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Since 1st March, 1999
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Amitav Ghosh: Critical Perspectives Edited by Brinda Bose, Pencraft, Rs 440

A creative writer usually shies away from literary critics who tend to theorize his work, deconstruct it; in other words, “read” it in a way that might be the exact opposite of what the writer set out to do. To a lesser extent, he is wary of students who are compelled to read his work because it is prescribed for the examination. A reading of the author’s foreword in this book shows that Amitav Ghosh had some of these apprehensions before he interacted with undergraduate students at Delhi University at a reading session. He says, “I participated in many interesting and instructive conversations: that some of the opinions expressed had little to do with my intentions as a writer meant little to me. What mattered was the thoughtfulness and passion that animated every discussion.”

There are many sides to Amitav Ghosh. As Brinda Bose puts it in the introduction, “Amitav Ghosh today cheerfully — if humbly — bears numerous mantles of responsibility…. anthropologist, sociologist, novelist, essayist, travel-writer, teacher, and slips in and out of these valid categories with admirable aplomb.” This collection of essays tackles Ghosh’s multi-faceted talent well. Since it is largely meant for students of English literature, the “Students Colloquium” on studying The Shadow Lines, an interactive piece that takes up four responses to the novel, is refreshing as well as purposeful.

Though he lives in New York, the presence of Bengal, specially Calcutta is something that one cannot miss in Ghosh’s works, right from his first novel, The Circle of Reason. Another theme that dominates is of migration/dislocation.

In the first essay, “No Home but in Memory”, Kavita Daiya takes a look at the first two novels as critiques of nationalism and globalization. According to her, Ghosh’s novels “claim a unique position in the postcolonial literature that explores and sometimes uncritically celebrates the hybridity of post-colonial nationality and migration”. The Shadow Lines is the most discussed novel in the anthology and claims roughly half the space in the book. It appeals to the contemporary reader, cutting across socio-geographical boundaries in a seemingly effortless way. There is also discussion on The Calcutta Chromosome, which is possibly Ghosh’s most complicated novel. Most of the essays are critically sound, the credit for which goes as much to the editor as to the writers, but my favourite is the discussion of The Shadow Lines by four students of English literature. Some of their remarks are quite insightful. For example, one of them says, “in spite of its ‘Indianness’, it is still addressed to an international audience, managing to convey the universality of the theme.”

In an Antique Land describes Ghosh’s fieldwork in Egypt, interweaving strands of anthropology, history and fiction in an amazing way. Ghosh accesses a lot of literary material, referring repeatedly to 12th-century travellers, geographers, historians, diplomats and poets. Shirley Chew takes a look at some of these texts that contribute to the “novel”, which is how In an Antique Land is categorized.

Let’s take a brief look at the other essays in the book — there is a critique of the supernatural element in The Calcutta Chromosome; The Glass Palace considered as a postcolonial narrative, Countdown as a critical comment on the nuclear arms race in south Asia and an interview with the author, with which the book ends. One wishes there were more essays looking at The Glass Palace from the social scientist’s viewpoint. Literary criticism seems limiting and limited unless it transcends the purely literary approach. This anthology should be of use to both academic and lay readers of Ghosh.

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