Amitav Ghosh Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.