Amitav Ghosh

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Amitav Ghosh in 2007

Amitav Ghosh (born 1956) is an Indian author, well known for books such as The Shadow Lines, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Hungry Tide, The Circle of Reason, etc. He has done field work in Egypt on the fellaheen village of Lataifa, which resulted in the book In an Antique Land (1993). The Shadow Lines won the Sahitya Akademi Award, India's most prestigious literary prize. Ghosh is currently Distinguished Professor in Comparative Literature at the Queens College in the City University of New York.


  • Thailand has railways and the British never colonised the country,... In 1885, when the British invaded Burma, the Burmese king was already building railways and telegraphs. These are things Indians could have done themselves.
    • Amitav Ghosh, Interview with "The Week" [1]
  • Hinduism would scarcely be recognizable today, if Vaishnavism had been actively suppressed in the 16th century: other devotional forms may have taken its place, but we cannot know what those would have been. It is a simple fact that contemporary Hinduism as a living practice would not be what it is if it were not for the devotional practices initiated under Mughal rule. The sad irony of the assault on the Babri mosque is that the Hindu fanatics who attacked it destroyed a symbol of the very accommodations that made their own beliefs possible.

From The Shadow Lines (1988)


The Shadow Lines is a novel describes the relatively sedentary life of the book-ish protagonist against the mobile lives in the family of his diplomat uncle. Particularly in focus is his cousin, Ila, and the youngest of his uncles, Tridib. The powerful narrative come to a climax during religious riots in pre-Bangladesh East Pakistan in 1964.

Bengal Gastric


[Digestion problems are endemic in Bengal.

Every now and then a rumble in his bowels would catch him unawares and he would have to sprint for the nearest clean lavatory. This condition was known as Tridib's gastric.

Once every few months or so we would answer the doorbell and find him leaning against the wall, his legs tightly crossed, the sweat starting from his forehead. But he wouldn't come in right away; there was a careful etiquette attached to these occasions. My parents and grandmother would collect at the doorway and, ignoring his writhings, would proceed to ask him about his family's doings and whereabouts, and he in turn, smiling fixedly, would ask them how they were, and how I was, and finally, when it had been established to everyone's satisfaction that he had come on a Family Visit, he would shoot through the door straight into the lavatory. (3-4)

[My grandmother] believed [Tridib] capable of exerting his influence at a distance, like a baneful planet -- and since she also believed the male, as a species, to be naturally frail and wayward she would not allow herself to take the risk of having him for long in our flat where I, or my father, might be tempted to move into his orbit. (4)

He (Tridib) did not seem to want to make friends with the people he was talking to, and that perhaps was why he was happiest in neutral, impersonal places - coffee houses, bars, street-corner addas - the sort of place where people come, talk and go away without expecting to know each other any further. This was also why he chose to come all the way from Ballygunge to Gole Park for his addas . . . (9)

The truth was that in his own way, Tridib was something of a recluse: even as a child I could tell that he was happiest in that book-lined room of his, right at the top of their old family house. It was that Tridib whom I liked best; I was a bit unsure of the Tridib of street corners. (18)

Maps, Places, and the Familiar


[Ila is Tridib's niece,and the narrator's secret, unrequitted longing] I tried to tell her but neither then nor later, though we talked about it often, did I ever succeed in telling her that I could not forget because Tridib had given me worlds to travel in, and he had given me eyes to see them with; she who had been travelling around the world since she was a child, could never understand what those hours in Tridib's room had meant to me, a boy who had never been more than a few hundred miles from Calcutta. I used to listen to her talking sometimes to her father and grandfather about cafes in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, or the crispness of the air in Cuzco, and I could see that those names, which to me were a set of magical talismans because Tridib had pointed them out to me on his tattered old Bartholomew's Atlas, had for her a familiarity no less dull than the Lake (in Calcutta) had for me and my friends; the same tired intimacy that made us stop on our way back from the park in the evening and unbutton our shorts and aim our piss through the rusty wrought-iron railings. (20)

I began to tell her how I longed to visit Cairo, to see the world's first pointed arch in the mosque of Ibn Tulun, and touch the stones of the great Pyramid of Cheops. . . I watched her, waiting eagerly to hear what she would have to say. Suddenly she clicked her fingers, gave herself a satisfied nod, and said aloud, inadvertently: Oh yes, Cairo, the Ladies is way away on the other side of the departure lounge. I had a glimpse at that moment, of those other names on the map as they appeared to her: a worldwide string of departure lounges . . . each of them strikingly different, distinctively individual, each with its Ladies hidden away in some yet more unexpected corner of the hall . . . . I imagined her alighting on these daydream names - Addis Ababa, Algiers, Brisbane - and running around the airport to look for the Ladies, not because she wanted to go, but because those were the only fixed points in the shifting landscapes of her childhood. (20)

I could not persuade her that a place does not merely exist, that it has to be invented in one's imagination; that her practical, bustling London was no less invented than mine, neither more or less true, only very far apart. It was not her fault that she could not understand, for as Tridib often said of her, the inventions she lived in moved with her, so that although she had lived in many places, she had never travelled at all.(21)



[In] my own small, puritanical world, in which children were sent to school to learn how to cling to their gentility by proving themselves in the examination hall. [23]

Ila lived so intensely in the present that she would not have believed that there were people like Tridib, who could experience the world in their imaginations as concretely as she did through her senses, more so if anything, since to them those experiences were permanently available in their memories, whereas with her, when she spoke of her last lover's legs, the words had nothing to with an excitement stored in her senses, but were just a string of words that she would remember while they sounded funny and then forget as completely as she had the lover and his legs. (30)

If we didn't try ourselves [to invent what we saw] we would never be free of other people's inventions. [31]

Betraying a Child's World


I don't know what the matter with him is , my mother said, he has been waiting for her (Ila) for days . . . At that moment I hated my mother. For the first time in my life she had betrayed me. She had given me away, she had made public, then and for ever, the inequality of our needs; she had given Ila the knowledge of her power and she had left me defenceless; naked, in the face of that unthinkable, adult truth, that need is not transitive, that one may need without oneself being needed. (44)

After that day Nick Price, whom I had never seen, and would, as far as I knew, never see, became a spectral presence beside me in my looking glass; growing with me, but always bigger and better, and in some way more desirable - I did not know what, except that it was so in Ila's eyes and therefore true. (50)

There is something strikingly different about the quality of photographs of that time. It has nothing to do with age or colour, or the feel of paper. . . . In modern family photographs the camera pretends to circulate like a friend, clicking its shutters at those moments when its subjects have disarranged themselves to present to it those postures which they would like to think of as informal. But in pictures of that time, the camera is still a public and alien eye, faced with which people feel bound either to challenge the intrusion by striking postures of defiant hilarity, or else to compose their faces, and straighten their shoulders, not always formally, but usually with just that hint of stiffness which suggests a public face. (60)

... they knew that their world, and in all probability they themselves, would not survive the war. What is the colour of that knowledge? Nobody knows, nobody can ever know, not even in memory, because there are moments in time that are not knowable: nobody can ever know what it was like to be young and intelligent in the summer of 1939 in London or Berlin.
And in the meanwhile, there they are, in that gilded summer, laughing and singing their way back to Brick Lane. (68)

Ila has no right to live there, she said hoarsely. She doesn't belong there. It took those people a long time to build that country; hundreds of years, years and years of war and bloodshed. Everyone who has lived there has earned his right to be there with blood: with their brother's blood and their father's blood and their son's blood. They know they're a nation because they've drawn their borders with blood. (77-78)

[grandmother; about Ila] her hair cut short, like the bristles on a toothbrush, wearing tight trousers like a Free School Street whore. (80)

[abundant physical courage - Robi does not join the strike. Why?] Because a rule's a rule; if you break one you have to be willing to pay the price.
But is it a good rule? I asked. I could not get him to answer my question.

I saw Ila's face again as I had seen it that night in the taxi, wet with tears, twisted with anger and hatred, and I thought of how much they wanted to be free; how they went mad wanting their freedom; I began to wonder whether it was I that was mad because I was happy to be bound: whether I was alone in knowing that I could not live without the clamour of the voices within me. (88)

There seemed to be something fitting, after all, in the manner in which I learnt of my grandmother's death: she had always been too passionate a person to find real place in my tidy late-bourgeois world, the world that I had inherited, in which examinations were more important than death. (92)

I began to marvel at the easy arrogance with which she believed that her experience could encompass other moments simply because it had come later; that times and places are the same because they happen to look alike, like airport lounges. (103-104)

I saw Ila again and again as she was when she stepped out of that car at Gole Park, eighteen years ago; on that morning when she wrenched me into adulthood by demonstrating for the first time, and forever, the inequality of our needs. And when she did not come back to the cellar that night, I knew she had taken my life hostage yet again; I knew that a part of my life as a human being had ceased: that I no longer existed, but as a chronicle. (112)

But he (Tridib) did know that that was how he wanted to meet her, May -- a stranger, in a ruin. He wanted them to meet as the completest of strangers -- strangers-across-the-seas -- all the more strangers because they knew each other already. He wanted them to meet far from their friends and relatives -- in a place without a past, without history, free, really free, two people coming together with the utter freedom of strangers. (144)

at bottom she thought the Shaheb was . . . weak, essentially weak, backbone-less; it was impossible to think of him being firm under threat, of reacting to a difficult or dangerous situation with that controlled accurate violence which was the quality she prized above all others in men who had to deal with matters of state. (147)



[About seeing the border from the air] But if there aren't any trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean, where's the difference then? And if there's no difference both sides will be the same; it'll be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day . . . (151)

Everyone lives in a Story


Everyone lives in a story, he says, my grandmother, my father, his father, Lenin, Einstein, and lots of other names I hadn't heard of; they all lived in stories, because stories are all there are to live in, it was just a question of which one you chose. . . [182]

I tried to see Dhaka as she (grandmother) must have seen it that night, sitting by her window. But I hadn't been to Dhaka, and in any case her Dhaka had long since vanished into the past. I had only her memories to go on, and those put together could give me a faint, sepia-tinted picture of her arrivals in Dhaka, decades ago: a picture in which I could see dimly in the middle distance, a black steaming engine, puffing smoke, and a long line of carriages . . . . I can guess at the outlines of the image that lived in her mind, but I have no inkling at all of the sounds and smells she remembered. Perhaps they were no different from those in any of the thousands of railway stations in the subcontinent. Perhaps, on the other hand, they consisted of some unusual alchemical mixture of the sound of the dialect and the smell of the vast, mile-wide rivers, which alone had the power to bring upon her that comfortable lassitude which we call a sense of homecoming. (193)

Years later, I used to wonder at my mother's odd relationship with her little transistor radio. It was given a place of singular honour in her room: it stood on the same shelf on which she kept framed pictures of her dead parents. She never missed the morning news if she could help it: those bulletins were the liturgy of the ritual of our breakfast. [198]



He cried like that all the way home, for all of us.
It would not be enough to say we were afraid; we were stupefied with fear.

That particular fear has the texture you can neither forget nor describe. It is like the fear of the victims of an earthquake, of people who have lost faith in the stillness of the earth. And yet it is not the same. It is without analogy for it is not comparable to the fear of nature, which is the most universal of human fears, nor to the fear of violence of the state, which is the commonest of modern fears. It is the fear that comes from the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent, that spaces that surround one, the streets that one inhabits, can become, suddenly and without warning, as hostile as a desert in a flash flood. It is this that sets apart the thousand million people who inhabit the subcontinent from the rest of the world - not language, not food, not music - it is the special quality of loneliness that grows out of the fear of the war between oneself and one's image in the mirror. (204*)



Every word I write about those events of 1964 is the product of a struggle with silence. It is a struggle I am destined to lose - have already lost - for even after all these years, I do not know where within me, in which corner of my world, this silence lies. All I know of is what this silence is not. It is not for example, a silence of imperfect memory. Nor is it a silence enforced by a ruthless state - nothing like that, no barbed wire, no checkpoints to tell me where my boundaries lie. I know nothing of this silence except that it lies outside the reach of my intelligence, beyond words - that is why this silence must win, must inevitably defeat me, because it is not a presence at all; it is simply a gap, a hole, an emptiness in which there are no words. (218)

On the whole in the whole of the valley there was not one single recorded incident of animosity between Kashmiri Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. There is a note of surprise -- so thin is our belief in the power of syncretic civilizations -- in the newspaper reports which tell us that the theft of the relic had brought together the people of Kashmir as never before. [225]

There is nothing quite as evocative as an old newspaper. There is something in its urgent contemporaneity -- the weather reports, the list of that day's engagements in the city, the advertisements for half remembered films, still crying out in bold print as though it were all happening now, today -- and the feeling besides, that one may once have handled, if not that very paper, then its exact likeness, its twin, which transports one in time as nothing else can. [227]

There are no reliable estimates of how many people were killed in the riots of 1964. The number could stretch from several hundred to several thousand: at any rate not very many less than were killed in the war of 1962. [229]

From the evidence of the newspapers, it is clear that once the riots had started both governments did everything they could to put a stop to them . . . for the madness of a riot is a pathological inversion, but also therefore a reminder, of that indivisible sanity that binds people to each other independently of their governments. And that prior, independent relationship is the natural enemy of government, for it is in the logic o states to exist at all they must claim the monopoly of all relationships between peoples. [230]

The theatre of war, where generals meet, is the stage on which states disport themselves: they have no use for memories of riots. (230)

I discovered that Khulna is about as far from Srinagar as Tokyo is from Beijing, or Moscow from Venice, or Washington from Havana, or Cairo from Naples. (1200 km) [231]

Chiang Mai in Thailand was much nearer to Calcutta than Delhi is; that Chengdu in China is nearer than Srinagar is. . . Yet did the people of Khulna care at all about the fate of mosques in Vietnam and South China (a mere stone's throw away)? I doubted it. But in this other direction, it took no more than a week . . . [232]

They had drawn their borders, believing in that pattern, in the enchantment of lines, hoping perhaps that once they had etched their borders upon the map, the two bits of land would sail away from each other . . . What had they felt, I wondered, when they discovered that they had created not a separation, but a yet-undiscovered irony - the irony that killed Tridib: the simple fact that there had never been a moment in the four-thousand-year-old history of that map, when places like Dhaka and Calcutta were more closely bound to each other than after they had drawn their lines . . . (233)

[Note: Compare the description of Shashi Tharoor's Riot]

Robi told us stories about his colleagues in the Indian Administrative Service -- funny stories about lonely young men who lived in huge colonial mansions in remote districts and spent their time writing symbolist poetry and masturbating. (241) NOTE: compare shades of English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee

And then I think to myself why don't they draw thousands of little lines through the whole subcontinent and give every little place a new name? What would it change? It is a mirage; the whole thing is a mirage. How can anyone divide memory? If freedom were possible then Tridib's death would have set me free. And yet all it takes to set my hand shaking like a leaf, fifteen years later, thousands of miles away, is a chance remark by a waiter in a restaurant. (247)

From Nana Sahib And The Texas Detour (2003)


This famous essay in the New Yorker (April 7, 2003), written in the shadow of the Iraq occupation compares American imperialism with imperialisms of the past.

What President Bush likes to call the 'coalition of the willing' is dominated after all by America, Britain and Australia - three English-speaking countries whose allegiances are rooted not just in a shared culture and common institutions but also in a shared history of territorial expansion. Seen in this light, the alignment is only the newest phase in the evolution of the most potent political force of the last two centuries: the Anglophone Empire.

Some of today's imperial enthusiasts have pointed to Indian democracy as proof that a colonial presence can be reconstructive, helping to create a stable civil society. To counter this argument, however, we need only to look at a list of cities where Al Qaeda's fugitive leaders are said to have taken refuge - Aden, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Quetta, Lahore, Karachi. The British bestrode these cities for centuries and yet the antagonism to the West that simmers in them now is greater even than it was in 1857.

In the world of human beings, even defeat is a transaction. If there is any lesson to be drawn from the subcontinent's experience of empire, it is that defeat can be negotiated in many different ways. In India democracy thrives, while in Pakistan democracy has consistently devolved into authoritarianism. For Iraq to go the way of India, the current avatar of the Anglophone empire will have to succeed in creating, in the span of a few years, what earlier incarnations failed to do over decades.

Many hawks in the United States now openly admit to a veneration of past empires, yet they seem to have absorbed the military lessons of imperialism to the exclusion of all else. I suspect that this is the reason that many in the British political establishment were so dismayed by the build-up to the Iraq war. They know all too well that an aura of legitimacy and consent is essential in matters of empire.

Legitimacy and the tactics of persuasion are obviously not high priorities for the Bush administration. The task would be difficult anyway. In the 19th century, the apparatus of persuasion was effective partly because the colonising force could exercise close control over the flow of information. . . .

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016)

  • the great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities.
  • Recognition is famously a passage from ignorance to knowledge.
  • at exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics, and literature alike.
  • Just as novels have come to be seen as narratives of identity, so too has politics become, for many, a search for personal authenticity, a journey of self-discovery.
  • to imagine other forms of human existence is exactly the challenge that is posed by the climate crisis: for if there is one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear it is that to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide. We need, rather, to envision what it might be.
  • To want to be ahead, and to celebrate and mythify this endeavor, is indeed one of the most powerful impulses of modernity itself.
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