Amitav Ghosh: 2019 National Book Festival

Amitav Ghosh: 2019 National Book Festival


>>Bilal Qureshi:
Welcome to all of you. My name is Bilal Qureshi. I cover International Arts
and Culture for NPR and write about books for the
Washington Post. And I’m so honored to
get to share the stage with Mr. Amitav Ghosh
and I know all of us are so excited about this as well. There isn’t a more
fitting stage for, I think, your work in particular,
because as many of you know, he’s written novels
that span the world. They are the definition
of international. I mean, your characters,
whether they’re in India, Egypt, Burma or on the high seas
during the Opium Wars, are men and women whose lives span
languages and boundaries. And are the ideas that
you explore are carried by your prose and your
gripping narratives. And this is very
much the subject of the new novel
that you’re here. I think this is your
first American talk about this book, is that right?>>Amitav Ghosh: Ah,
yes actually it is, yes.>>Bilal Qureshi: Yeah, so
we’re the first port of call, as it were, for “Gun Island”. And it’s a quintessentially
Amitav Ghosh novel. There’s a rare book
stealer from- I’m not going to give away much of the
plot, but I just wanted to briefly summarize
it before we began. Which is that there’s a rare
book dealer from Brooklyn, who finds himself drawn into a
mysterious myth of a merchant and a snake wielding
goddess from Bengal. And it’s an adventure story
that goes from the Sundarbans to the Grand Canal in
Venice to California and onto the migration crisis
that we’re in the middle of now. And it’s a global novel, but also a very timely
and urgent novel. And so, with that, I am so
grateful that we get to talk to you about this
book and the ideas that have fueled this
book, in particular.>>Amitav Ghosh:
Thank you, Bilal. And I can say what a
pleasure it is to be here, in this incredible
festival, with so many of you. It’s just, it’s just wonderful. And to be here with you,
Bilal, is wonderful. I’ve been listening to you on “All Things Considered”
for ages.>>Bilal Qureshi: Sure
not that much, but->>Amitav Ghosh:
Great to meet you.>>Bilal Qureshi:
Well no, thank you. And I think with this book, I
wanted to begin, before talking about it, that there’s
an excerpt in particular, in the book, where the
central character named Deen, is sort of talking
about his love of books. And I feel that there are
often, in a lot of your novels, you know, I think many readers
think this, that- how much of this is about the writer, how much of it is
about the characters? But in this particular
case, a certain love of books is expressed. And I wondered if you would
mind reading that section.>>Amitav Ghosh:
I’d be happy to.>>Bilal Qureshi:
And we could- I want to learn a little bit more
about your road to writing.>>Amitav Ghosh:
“Back in those days, there were very few
book shops in Calcutta and their wares were
far beyond my reach. Instead, I frequented libraries
and secondhand book shops. Reading was my means, I told
her, of escaping the narrowness of the world I lived in. But was it possible that
my world had seemed narrow precisely because I
was a voracious reader? After all, how can any
reality match the worlds that exist only in books? Either way, the fact
was that novels had done for me exactly what
critics had anticipated. When romances first began
to circulate widely, in the 18th Century, they had
created dreams and desires that were unsettling
in the exact sense that they were the
instruments of my uprooting.”>>Bilal Qureshi: Hmm. That’s such a- I mean,
it just a beautiful idea that the books kind of lead-
that reading can lead to, sort of, an uprooting which
can be a very positive things as well. I wonder if you would comment
on that or reflect on that.>>Amitav Ghosh: Well it’s,
it’s a meme, isn’t it? I mean, like reading
[inaudible], reading “Lolita” in Tehran and I mean, they’re
like many books like that now. And I think it is, actually,
the case that you know, when you start reading
books about other places, other countries, you know, you
get drawn into them and you want to see them, you
want to visit them; maybe you want to
live in them even.>>Bilal Qureshi: And your
own background was you grew up in many different
places as a young man. You lived in many different
countries and that has, and we talk about, you know, being in the international
stage, I think it’s just a very
natural and organic part of your biography, right?>>Amitav Ghosh: It is. It is very much so. I mean, you know, as
a child I traveled. Then again, as a
student I traveled. So, you know, right from the
start of my writing career, I wanted to represent
this particular reality. You know, which is actually
the reality for, I would guess, like 80% of the people
in this room. You know that I mean, you’re
born in one place, but you live in another city, you travel,
you go to many different places. There is a kind of,
what shall I say, a sort of extended component
to all our lives now, where we bounce between places.>>Bilal Qureshi: And you
also began your writing career when you, sort of moved to
into writing as a profession, as a young- after college
I believe, as a journalist. So, can you talk
about how that sort of informed how you think about,
even the novel for example? Because I think a lot of
your books, for many of us who are readers, find them-
they’re full of information, full of ideas, things that
we know you’ve researched and almost done interviews
often on behalf of- I know that’s the
case with this book. So, the journalism
and how that, perhaps, guided you toward the
novel or continues to be a part of your process.>>Amitav Ghosh: Journalism,
you know, my first job on leaving college, and
in those days in India, we used to leave college quite
early, so I was about 18 or 19. And it was at a paper
called The Indian Express. This- I started there in 1976
and that was at the height of what was the emergency,
that is, this period of dictatorial rule that was imposed
by Indira Gandhi. So, and The Indian Express
was in the forefront of the resistence to this. So, it was a very exciting
and thrilling time. You know, we were constantly
being raided by the police. We had all these sorts of
bizarre things happening. And, you know, it was- it
was an old fashioned kind of journalism. I mean, it was really
like print. You know, you had to
have these huge sheets which were bound together
by things called flanges. And you would have to, sort of,
set, you know, set the paper. So, it was, in every way,
just incredibly exciting. And the habits of that time,
you know, just taking notes, listening to people,
hearing what they say, all those things have been very
important to me all my life. And I’ve been fortunate to be
able to do a lot of journalism, even here in the U.S., you know, for the New Yorker,
for the New Republic. And all of that has been
very important to me and it’s really been
a major part of my, sort of, work and life.>>Bilal Qureshi: Well I-
in 2016, I believe it is, that you released your
previous book which is called “The Great Derangement”. And that’s not a novel,
but it’s almost- it is, it’s a journalistic
piece in some way, because you’ve reported it, you’ve gone out and
researched it. It’s also an essay. It’s an argument about
the role of artists, in this particular
political time that we’re in, related to the issue
of climate change. And how, perhaps, this topic
that’s always in our life and always in the, sort
of, newsprint as it were, is something that artists have
failed to find the vocabulary or the emotion to be able
to be able to express. And I- it’s really, you
basically made a call to arms. Like, a kind of call to artists
in a sense, that they have to address this issue as well. It’s in our midst, and I wanted
to ask you about that book and what prompted that. And what you would
say about this idea that you really felt we
needed to think about.>>Amitav Ghosh: It’s
interesting that you say that. You know, when I published that
book in 2016, and even earlier, when I talked to friends who are
writers and artists and I said, “You know, I’m writing this
thing about climate change,” they all just look at me
and say, “Climate change? I mean, what’s the
matter with you? Why are you even
thinking about that?” And you know, but since that
time, especially I think around about 2018, I think
everybody now knows, you know, this thing is coming at
us like an express train. You know, and none of us
actually- it’s going to sort of impact on all our lives
in such devastating ways. The world we’ve known,
essentially has ended, you know? We’re living in a different
kind of reality now. And I think the political
upheavals that we’re seeing all around us, you know,
that’s a reflection of this changed reality; the
changed reality that we’re in. So, yeah, but my book,
my book was not intended, really, to be a call to arms. I mean, you know, if I
were 20 years younger, I might have been an activist. But, at this point, I can only
be an activist unto myself, as it were. So, it was intended,
really, to be, if you like, an introspection about my
own work because you know, I’m from one of the
most vulnerable parts of the world, which is Bengal. In 2000, I started
writing a book which is called “The
Hungry Tide”. It’s set in the Sundarban, that is this vast mangrove
forest in southern Bengal. And this area is, you know,
even back then in 2000, we could see how
badly affected it was. And in the years since, it’s just gotten worse
and worse and worse. So, you know, round
about 2015- 2014, 2015, when I saw how bad
the news was getting, and really if you follow
this stuff closely, you know, as I started doing, you
actually know it’s much worse than people let on,
almost you might say. So, I started asking myself, “Why do I not see this
reflected in literature? In art? Why don’t I see it? Why are so few novels actually
about, you know, these issues?” And there again, the
question is that it’s not just that the novels aren’t there, because actually
there are many novels, et cetera, about these issues. It’s about the wider
ecosystem of literature. You know? You may write a novel
that is about climate change, but if it doesn’t get reviewed,
you know, how does it matter? Nobody notices it anyway. And if you go back and look
at all the major book reviews, you know, like the New
York Times book review, the New York review
of books, et cetera, you’ll see that they often deal with non-fiction
about climate change. But fiction, about
climate change, never enters those august
temples of seriousness. You know? It’s as if, if you’re
writing about climate change, you might as well be
writing about aliens or extra-terrestrials
or something, you know? And that just, sort of,
drives in on you the, sort of hollowness of our contemporary
idea of seriousness. You know, because waht could
be more serious than this? What could be more serious than
this, essentially, you know, a crisis of survival that we
are facing in the deepest sense.>>Bilal Qureshi: I mean, the
thing I find interesting too, is that as this debate around climate change
has become much more in our public discourse, I
remember even in our newsroom, there would be a conversation
sometimes that, “Well, who are the characters
in this story?” You know, who’s going
to- if you’re dealing with climate change, you’re
dealing with statistics and science and you’re dealing
with creeping, you know, numbers in the ozone,
or whatever it might be. Or, I remember in India, the
air quality index became kind of a daily rhythm of your life. How do you turn that into
a character would often be a question. Which, I think is something that
I find, in your essay you dealt with this fact that people
feel that these can’t- these non-human forces
can’t be characters; they couldn’t be embued with,
sort of, emotion and life that people think
literature has to be about. I mean, I just- I wonder how
you would deal with this idea that the way we think
about it is that it’s somehow a scientific and not a story telling
set of characters.>>Amitav Ghosh: Well,
let me say first of all, that I think all of us owe
a great debt of gratitude to the scientists who’ve often
risked their careers to tell us about what’s happening. But at the same time,
we have to recognize that this is not fundamentally
a scientific problem. You know, I think it’s a great, it’s one of the worst
things that’s happened, in relation to climate
change, that it’s come to be conceptualized as a
technocratic or you know, technological issue
whereas it’s not. It’s fundamentally a
problem of culture. It’s what we consume. It’s what we want. It’s fundamentally a
question of desire. Nor indeed are the
scientists the only people who are telling us about this. I mean, back in 2000,
ordinary fishermen in Sundarbans could tell you. I mean, I’ve been in
remote parts of Indonesia where the farmers will tell you
that you know, they can’t farm in the ways that
they once used to. So, yes, I mean the science
puts it all together, but you can be absolutely
sure that people who deal with the ecosystem, people who
make their living from the land or the water or the forest,
they’ve known, they’ve known for a long time and
they know today. They know the incredible
urgency of what’s happening. So, really, you know, I think
it’s such a- it’s such a problem that you know, since this,
everything in relation to climate change is
always mediated by science and technology and so on, and
by statistics and you know, that really comes in the way of
our understanding of what it is, which is that’s not about
that, it’s about you know, these supercharged
hurricanes coming towards you. You know, it’s about
these wild fires, I mean, racing from house to house. You know, I mean at 9
o’clock in the morning, the people in Paradise,
California get, they’re getting their
kids ready to go to school and within 45 minutes,
you know, they’re trapped in their homes with no escape. I mean, you just look
at it and you know, and it’s not just California. Look at what happened
in Greece, those people in that seaside town,
trying to rush down to take shelter
in the water. And they get absolutely
incinerated on the way; they can’t get out of the way.>>Bilal Qureshi: And you
have, in this new novel, “Gun Island” translated a
lot of this into a novel, and into a character’s
experience and into his life. And it’s an embedded and
central character in this book, these phenomenon
that are happening. It’s not described- there’s
never the term, you know, “climate change” per se, as
the news, there’s not a lot of science, but we are, in
the midst of a story set against all of these forces. And I wanted to ask you about,
you said it wasn’t a call to arms, this idea, but you
did introspect and decide that your new novel,
which is this new novel, will have a much deeper
engagement with this idea. It’s not that your
previous work didn’t, but this is quite
consciously so, it seems to me. I wondered if you could
talk about your own decision to translate some of
these pressing issues into a fictional, into
a fictional story.>>Amitav Ghosh: It
didn’t quite happen like that, Bilal, I must say. You know, if you pay attention
to, to the climate change stuff, you can’t stop thinking
about it, you know? I was talking to Annie Proulx
the other day, you know? She wrote “Brokeback
Mountain” et cetera. And she was saying- she’s
also really immersed in the climage change
literature. And she was saying
that, you know, again she just can’t
stop thinking about it. She also says that
she doesn’t think that she could write
a novel about it, which I think is such a pity. She’s such a great story
teller, that you know, she absolutely should. But, really, you know, I’m
also essentially a novelist, a story teller. So, when I started
writing this book, all the stuff just came into it. I couldn’t keep it
out, you know? If it’s in your head,
it’ll come out. But, again, let me say that,
you know, I think of this book as not being about climate
change or responding. I think it, I think of it
as a book about reality, about the reality
that we live in today. You know, I just don’t want
to exclude those aspects of our reality that, you know, are related to the
world around us. The nature that we experience. But there again, you know,
one of the weird things about our world is that
we are, in a world, where the reality is uncanny. You know, you remember there’s
a- chapter in my book, a scene, that’s set in Los Angeles,
it’s actually set in a museum. And there’s this wild fire
that suddenly breaks out and is coming towards
the museum. And, you may remember that
this actually happened with the Getty Museum,
in Los Angeles. Suddenly a wild fire was coming,
hurtling towards the museum. Well, you know, I wrote my
chapter six months before this wild fire happened. You know, so it was so
uncanny when I started reading, you know, about this-
about the actual fire. I couldn’t stop following
it, you know, because I had seen
it in my head. And, you know, so this
kind of uncanniness that surrounds us today, I think that is actually the fictional
terrain that we have to enter. If you’re going to write about
the reality of our world, it’s actually a changed reality. An uncanny reality. And that exactly is where this
enormous fictional terrain lies, if you ask me.>>Bilal Qureshi: When- I
think one of the things, moving away from the
climate change perhaps, question is- the novel
also does something that you’ve always done which is
that you bring our attention to, frankly, other ways
of seeing something that we’ve been hearing
about so much. So you take away- I mean, I
think we’re used to hearing about climate change here,
maybe in the U.S. and as I said in the context of
the Paris Accords or other kinds of
ways of seeing it. But, in writing about
Bengal again and writing about the Sundarbans
again, you help us kind of see how there have
been myths and stories that go back centuries,
of how people in these places have thought
about their relationship with the environment, the
fragility of that relationship, the precariousness of it. So, can you talk a little bit
about, almost bringing us to, frankly, a very much
needed other way of thinking about the climate
crisis that we’re in.>>Amitav Ghosh: Well, let me
say first of all, that you know, one of the strange things
about the whole discourse on climate change is that it’s
really very Western-centered. You know? I mean, very few
actually non-Western voices ever- are ever heard within
this discourse, actually. Even though we do
know that, you know, it’s Asia that’s really going
to suffer the brunt of it. The second thing over
there is that actually, by the time I finished writing
“The Great Derangement” one of the things that became clear
to me is that, this whole period that we call “modernity”,
the 19th Century, the 20th Centuries, there
was, until the late 70s, a fairly stable climactic regime
in this period, and that’s why, from the 80s onwards, this climactic regime
gets completely disrupted. But, basically, the
structures of modernity, the imaginative structures
of modernity emerge within this period when
everything is very stable. You know, so what do we see? If you look at pre-modern
literature, I mean, just across the world,
everywhere, in pre-modern literature,
the environment, the non-human figures in
very powerful ways, you know, you think about The
Iliad and The Odyssey. The gods, the seas,
Neptune; the serpents, everything has agency,
it has voice. It emerges, it erupts
into the world. The same is true, of
the great Indian epics. You know, I mean, the first
part of the Mahabharata, it’s all about man
and snakes, you know? And I think that’s, you know, the fact that in India we have
these snakes and that all, I think, people from the
Indian subcontinent are haunted by snakes. [laughter] It gives us a
very special relationship, in relation to the
environment, you know. I think in our ecological
circumstances, nobody could ever think of,
as it were, dominating nature or subduing nature,
simply because you know that there is this
aspect of nature, which is utterly recalcitrant,
which is the snake. You know? I mean, and it’s
always there; it’s ubiquitous. You know? It’s everywhere. So, you know, certainly if you
look at pre-modern writing, in the Indian subcontinent,
it’s just, it’s just filled with all sorts of non-human
voices that have agency, that have history making
powers, if you like. The same is true of,
say, Chinese writing. If you remember the
great Chinese epic, The Journey to the West,
with the monkey king going to the West, it’s exactly that. You know? So, I think
the fundamental problem, from a literary point
of view, when we think about how do we confront this
particular period that we’re in, is how do we restore the
voices of the non-human? You know? And in
that way, I think, a- really a great breakthrough
was Richard Powers’ “Overstory” which was published in 2018,
where really he’s trying, you know, he’s trying so hard
to give a voice to the forest; to trees, to the
forest, you know? And unfortunately,
Richard Powers is speaking at exactly this time, otherwise
I would have been there, listening to him. [laughter] But I’ve
listened to his, some of his YouTube interviews,
and it’s very interesting in some of them he
says, you know, he wishes he were an animist
or he has been brought up as an animist or whatever. Or what is it? The other way? Polytheist or something? And I thought, I always think
to myself, “Well, I was brought up as an animist, so I can-”
you know, for me it is true, that you know, these non-human
voices are real, you know?>>Bilal Qureshi: And your
central character in the novel, as I mentioned in the
beginning, sort of begins to dig into a legend and a myth that
originates in the Sundarbans, related to a goddess
with snakes, who sort of- who uses snakes as
her- you know, the book cover also has
the serpentine form, in the U.S. at least. And what I find interesting
was Deen, the character, who is originally Bengali
but lives in Brooklyn, is a very smart,
thinking, rationalist, who when he starts hearing about
this myth, on a visit home, is sort of rolling his eyes
for a big portion of the book. Snakes, cobras, ridiculousness;
this is the exotica that sort of defines India, to
the Western imagination. And he, himself, is sort
of resistant to wanting to really take it seriously. And I found that a very
interesting thread in the book as well, that you are a
writer, originally from India, writing to a global
audience in a way. And I wonder if the idea
of not wanting to- wanting to both engage with
these non-human forces that are very native
and indigenous to South Asian story
telling, but not fall prey, I suppose, to easy exotica. Because I think that the book is
really interesting in wrestling with the fact that we,
in the modern world, are dealing with this tension,
between kind of rational ways of thinking and also that
some of the things happening around us are truly absurd and we need other language
to think about them.>>Amitav Ghosh: Yeah,
that’s very good point. You know, I mean, it is true
certainly that in Bengal, some of our oldest traditions
relate to this goddess, she’s the goddess of
snakes called “Manasa Devi”. And there’s this sort of
conflict between this goddess of snakes and this archetypal
figure called “the Merchant”, Sadagar- Sadagar is
what’s called in Bengal, that is the Merchant Chand. And it’s very interesting the
way it conceptualizes this issue, because really
if you think about it, at the end of the day, what is- [lapel mic falls] oh,
sorry; I lost that. What is the issue of climate
change in the end is really, it’s really a conflict
between the principle of profit and the principle of what do
we owe to the natural world? To the world that surrounds us. And, it’s really remarkable
to think, that you know, thousands of years ago,
our ancestors were able to, as it were, conceptualize this
problem in such a clear way. Now, you know, as you say, this
whole question of, you know, the secularization of
the world, if you like or the rationalization
of the world. Now, you know, look at
this Mauna Kea controversy. I don’t know if any of you
have been following it, this controversy about building
a, you know, an observatory, some giant telescope on
this mountain in Hawaii, that’s sacred to the
indigenous Hawaiians. And, you know, the whole
sort of- there’s one kind of establishment
saying, “No, no! It has to be built. You know, it’ll tell us
a lot about the world.” And the indigenous elders in Hawaii are actually
risking arrest and so on. Now, look in the
Western tradition, the landscape itself is
never sacred, you know? But sacredness attaches
to built structures, like I don’t think anyone would
propose building a telescope on, let’s say, Saint Paul’s
Cathedral, you know? Or on top of Saint Peter’s? Or on Stonehenge or
something, you know? Because they’re all,
they’re all built structures. But, never does the landscape,
never does a mountain, if you like, maybe Mount Sinai,
I don’t know or Mount Ararat, but very few are those actually,
are those sacred sites. But then, look at what happened
in Iceland the other day. You know, one of their
glaciers has just melted away. And they decided
to hold a ceremony for this glacier, you know? A funeral for the glacier. And I think this marks a
very important turning point, you know? Because when you see, within
a sort of Western culture, admittedly a rather
unusual Western culture, that of Iceland, the idea of
you know, really the death of a glacier being marked
by a ritual of mourning. I think it does mark some
sort of important change. And I do hope that these
rituals become more common because they certainly
are, actually, becoming more common now. Because, you know,
we have to recognize that there is something in
our relationship with our, with the earth, which
is not exhausted by science or technology. You know? There’s something more
in the earth than just science, you know, than scientists
can tell us about.>>Bilal Qureshi: I have one
last question then we will take questions from the audience
if you have questions. The mics are on- in
both of the aisles. Which was that, you know, you
also in many of your novels, really geography and place
is such a central part of your story telling and
it’s one of the things that I think is always
wonderful about picking up one of your books, that you do get
to go on one of these global, you know, adventures often. Certainly, the Ibis
Trilogy, which is a stunning, you know, piece of work. But they also feature, in
addition to this deep regard and respect and description
of the natural world, a great celebration to me,
often, of multiplicity as well. And of multiple experiences
of the world. I mean, whether it’s a ship
with- that is, you know, I think populated by people
from all over the world who speak multiple languages or
even in this book, a kind of, a very natural moving between
Venice, Los Angeles, Bengal, Brooklyn, I mean, there’s
a kind of multiplicity that I think is very
organic to your work. And I also feel that
one of the threats, in addition to the
threat that you mentioned to what was happening to
our world is to the spirit of multiplicity as well. Because it seems to me
that whether it’s India, whether it’s the U.S.,
we’re in a period where there’s a narrowing
of, I don’t know, whose story is the central story
and what story gets to be told and who dominates
and who doesn’t. And I think that
that is something that your books also
often present a antidote, an antidote to. And I wonder how you
think about that, because it’s also
something that I wonder if writers have an
additional challenge to think about expressing. You know, when it’s under
threat in a lot of ways. If that makes sense. I mean->>Amitav Ghosh: No,
it makes perfect sense. See again, as I say, it’s
the reality, you know? It’s the peculiar nature of the
reality that we inhabit today. I look- you know, Bengal, the
language of Bengal is Bengali; it’s the sixth most widely
spoken language in the world. But, you know, 30 years ago,
when I first came to the U.S., it was very unusual to hear
people speaking Bengali on the streets or to hear
Bengali spoken around you. And even in Europe,
it was very unusual. Today, in Brooklyn,
if I open my window, I hear Bengali all the time. [laughter] Why? Because the people who work, the masons who are
restoring the houses, most of them are Bengali. You know, if you go to Venice,
and you look around you, you’ll see the entire working
class of Venice is Bengali. You know, people
often don’t notice it, because they don’t know
the language and so on, but I do know the language
so I do notice, you know? And I’m constantly getting into
these conversations, you know? And this book, really,
emerges out of this. What we are really seeing
is this great displacement, you know? A huge sort of churning,
that is not comparable to anything before, I would
say, really in human history. And how do we respond to it? We have to respond to it by
understanding that, you know, the world is changing
in such unexpected ways, that we can’t write about it,
with the techniques of the past.>>Bilal Qureshi: Hmm. Well, I- we have some time for
questions from the audience. There are mics, I think, in the
aisles or maybe- I don’t know, is there any- possible
for anyone to hand the mic to someone? No. Okay. Well, I think we
have, yeah, some time for it.>>Amitav Ghosh: Well,
there’s a question.>>Bilal Qureshi: Okay.>>Is there any advice you
have for aspiring writers?>>Amitav Ghosh: Well, the
first and most important thing, that any aspiring writer
can do is to read a lot. You know? So, I don’t think
anyone ever becomes a writer without reading. So, if you want to
write, you should read.>>Thank you.>>Amitav Ghosh: Yes.>>Hi. Thank you for your talk.>>Amitav Ghosh: Thank you.>>I’ve read your
work, even as part of my comprehensive exam lists,
so, this is really great. So, a question that I have is,
I think there is a tendency, when you talk of modernization
or secularization of the world, it is part of an
Imperialist project and then there is a
tendency, very often to see that as something that came
from the West, that was done in non-Western places. But I feel like your
writing breaks past this sort of “East West binary”. So, can you please
talk a little bit about how you take a more
trans-national approach in your writing?>>Amitav Ghosh: Well,
the first question, the East West binary, yeah. Look, I mean, in
India today the people who are destroying the sacred
sites of indigenous peoples in India, that is in the
tribal regions especially, they’re often, most
of them are Indians. You know? Many of them
are vegetarian Indians.>>Yes.>>Amitav Ghosh: You know? [chuckling] So, I mean, this is
the terrible thing that we see. I mean, there’s- they pay
absolutely no- I mean, when it comes to
profit, and belief, they are completely slaves
to profit, in the same way that people are everywhere else. You know, this is
the unfortunate thing that this culture
of extractivism, if you like, it’s now global. People subscribe to it
everywhere, everywhere you look. And what we used to think of as “other cultures” is no longer a
defense; it doesn’t protect us.>>Thank you.>>Amitav Ghosh: Thank you.>>Bilal Qureshi:
-have a question here.>>Hello. I’m quite
a fan of yours.>>Amitav Ghosh: Thank you.>>I’m in the process now of
reading “The Sea of Poppies” and I’m interested because
I love the way you use the language and how you’ve
combined languages together. How did you develop the
language that is being used by the seamen on the ships?>>Amitav Ghosh: Well,
that’s a very good question. You know, the technology of sailing is very
dependent on language. You know, any of you who have
read “Moby Dick” will know that you’re constantly
coming across all kinds of very recognized nautical
technology, terminology. So, actually, you know,
nautical dictionaries are some of the earliest dictionaries
written. I mean, they go back to the
16th Century, 17th Century. So, when I started
writing this book, I thought there must be
some nautical dictionaries of the Indian Ocean. And actually, I did
manage to find one such. So, I didn’t have to make up
that language; it’s actually, it was the language of the sea in the Indian Ocean
in the 19th Century.>>I wondered if you used
Hops and Jopson a little bit.>>Amitav Ghosh: I did
use Hops and Jopson, but they were- you know, there are several
dictionaries like that. But this particular dictionary, the nautical dictionary
is called “A Dictionary of the Laskari Language” and
it was published in 1812.>>Very interesting. Also, I appreciate the fact that
although I can read Devanagari, I’m not very good at Hindi. I studied it about 30 years ago. I love the way that I’m able
to now, read it and say, “Oh! I know what he’s talking about.” [laughter]>>Amitav Ghosh:
Oh, that’s nice. Thank you so much.>>Thank you so much.>>Amitav Ghosh: Thank you.>>Bilal Qureshi: Another
question here on the right. Yes.>>Hi, I love your books.>>Amitav Ghosh: Thank you.>>But I would like
to know your take on how Narendra Modi is
changing India culture?>>Amitav Ghosh: Ah. Where do I begin? [laughter]>>Bilal Qureshi: She-
for those who didn’t hear, we have a question
about Narendra Modi and how he’s changing India.>>Amitav Ghosh: What can I say? You know, the India that I
see today is increasingly unrecognizable to me as the
place that I grew up in. But, you know, when I say that,
people could very well say to me, “Well, it’s just
that you’re getting older.” You know? Places change. But, really, the values that we
were taught, when I was a kid, most of all the value of
living with diversity, the value of living
with, you know, people whose beliefs are
not like yours necessarily, but who are your
neighbors, with whom you live and whose customs may
be different from yours, but you accommodate each other, in so many beautiful
ways, you know? If all of that goes, I just
don’t see what will be left of India except a lot of very
large number of consumers. I mean, what else?>>Bilal Qureshi: Hmm. Yeah. On the left here, yeah.>>Hi. So, your last two books
have had a very deep impact on me, including “The Great
Derangement” and “Gun Island” which I recently read. The one thing that has,
what left me confused after “Gun Island” especially
was I understand the aspect of having the uncanny in
the modern, like literature to deal with climate change. But also, as you mentioned,
you’re not an activist but like the way to change it or to- change the way the
current political situation is you need some activism
aspect as well. So, how do you balance
the two aspect together? Like whether there
can be a literary way of addressing the uncanny and
as well as having the activist, activism nature in it.>>Amitav Ghosh: Well, you
know, first I should say that while I was writing this
book, I spent a lot of time in Italy, actually
interviewing recent migrants. You know, especially
those who have come across the Mediterranean. Because I wanted to understand,
you know, this huge phenomenon of this Mediterranean crossing. So, I spent a lot of time going
to migrant and refugee camps and so on, and speaking
to migrants. And you know, fortunately,
you know, I’m able to speak to migrants because I know some
of their languages, you know? And, so I do think that in
Italy, and across Europe, there’s a very important stream of activism that’s
come into being. And I completely support it and
I very much admire the people who are doing that work. But I also do feel that
this aspect of the uncanny, it arises time and time again. As for example, in Hawaii
with the Mauna Kea activists, you know, they’re not your
traditional activists. They’re not young people
out with, out with placards. They’re your indigenous
elders, you know? Who have grown up with a
certain kind of belief. Now, I really think that you
know, to understand this aspect of activism, we really have
to look at indigenous peoples, most of all, indigenous peoples
you know, of the Americas. You know, the ones who
are now losing their homes to the Amazon fires, the ones
who are losing their terrain to the pipelines in the North. And I think, you know, from
their love of the land, from their deep understanding
of the land, we learn something. And that, and that
something is actually that uncanny relationship
that they have with the land. Thank you.>>Bilal Qureshi: Yeah, here.>>Thank you for coming
to speak with us today.>>Amitav Ghosh: Thank you.>>I was really moved
by your essay, “The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi”
which I read eight years ago in a high school class. And it’s related to the
question I wanted to ask you. What’s the best way to
write about the past? What’s the best way to
translate experiences and memories into words?>>Amitav Ghosh: Oh my god. [laughter]>>Bilal Qureshi: It’s a lot of-
yeah, these are tough questions. I feel like I did not prepare. Like, these are legitimately
important questions.>>Amitav Ghosh:
They are, they are. See, that article that you’re
referring to, it’s about, you know, the terrible pogroms
that happened in New Delhi, in 1984, after the
assassination of Indira Gandhi. And I was there then,
and I, you know, I was on the streets, you know. And it was a completely
traumatic thing; it was absolutely
traumatic and I didn’t get around to writing it until
seven years after the event. You know, so it just, it just
sat in my head and percolated and percolated for a long time. And then finally, when I wrote
about it, it was- you know, I think sometimes you just do
have to let time pass, you know? Between- so that it ripens
in your mind, you know? And it becomes something that
you can recall in tranquility. You know? Not that it was
very tranquil recalling that, but I do feel that writing that article was a very
important thing to do because it was the first major
article to appear, you know, on this kind of, on the
violence that happened then.>>Bilal Qureshi: It
sounds like you keep a lot of detailed notebooks,
is that right? I mean->>Amitav Ghosh: I had
no notebooks on that.>>Bilal Qureshi:
Oh, you didn’t? Okay.>>Amitav Ghosh: No. I mean, you know, in those days,
we were out on the roads trying to deliver you know, relief
supplies to the people who had been, who had lost
their homes and so on. So, there was no time
to keep notes, you know? It was- so, I didn’t
have any notes. And in fact, you know, it was a
memory I just completely wanted to suppress.>>Bilal Qureshi: Wow.>>Amitav Ghosh: Thank you.>>Yeah.>>Well, I wanted
to say thank you, because I assign
it to my students.>>Amitav Ghosh: Oh.>>To read and we just
read it on Wednesday.>>Amitav Ghosh: Oh really?>>So, university students.>>Amitav Ghosh: Oh wow.>>And they, they are so
taken with how people behaved, in terms of protecting others.>>Amitav Ghosh: Yeah.>>Without any prior
organization or even speech. They just did it.>>Amitav Ghosh: That’s right.>>And that really stays- stayed
with my students, very much so. So, thank you. Thank you.>>Amitav Ghosh: Thank you.>>That piece was excellent.>>Amitav Ghosh:
Thank you so much. I do think that, you
know, it’s very important, especially in today’s
world, you know, that we remind ourselves
of this. That when you write
about violence what- you should not do
it pornographically. You know, you always have to
remind yourself that, you know, in every circumstance
of violence, there are also- always people->>Yeah.>>Amitav Ghosh:
often mainly women->>Yeah, yeah.>>Amitav Ghosh: Who respond
in a completely different way.>>Absolutely. To protect others, yes.>>Amitav Ghosh: Yes.>>So, thank you.>>Amitav Ghosh: Thank you.>>Bilal Qureshi: We have
time for one last question. And the last question.>>Hi. I’m a senior in
high school and I read “The Glass Palace”
in my sophomore year. We read it in class, as a
way to really understand, like the problems in India. I found it as a way to highlight
the different issues in Asia, as well as to better understand
my own culture, which is cool. And I loved your talk where
you talk about climate change and what is one issue that
you would solve right now, that you’ve highlighted
in your books? That you could do? [laughter]>>Amitav Ghosh: Well,
if there’s one issue that I could solve, it would be
that I would really want to wake up people- wake people
up to this, to the great, great peril that we are,
that we are facing today. You know? And the reason
why it’s so hard to do that, you know, is that we live
in a world that’s addicted to narratives of progress. You know, to the idea that
things will always get better and better and better. And that’s why it’s so
hard, especially to speak of these things to
young people like you, which is that you know, you’re
coming into a world which is, the horizons are drastically
different from the horizons that I was born into, you know? What you’re looking at
is a future that’s going to be narrower and narrower,
you know, and more difficult in so many different ways. It’s a very hard
message to give. Because we don’t have any
way of communicating this. And I think that’s you know,
one of the reasons why, in some ways, a religious
discourse often is important in this, because you know, there
is no religion that tells you that things will
always get better and better and better, you know? Everybody knows it, you know,
that often calamity awaits; that drastic things
happen, drastic and terrible things
happen and you have to prepare yourself,
psychologically even.>>May I ask a follow
up question?>>Bilal Qureshi: Ah, I
think we’re out of time->>Amitav Ghosh: Two minutes.>>Bilal Qureshi:
Yeah two minutes. Go ahead.>>And how would you- how
would you motivate your readers to take that issue and
apply what they’ve learned and actually do something
about it?>>Amitav Ghosh: Well, I
would say, really for people of your age, just look
at this young girl, Greta Thunberg, you know? And what she’s doing and
you know, she just talks so much sense, so
much of the time. Really, I think she’s a
beacon to the youth of today.>>Thank you.>>Amitav Ghosh: Thank you.>>Bilal Qureshi: Thank you. [ Applause ]

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