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by Sonali Perera

How do we think “how many are we?” outside the cold calculations of the state and its officiating bureaucrats—outside internalized racism and the partitioning of the mind? How do we develop an “historical imagination” over and against the mechanical conveniences of map-making—lines drawn in the sand by dominant history? Good writers compel us to confront such questions. When you pick up any one of Amitav Ghosh’s texts—his meticulously researched historical novels; his mixed genre works combining travelogue, slave narrative, contemporary history, and ethnography; or his activist journalism—you are immersed in his process—the process of developing an historical imagination. According to Meenakshi Mukherjee, “each of Amitav Ghosh’s books . . . invariably focuses on themes in history and connections across geography that have seldom been explored before, and does so with imagination supported by archival research.” The ethics implicit in such acts of writing (and also reading) allow us to touch the distant and the unfamiliar through acts of literature.

Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide moves its readers by creating these encounters. Set in the Sunderbans (“beautiful forests”), an archipelago of islands between the sea and the plains of Bengal, on the easternmost coast of India, his most recent book is a beautifully complex novel which pits ecologists and conservationists against refugees—politics against ethics. The passage below brings home the question “how many are we?” Nirmal, a disillusioned revolutionary tired of sloganeering politics, strains to connect to a cause that makes sense to him. He witnesses firsthand the defiance of refugee-settlers who refuse to move even as armed state officials seek to evict them from the tide-country island (now designated a protected area for the Bengal tiger):

Amra Kara? Bastuhara.” Who are we? We are the dispossessed.

How strange it was to hear this plaintive cry wafting across the water. It seemed at that moment not to be a shout of defiance but rather a question being addressed to the very heavens, not just for themselves but on behalf of a bewildered humankind. Who, indeed, are we? Where do we belong? And as I listened to the sound of those syllables, it was as if I were hearing the deepest uncertainties of my heart being spoken to the rivers and the tides. Who was I? Where did I belong? In Calcutta or in the tide-country? In India or across the border? In prose or poetry?

Then we heard the settlers shouting a refrain, answering the questions they themselves had posed: “Morichjhapi Charbona.” We’ll not leave Morichjhapi, do what you may.

Standing on the deck of the bhotbhoti, I was struck by the beauty of this. Where else could you belong, except in the place you refused to leave.

In his essay “Beyond Human Rights,” Giorgio Agamben postulates that the refugee (not asylum seeker) is the paradigmatic figure of our age. To be sure, in the aftermath of so many wars, so many tsunamis, so many Katrinas, his generalization seems apt—and, sadly, only too familiar. Ghosh imagines a way of connecting with this standpoint in his portrait of refugee-settlers in contemporary India. He draws upon the specifics of South Asian history in order to draw us out of ourselves to consider the meaning of “belonging.”

I’ve long admired Ghosh’s ability to present us simultaneously with a sense of South Asia’s particularity and its universality. He manages this to different ends in works like Shadowlines, The Circle of Reason, The Calcutta Chromosome, and The Glass Palace. The Glass Palace was nominated for the Commonwealth Book Award—a prize that he refused. Ghosh withdrew his name from consideration, maintaining that it would “betray the spirit of [his] book if he were to allow it to be incorporated within that particular memorialization of Empire that passes under the rubric of commonwealth,” adding that “the ways in which we remember the past are not determined solely by the brute facts of time. They are also open to choice, reflection, and judgment.” In my postcolonial studies classes, I like to call my students’ attention to these statements and to the rationale behind this principled refusal of recognition and validation.

But I also wonder if his expansive and generous vision of South Asia might have something to do with all the South Asian spaces he has called home. Ghosh was born in 1956 in Calcutta, India. He has lived in Dhaka, Sri Lanka, New Delhi, Kolkota, and Brooklyn. Besides calling these places home, he remains deeply committed to the intellectual life, communities of thought, and social justice organizations found there. In the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami, he traveled to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and “reported” from the refugee camps of Port Blair. In his reportage and commentary he called our attention to a place hard-hit but somehow overlooked in the scheme of crisis management photo opportunities.

Professor Ghosh’s ethical commitments are rooted in his global education. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Delhi University and his doctoral degree in social anthropology from Oxford University. He has taught classes worldwide, in departments as varied as English, comparative literature, sociology, and anthropology. While continuing to write and publish in English, he remains committed to promoting literary works composed in South Asian languages as well.


Editor’s Note: Amitav Ghosh was a plenary speaker for Being and Becoming: Perspectives on Global South Asia, a conference that took place on November 10, 2006. The English department co-sponsored this lecture; Sonali Perera delivered a version of these remarks.

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