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Jnanpith is the Grail of literature

By December 17, 2018No Comments

Source : Mumbai Mirror

Amitav Ghosh

Ghosh, who on Friday became the first author writing in English to receive the award, is happy to be ranked alongside his literary heroes.


What does the Jnanpith award mean to you?
The Jnanpith is something very, very special. For anyone who’s come of age in the Indian literary culture, the Jnapith is like the Grail; it’s something quite incredible. The Jnanpith is different from other awards because [the selection] is a very rigorous process and the jury has outstanding scholars. I actually have a personal connection with the Jnanpith. I knew Nandita Jain, who belonged to the family that set up the Jnanpith, the Jains [who are also connected with the Times of India]. Nandita was my age, back in Delhi in the 1980s, but she died very tragically. She used to talk to me about the Jnanpith, its history and background. I think it was her grandmother who set it up. Then there are people who have won the Jnanpith whose work has meant the world to me. Like Gopinath Mohanty, a writer I hugely admire, and Mahasweta Devi, whom I knew very well. These are people whose feet I’ve literally touched. In that sense, it’s incredibly moving for me. Many of [the recipients] are also friends. I knew Nirmal Verma very well back in the old days in Delhi. He was still single then, so we used to sit and drink rum and talk. He was a fascinating man. There’s also Girish Karnad and UR Ananthamurthy, whose works I greatly admire. So in a way, to be in that company, is an extraordinary privilege. The Jnanpith is an institution; it’s not just a transitory thing.

You are the first writer writing in English to have received the award. Does this mean the Jnanpith will now be opened up to writers in English as well?
I don’t think that I am actually the first because Girish [Karnad] writes in English too, and he also translates himself into English. In a sense I think we now live in a world in India where many of us are bilingual; we operate in many languages. Bengali writing and literature has always been very important for me. Today, Englishspeaking writers don’t have much communication with writers from the various bhashas. But that was not the case for me. When I was coming up, I had some very close friendships with Bengali and Hindi writers, and there was a lot of cross-fertilisation. I’ve even translated from Bengali. It’s been a major part of my literary coming-ofage experience.

You divide your time between Goa and the US. What is your life in Goa like?
What attracted me to Goa was that it [provided] a certain kind of solitude with a certain kind of withdrawal, if you like, from the world. To me it was extraordinarily conducive to writing. I can’t write unless I have a certain kind of solitude, a cocoon. But I’m sorry to say that’s no longer the case in Goa. In these last few years, it’s become like a big city. There are huge traffic jams. The more rural character of Goa is dissipating very fast.

Do you find yourself spending less time there now?
Yes, I have been spending less time there. In India, there is this whole whirl of festivals which I stay out of. It can be very distracting and, as writers, we need the quiet and the concentration to be able to write.

Where do you stay in the US?
In Brooklyn. We’ve lived in Brooklyn for twenty years. My children have grown up there, and they live there now.

Ever since The Hungry Tide, it looks like you’ve become very preoccupied with climate change. And last year, you came out with The Great Derangement. Do you plan to write more about climate change or is Derangement a one off thing?
The Great Derangement emerged out of mounting anxiety, within me, about climate change. It began with The Hungry Tide. Way back in 2000, it was already clear that climate change was a reality. Right now, I must say it’s no longer just anxiety; I feel I’m in a state of almost-panic. I feel a panic about my children’s future and about the future of those I meet because I think people just don’t understand how dire the threats are, how immediate and urgent, and how much they are upon us. One reason for this is the people who are the most affected, are also often the most invisible, poor and disenfranchised. Why do you think poor fishermen from Tamil Nadu are being imprisoned in Iran? It’s because all the fish have disappeared from the Bay of Bengal. We are facing a climate emergency, and anyone who’s not paying attention to this, is living in a state of derangement. Once you start paying attention to al the climate change material, you can’t think about anything else. You just can’t look away. So even if I don’t write another extended set of essays like Derangement, never again will I write about anything that is not informed by this awareness.

Will your forthcoming book, Gun Island, talk about climate change? And will it be another trilogy, like the Ibistrilogy, which begins with The Hungry Tide and is also set in the Sunderbans [in West Bengal]?
It’s not about climate change, and it only begins in the Sunderbans. It’s not a trilogy but a book on its own. But some of the characters from Hungry Tide do make their apearance in Gun Island as well.

Tell us more about Gun Island. Will it be out in the Summer of 2019?
Yes, in June. But it’s hard to talk about the book because I’m still in the process of editing it. It’s a book which is about many things, but one of the things it’s really about is how the devastated lives of the people living in the Sunderbans, is now creating ripples across the world. The Great Derangement, for some reason, has touched a chord around the world. So now I constantly get invitations to speak, because while everybody knows that climate change is taking place, not enough people are paying attention to it. People do want to know more. Unfortunately, a lot that’s written about climate change frames [the issues] in terms of economics and technology, whereas the problem is actually cultural and historical. Mine is one of the very few books that places it within that context. There’s a hunger for people to know more about climate change, and I find it’s increasingly difficult for me to make time for my writing [with more speaking commitments].

That’s a strong lobby of naysayers as well, who insist that climate change isn’t real. Do you engage with them?
I’m not there to proselytize. Those who, after looking at the evidence today, don’t believe that climate change is occurring, are not going to change their minds because of me. The material is all out there. In effect, I have nothing to say to them. They should go to some other talk, not come to mine.

(Amitav Ghosh will receive the Lifetime Achievement award at The Times Litfest this evening)

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