Critically acclaimed Bengali author Amithav Ghosh offered a glimpse into his creative process and talked about a few themes which inspire his work during an interview by a popular Malayalam writer at Sharjah International Book Fair.
Ghosh is the author of The Circle of Reason which was his debut novel, followed by other books such as The Shadow Lines, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide, and The Sea of Poppies.
The author has won numerous prestigious awards and prizes from all over the world for his marvelous work. The Prix Medicis etranger, which is one of France's top literary awards was awarded to him for his first book, The Circle of Reason. Other awards include Indian awards Ananda Puraskar and Sahitya Akademi for The Shadow Lines, an Arthur C. Clarke award in 1997 for The Calcutta Chromosome and his book The Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and co-winner of the 2010 Dan David Prize.
Many of his themes deal with globalization, cosmopolitanism and the immigration of South Asians, particularly during historical times. Ghosh chose to speak about his deep fascination for the Middle East and it was observed that he was one of the only Indian writers to have a strong, continued influence of Arab culture in his work. He wanted to highlight what life was like in the Middle East during Medieval times and he was very interested in the strong bond between Indians and Arabs at that time, and the merging of these two very different cultures.
He spoke about his interest with the ancient language of Judeo-Arabic which was a form of colloquial Arabic written in a Hebrew script during medieval times. What really fascinated him is throughout history, Arabic has always been written extremely formally and so it is through the ironic use of Hebrew that we can learn about this old, curious slang of Arabic and gain a faint insight about what life was really like at that time. The last known document that was recorded from this obsolete language was in 1880 which was a marriage contract from Bombay.
After further researching into the subject, Ghosh discovered that there were many Ancient languages that merged together in similar ways. Although it may seem normal to us living in an era of multiculturalism, back then it was most unusual and extraordinary and he wanted to expand on this and the different ways in which ancient languages overlapped and borrowed each other's cultures.
He found a nostalgic romance in the way in which Arab and Indian cultures were both intertwined and were segregated and this became an ongoing fascination in his literary works. The fact that hardly any Indian writers explored this territory made him very unique.
Although there was a clear separation in terms of social classes between the Arabs and the Indians at the time, it is clear that they were very influenced by each other in many ways and lived peacefully with respect. This historical version of cosmopolitism attracted him a great deal and it continues to be a reoccurring subject which he likes to explore.
He also talked about the rise of religious fundamentalism in Egypt and the effect this had on various tribal practices and politics during the 1970s.
Ghosh observed that historically, Egypt had accumulated many traditions relating to their very own culture, tribes and customs which was very interesting, but sadly these very quintessential cultural practices started to fade and diminish when fundamentalism started to become the norm. He found that the more and more Puritanism was taking a center stage, the more the quaint tribal and Sufi ideologies diminished.
Even matters that concerned genders were being attacked such as women visiting graves, which eventually became outlawed. Fundamentalism put a halt to all these interesting innovations and now there is hardly any trace of what was there. He also touched on the ongoing battle with kinship versus morality and he talked about his comparisons between Arab oil and Indian spice trades – both of these topics have a lot of depth which interests him.
He is attracted to India's history, particularly the ways in which it connected with other cultures and civilizations such as Malaysia, Mauritius and Singapore. With the continuing rise of highly Americanized influences within Indian metropolitan cities, the author stated that it was essential for Indians to recognize and include the rest of the world in its connection with India, rather than obsess solely about Western superpower influences. It is only when they observe the ways in which India touched so many civilizations throughout history, can they truly begin to understand, engage and appreciate it.