Present: Literature: Rendition of the 20th Century
Amitav Ghosh is an lndian-Bengali novelist whose work offers a panoramic treatment of 20th Century history from a postcolonial perspective.
He divides his time between India and the United States.
Ghosh’s work provides a transnational understanding of the self, seen as the intersection of the many identities resulting from the collision of languages and cultures; displacement and exile – lives torn between India, Burma, England, and elsewhere; families torn by the violence and psychological turmoil of colonial rule and postcolonial dispossession; a globe plagued by two world wars and the resulting bloodshed. These elements have been integral to Ghosh’s work from his earliest novels, The Circle of Reason (1986) and The Shadow Lines (1990).
His fiction is distinguished equally by its precise, beautifully rendered depictions of characters and settings, and by its sweeping sense of history unfolding over generations against the backdrop of the violent dislocations of peoples and regimes during the 19th and 20th centuries.
This is most evident in The Glass Palace (2000), which traces the life story of Rajkumar, a self-made young man who builds a fortune in the teak and rubber trades, and spans a century of Indian and Burmese history, from the fall of the Konbaung Dynasty to British rule, through the Japanese invasion during World War II, and beyond.
The impact of Western science and technology on non-Western worlds, and the consequent entanglement of political and environmental upheaval, often lies at the center of Ghosh’s work. In The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), Hindu beliefs about the transmigration of the soul intersect with modern-day ideas about genetics and cloning. The Hungry Tide (2004) chronicles conflicts of culture, class, and worldview through the interlocking stories of an American-born marine biologist of Indian extraction, the illiterate native who becomes her guide, and a Delhi professional who acts as her interpreter.
Sea of Poppies (2008), the first of a trilogy, likewise forecasts the dislocations of the 20th century in its exploration of the intersecting tales of a free mulatto American, an Indian peasant, a disgraced Rajah, and the orphaned daughter of a French botanist working in India. It was followed by River of Smoke (2011) and Flood of Fire (2015).
Ghosh’s most recent work, Jungle Nama (2021), is a verse adaptation of the medieval Bengali tale about the forest goddess Bon Bibi.
Ghosh’s awards include the Prix Médicis Étranger, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Hutch Crossword Book Prize, the Grand Prize for Fiction of the Frankfurt International e-Book Awards, the Sahitya Akademi Award (from India’s National Academy of Letters), and the Grinzane Cavour Prize.
Ghosh’s remarkable reworking of the great tradition of the Western novel in transnational terms marks him as a writer destined for distinction and acclaim.