1990s, when Murugan pursues his pet...
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SOURCE: “The Story Bug,” in New Statesman, Vol. 125, No. 4299, September 6, 1996, p. 47.
[In the following review, Chew offers a positive assessment of The Calcutta Chromosome.]
With its dazzling and haunting mix of science fiction, the history of malaria research, thriller, ghost story and postcolonial allegory, Amitav Ghosh's new novel is—like his previous work—wonderfully clever as well as a good read. Set in the not-too-distant future but covering in its sweep the 1880s and 1890s (crucial years in the medical history of malaria), The Calcutta Chromosome finds its driving force in the idea of research. Specialised knowledge carries the narrative, and is fired by the character's obsessive energies into mesmerising talk. This has all the excitement and frustrations of the chase, with the tangled operations of accident and design, the ground-breaking discoveries as well as the near-misses.
Antar is a bored computer clerk employed by the International Water Council in New York. In the course of identifying an item from one of the endless inventories that AVA (the computer) is programmed to file, he is stirred to curiosity by the familiar image of a metal chain and its scrap of ID card. A closer check points to the owner as Murugan, a colleague reported missing in Calcutta since August 1995. Murugan was an eccentric who held himself to be the “greatest living expert” on...
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SOURCE: A review of The Calcutta Chromosome, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 221–22.
[In the following review, Sen offers a positive assessment of The Calcutta Chromosome.]
The Calcutta Chromosome is Amitav Ghosh's fourth substantial work of prose. He has already written two novels, The Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines, as well as a book of creative nonfiction, In an Antique Land, all of which have received widespread critical attention and praise. Those familiar with Ghosh's earlier work will at once recognize the macrocosmic links his latest work has with the earlier ones, not in terms of similarity (in fact, stylistically the novels are entirely dissimilar) but in terms of linking various landscapes and vocation. By training, Ghosh is a social anthropologist, and therefore it is not surprising that he brings to his art of writing an exactitude of construction and a clarity of language and style. The way one handles content and themes in a novel, however, is a consequence of one's intellect and genius of creativity. Ghosh possesses all that, and therefore his new novel is able to take the reader through the multiwired world of computer technology, archeology, and tropical medicine that simultaneously traverses an unusually variegated landscape: that of New York, Egypt, and Calcutta.
At the level of story, the novel...
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SOURCE: “Once Bitten,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 21, 1997, p. 13.
[In the following positive review, Panosian discusses the scientific aspects of The Calcutta Chromosome.]
“Murugan sat suddenly upright, the sweat pounding off his face, not sure whether he was still dreaming or awake. The net was buzzing with mosquitoes; he could see them dancing like motes, in the finger of light that bisected his bed. His whole body was aflame, covered with bites. He had been scratching himself furiously in his sleep; he could see blood on his fingernails, and on the sheets.”
Blood, mosquitoes and malaria are all talismans imbued with mystical powers in The Calcutta Chromosome, Amitav Ghosh's latest book, deliciously subtitled A Novel of Fevers, Delirium, and Discovery. Ghosh, a Bengal-born anthropologist living in New York City, ought to know. In his native Calcutta, malaria is a malady as familiar as the common cold, albeit more sinister. Even today, this tropical invasion of red corpuscles claims 1 million to 2 million human lives every year.
Malaria's not the only microbial scourge featured in The Calcutta Chromosome. Syphilis too rears its ugly head, and for good reason. Here's a clue. In the pre-penicillin era, dementia paralytica was sometimes treated by artificially induced malarial fever, in hopes that it might reverse the...
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SOURCE: “Rushdie's Children,” in Nation, Vol. 265, No. 9, September 29, 1997, pp. 36–40.
[In the following essay, Kumar analyzes the reception to and importance of Indian writers who write in English, using Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things and Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome as his primary examples.]
“India: The Fiction Issue” sang the cover of The New Yorker at the newsstand run by a Gujarati man inside Penn Station. On the bright cover, topped with turmeric sunset hues, sat a stone Lord Ganesha browsing through a couple of books, the task made easier because He has more than two hands. And emerging from a thicket, dressed for a safari, were a white couple, mouths agape.
This has been the season of the discovery of India—presumably because it is the fiftieth-anniversary year of Indian independence and not because India, under World Bank/I.M.F. dictates, has introduced wide-scale “structural adjustments,” exponentially increasing the commercial traffic between India and the United States. (Jesse Helms, whose conservatism is old enough to deserve an anniversary of its own, congratulated an Indian-American audience recently for its enthusiasm for U.S. capitalism: “Everything that you good friends who are citizens of this country of ours have worked for—opening the Indian economy and improving relations—is coming to pass.”) Welcome to the...
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SOURCE: “Malarial Dreams,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXVII, No. 50, December 14, 1997, p. 7.
[In the following review, Todd offers a negative assessment of The Calcutta Chromosome, faulting the plot elements as underdeveloped and incohesive.]
Last summer, in a special Indian fiction issue of The New Yorker, Amitav Ghosh was one of 11 writers included in a group photo of leading Indian novelists. The label “Indian novelist,” applied to Ghosh, is slightly misleading, since there's nothing distinctively Indian about Ghosh's writing.
Born in Calcutta and currently living in New York City, Ghosh tends toward the international. His prose doesn't sound Indian: It's the polished, textbook-perfect English of CNN reports. His books of fiction and nonfiction (The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, In an Antique Land) are set in places as diverse as 12th-century Egypt and contemporary London, and his characters are unrooted, itinerant types. He's less interested in describing a single culture than in examining the interaction between cultures and histories on a global scale.
His third novel, The Calcutta Chromosome, is no exception. It spans one century and three continents, and the main characters are an Egyptian data analyst and a malaria-obsessed Indian living in New York City. There's no easy way to describe The...
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SOURCE: “Science-Fiction Novel Intrigues but Falls Short,” in Christian Science Monitor, January 8, 1998, p. 12.
[In the following review, Rosenberg argues that although The Calcutta Chromosome is an excellent fiction novel, it fails as a science-fiction novel due to its lack of scientific concreteness.]
Amitav Ghosh is an Indian-born writer and anthropologist who writes “fabulist,” or science fiction. He considers this genre part of the literary mainstream—one that encompasses such varied works as the 2,000-year-old Babylonian epic, Gilgamesh, replete with mythic elements, and the recent movie Groundhog Day, where time is severed from cause and effect.
His latest novel, The Calcutta Chromosome, begins in the not-too-distant future, where Antar, a low-level functionary using his computer to sort through information, discovers the trace of someone he met briefly in 1995, L. Murugan, who then disappeared.
Murugan was obsessed with the life of Ronald Ross, winner of a 1902 Nobel Prize for discovering the life cycle of the malaria parasite. Beginning with claims about “slight discrepancies” in Ross's work, Murugan responds to more extravagant suggestions—that there was a “secret history” of unseen forces using Ross as a tool, directing his research along certain lines and away from others.
(The entire section is 497 words.)
SOURCE: “The Past is Now,” in Far Eastern Economic Review, Vol. 61, No. 31, July 30, 1998, pp. 42–43.
[In the following review, Tripathi offers a positive assessment of Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma, and stresses the importance of historical Asian literature written by post-colonial Asian writers.]
In 1906, two years after succeeding his half-brother Norodom, King Sisowath of Cambodia went on an extensive visit to Marseilles, accompanied by the royal ballet troupe. France responded warmly to the charming dancers and the king's entourage. The dancers so enchanted sculptor Auguste Rodin that he travelled with them and drew evocative sketches of their fluid, graceful movements. Lamenting their inevitable departure, a moved Rodin said: “What an emptiness they left for me! I thought they had taken away the beauty of the world. I followed them to Marseilles; I would have followed them as far as Cairo.”
According to chroniclers of the day, one milestone of that visit was the signing of a Franco-Siamese treaty, which saw today's Thailand returning the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap to Cambodia. The latter area, where the stunning and culturally significant Angkor Wat temples are located, was particularly meaningful for Cambodia's self-image.
But as David Chandler has pointed out in A History of Cambodia, Sisowath actually had little to...
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SOURCE: A review of Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma, in Asian Affairs, Vol. 30, No. 2, June, 1999, pp. 230–31.
[In the following review of Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma, Zinkin commends Ghosh for his proficiency in portraying the strife and harsh living conditions in past and present-day Burma and Cambodia.]
Published in Delhi, this small book by Amitav Ghosh deserves to be available worldwide. Never before has this reviewer had the privilege of reviewing a travel book, if it can be so classified, of such evocative scholarship and empathy. The title, like the presentation and illustrated cover, is deceptive. There are three essays, two on Cambodia, one on Burma.
The author, Bengali by name who leaves one in doubt as to whether he is Indian or Bangladeshi, has such a rare gift of empathy with the people and events he describes that his readers can imagine themselves at his side.
In Burma he meets Suu Kyi, Aung San's Nobel Prize-winning daughter on two occasions. He is at his best when he describes how the Karen guerrillas manage to live in the jungle off the land they cultivate. A messier situation is difficult to imagine, or indeed convey: there are no boundaries, no issues beyond the government's refusal to let democracy and autonomy exist. Unlike in Cambodia there is no genocide or ethnicity at stake. Some of the guerillas are pure...
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SOURCE: “Microstoria: Indian Nationalism's ‘Little Stories’ in Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 35, No. 2, Fall, 2000, pp. 35–49.
[In the following essay, Roy uses The Shadow Lines as an example of how local ties and community history can supersede the ideal of nationalism.]
If imperialism is an “act of geographical violence through which virtually every space in the world is explored, charted, and finally brought under control,” the primacy of the cartographic impulse in the anti-imperialist imagination is quite understandable. Cultures of resistance are seen to “reclaim, rename and remap the land”1 in their move towards nationalist self-assertion. Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines examines the relevance of nationalism's concern with geographical restoration in the context of a new borderless, global landscape.2 While acknowledging the contribution of nationalism in affirming the Indian people's identity during the Independence struggle, Ghosh attempts to fill up the gaps in nationalist histories by telling alternate revisionist stories, suppressed or elided by nationalism's dominant discourse, even as he interrogates the validity of the nation, nationalism and nationalist identity in an era of global capitalism.
Following Benedict Anderson's idea of “nations” as “imagined...
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SOURCE: “Questions of Authority: The Story of 3 Generations Living in the Shadow of Empire,” in Chicago Tribune Books, Vol. 1154, No. 35, February 4, 2001, pp. 3, 7.
[In the following positive review, Aslami praises The Glass Palace and examines the characters' quests to discover their physical and moral boundaries in a post-colonial land.]
Amitav Ghosh's latest novel, The Glass Palace, begins with a sound. New and unintelligible, this sound comes surging across the plain into Mandalay, Burma, traveling up the banks of the Irrawaddy River, skidding across the western wall of the Mandalay Fort, and ultimately spreading confusion in the marketplace. With gentle irony, the narrator tells us that the only person who can identify the sound correctly—it is British cannon as the army advances on defiant Burma in the 1880s—is Rajkumar, who is merely an Indian and only a boy, and thus not to be believed.
In this way, the opening of Ghosh's fourth novel beautifully ushers the reader into a world of sensations, crowds, symbols and boundaries that rest fragile and suspended in the face of global forces. As this impressive historical novel unfolds over 100 years and across the borders of Burma, India and Malaya, it reminds us how globalization is not a recent invention of late-20th Century capitalism, but rather a phenomenon with a long and complex history that insinuates...
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SOURCE: “The Persistence of Memory in Love and War,” in Christian Science Monitor, February 8, 2001, p. 20.
[In the following positive review, Hewett compliments Ghosh's weaving of history and political turmoil into the lives of his characters in The Glass Palace.]
Amitav Ghosh's sweeping historical novel, The Glass Palace, begins with a young boy watching the British storm the Burmese royal fortress in 1885. Eleven-year-old Rajkumar, an impoverished orphan from India, sneaks into the forbidden palace and meets Dolly, a beautiful young court attendant. Amid the chaos of looting and violence, Dolly's face is permanently etched into Rajkumar's memory.
Soon after, Dolly follows the banished king and queen to India, while Rajkumar stays in Burma, making his fortune in the timber industry.
The young man is haunted by Dolly until years later, when he meets her again in India. The Glass Palace traces the story of their love during the tumultuous 20th century.
Ghosh, the author of three novels and the nonfiction travelogue In an Antique Land (Vintage, 1993), weaves an intricate story of desire whose scope and richness echo the fantastic tales of Naguib Mahfouz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Ghosh grounds his latest work in the unassailable march of history and the unpredictable swings of fate, infusing his novel with a...
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SOURCE: “Questions of Allegiance,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 11, 2001, p. 5.
[In the following review, Budhos offers a positive assessment of The Glass Palace.]
What an exciting time for Indian writing in English. Every month, it seems, another young Indian writer publishes a novel capturing the migratory pangs of the new Indian diaspora, an immigrant group that now ranges from dot-com engineers in Silicon Valley to taxi drivers in New York. In The Glass Palace, Amitav Ghosh has staked a different claim: turning the clock backward to examine a lesser-known, earlier Indian diaspora, and in doing so exploring the foundation of modern Indian identity.
Ambitious, multigenerational, The Glass Palace is a saga akin to a 19th-century Russian novel. Opening with the British invasion of Burma in 1885, its early chapters focus on Rajkumar, a penniless boy who, through sheer intelligence and pluck, becomes a rich merchant in Burma and marries Dolly, a lady-in-waiting from the exiled Burmese royal court.
From Rajkumar, the novel expands to a vast array of characters in Burma, India and Malaya, all connected through the broader currents of history and the intimate links of friendship and marriage. Out of this large cast, the two most searing portraits are of Rajkumar, the unquestioning empire builder, and Arjun, the tormented warrior who tries...
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SOURCE: “The Road from Mandalay,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLVIII, March 8, 2001, pp. 28–31.
[In the following review of The Glass Palace, Iyer acknowledges that Ghosh's body of work draws attention to the oppressed Indian and Burmese people, but argues that Ghosh's political stance against the British is hypocritical in nature.]
Although the British formally left India more than half a century ago, their presence still sits at the center of that culture like a picture of Miss Havisham's lost fiancé. It has been tempting—too tempting, perhaps—to place all the Indian writers recently so conspicuous in the West on a spectrum represented at its poles by Salman Rushdie on the left, trying to get back at the Empire by turning its very language and literature into sentences as crowded and noisy as the streets of an Indian city, and, on the right, V. S. Naipaul, perfecting a style more Augustan and austere than even that of his historical masters, and writing with a self-conscious concern for clarity, and for making fastidious discriminations, in an international world ever more without a center.
The distinction is a political one, of course, as well as a generational one (Rushdie's great good fortune, aesthetically and personally, having been to come into the world just as the British were leaving India), but on neither side have any Indian writers been able to find...
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Barrett, David. “Collected Works.” New Scientist 155, No. 2091 (19 July 1997): 48.
Barrett discusses a variety of novels, including Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome, that are considered science fiction, yet also exhibit aspects of other literary genres.
Brawarsky, Sandee. “Mortality, Mosquitoes, and Mystery.” Lancet 348, No. 9043 (21 December 1996): 1717.
Brawarsky offers a positive assessment of The Calcutta Chromosome, complimenting the novel from a scientific standpoint.
Hayward, Helen. “Once a Golden Land.” Times Literary Supplement, No. 5076 (14 July 2000): 21.
Hayward offers a positive assessment of The Glass Palace.
Mongia, Padmini. “Postcolonial Identity and Gender Boundaries in Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines.” College Literature 19, No. 3 (October 1992): 225–229.
Mongia addresses the cultural and gender based impact that post-colonialism has on modern literature, using The Shadow Lines as her prime example.
Somtow, S. P. “Variations on an Indian Theme.” Washington Post Book World (16 July 1989): 9.
Somtow offers a mixed assessment of The Shadow Lines, praising certain subplots in the novel, but arguing that Ghosh's nonlinear style...
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