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
Maria Couto (review date 28 October 1988)
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...
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G. R. Taneja (review date Spring 1991)
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...
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Stephen Howe (review date 2 October 1992)
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,...
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Ahdaf Soueif (review date 15 January 1993)
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...
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Robert Irwin (review date 28 March 1993)
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...
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Pico Iyer (review date 11 April 1993)
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...
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Clifford Geertz (review date 23–30 August 1993)
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...
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Jonathan M. Elukin (review date Winter 1994)
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...
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James Clifford (review date 24 March 1994)
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...
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Bruce King (review date Spring 1994)
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...
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Robert Dixon (essay date Spring 1996)
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...
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Phil Baker (review date 2 August 1996)
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...
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Michael Hulse (review date 24 August 1996)
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...
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Shirley Chew (review date 6 September 1996)
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...
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Sudeep Sen (review date Winter 1997)
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...
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Claire Panosian (review date 21 September 1997)
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...
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Amitava Kumar (essay date 29 September 1997)
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...
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Tamsin Todd (review date 14 December 1997)
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...
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Paul Rosenberg (review date 8 January 1998)
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...
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Salil Tripathi (review date 30 July 1998)
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...
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Taya Zinkin (review date June 1999)
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...
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Anjali Roy (essay date Fall 2000)
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...
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Zarene Aslami (review date 4 February 2001)
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....
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Heather Hewett (review date 8 February 2001)
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....
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Marina Budhos (review date 11 February 2001)
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...
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Pico Iyer (review date 8 March 2001)
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...
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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...
(The entire section is 242 words.)