Amitav Ghosh: A Raconteur of the Other

Amitav Ghosh, Indian Writing in English, Indian Novels in English

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Postmodern authors use simple languages. Still, there is linguistic experimentation as found earlier in Salman Rushdie. Ghosh intertwines Bangla words like mohona, bhata, etc. in The Hungry Tide. He also interweaves with the main story regional myths like that of Bon Bibi and her brother Shaj Jangali. Sea of Poppies specializes in the use of non-standard English vernacular lexicons. Bengali and Bhojpuri words abound in it. But he doesn’t champion the cause of Hinglish. Postmodernist novelists give minimal significance to picturesque description and ornamental use of language. Rather, in their crafty hands, language is a tool for identity-building.

You see, in our family we don’t know whether we’re coming or going … … the fault … … lay in the language. Every language assumes a centrality, a fixed and settled point to go away from and come back to, … … looking for a word for a journey which was not a coming or a going at all; a journey that was a search for precisely that fixed point which permits the proper use of verbs of movement.[i]

Ghosh’s novelistic communities are polyglot. For instance, Ibis constitutes a polyglot community. The people on this ship speak many languages: from Bhojpuri to Bengali-English to French. Ghosh doesn’t provide a glossary at the end. In my personal opinion, this looks nice and novelistic. The practice of writing extra-detailed glossary at the end of most of Indian novels written in English makes the novels academic and dreary. However, he spells the local words with European accents and pronunciation. The problem is that the meanings of words are easily accessible neither to the modern European readers nor to the Indian ones. The entire linguistic exercise of the postmodernist novelist doesn’t appear irksome or affected rather apposite as the whole set-up is a ‘chutneyfication’ of different cultures, attitudes and belief systems. The last chapter of the novel creates as much tension as is essential for the reader keep searching or waiting for the next part of the trilogy.

Language is an aspect to look for in The Hungry Tide also. The entire text incorporates a large number of Bengali terms, most of them italicized on first occurrence and/or sometimes emboldened. Even though English is in the role of overarching coordinating medium, the cultural provenance of the text is aptly emphasized. The Hungry Tide is set in West Bengal-Bangladesh, a tidal locale and literally the title refers to the hunger, fury and wildness of the population. As it is, the narrative creates emotional tides in which the characters are engulfed. It is a story of culture-contact and the relationship of the past and the present. The narrator tries to come to terms with ‘today’ by comprehending the history. The novel highlights a translation theme that comprises of not only translation but also interpretation. By translation we mean conversion between (written) different languages (Bengali and English). Interpretation here means conversion between written and oral modes of the same language (Bengali). Translation and interpretation are employed in the novel from other languages also, for example German.

Migration is a major theme of Poppies. The shipmates on Ibis are cut off from their roots. They invent new names and (hi)stories and seek ways to hide secrets. They all grapple with the ceaseless seeking of identity. Englishmen are essentially traders. To them, “Trade is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is trade”. They can stoop to any level to conquer a trade. Nothing civilizing about it! The novel coalesces two great themes of the 19th century imperial economy, viz. the cultivation of opium as a cash crop in Bengal and Bihar for the Chinese market, and the transport of Bihari indentured labourers equivalent of slaves to Mauritius, Fiji and Trinidad to cut sugar canes for the Empire. The power of opium is dramatically shown by the central character Deeti in these words:

how frail a creature was a human being, to be tamed by such tiny doses of this substance! … … with more of it at her disposal, why should she not be able to seize kingdoms and control multitudes?

To set the records straight, tax on opium contributed in a good measure to the coffers of the Mughal emperors. East India Company entered the trade from the very dawn of the company that is 1601. By 1700 the Dutch began selling it to China. In 1750, the East India Company assumed control also of the cultivation of opium in Bihar and Bengal. The dominant trade between India and China became opium, and as the Company enjoyed a position of hegemony it forced growers to abandon their traditional crops in favour of poppies. The novel demonstrates how the sub-continent’s story today is shaped by the colonial past. The whole saga delineates the tragedy of a populace who work hard, grow a lot but whose cultivation cannot even feed her. Ironically, neither can the sale-proceeds of the produce. In Bihar and Bengal farmers could get high on a drug, but had nothing to eat. Food-shortage was sure to creep into.

‘Poppies’ does a postmortem upon the trade regime of the East India Company. Under the guise of the Company, Britain was a drugs-peddler nation-state using India as her vast poppy field. It exposes the nexus between the escalating demand in the West for inedible cash crops and famines and starvation-deaths in the ‘other’ world. A society gets pushed into the corner and becomes the ‘other’ when we have a policy of ‘use and throw’ towards it. Fate turns out to be a theme in the novel. As a subaltern study, the novel presents a narrative of exclusion.[ii]

Imperialism or coloniality is not the factor that is always significant in this exclusion-oriented movement; but Tradition that is a constituent of nation-building. Therefore in the narrative of migration, something Ghosh has been dealing with constantly, we see many preconceptions crumbling, and another reality emerging.[iii]

River of Smoke is the second volume of his Ibis trilogy. This novel shows the author’s perpetual obsessive association with linguistic experimentation[iv].  Archaic and foreign words abound[v]. Dictionaries have to be a reader’s constant companion. Moreover, we need special ones, not just popular specialized dictionaries of current English. The book is a rollicking tale set in the tumultuous first quarter of the 19th century. There is a truthful exhibit of the folk-art tradition from Bihar. The canvas is set against a storm striking three different ships in the Bay of Bengal. One vessel carries indentured labourers, another, the largest ever consignment of Indian opium for China, and the third ship from England on a voyage to collect Chinese horticultural treasures. The locales that come alive are as diverse as Mauritius, Bombay, Calcutta, Hong Kong and St Helena – the island of Napoleon Bonaparte. The novel as a volume in the trilogy is one long, discursive and delightful history lesson. The narrative wants to trace the history of cricket also. To set facts right, the first official cricket match played by Indians in India was between a Parsi side and a European one in 1877.

The Glass Palace is a meticulous portraiture of the colonial period in India and South East Asia. As a postmodern novel, the crisis of identity is one of its themes. Arjun is engulfed in this crisis. Identity politics finally proves to be his nemesis. The importance of being Amitav Ghosh lies in that he asserts the nationalist mode against the Eurocentric models of progress and modernity. This follows differentiation proposed by M.N. Srinivas between Westernisation and Modernisation. Ghosh is a novelist of ethnicity. Although not a theorist, he is a keen and conscientious observer of recurring ethnic violence. How does a normal human being all of a sudden become a bloodthirsty hound? It happens every now and then in India. The Shadow Line and The Glass Palace are conspicuous in this regard. In brief, Ghosh’s human geography mediates between cosmopolitan and subaltern voices and demonstrates the porousness and overlapping of territorial borders and academic boundaries and cultural formations.

Ghosh poses radical questions about Western schools of “knowledge.” By presenting his multidisciplinary research in a fragmentary and imaginative way, he challenges the claims to definitiveness of academic discourses. Knowledge is produced by structures of dominance, particularly the military, economic, and epistemic strategies of colonialism.[vi]

To sum up, Ghosh doesn’t propound a linear relation between imperialism, capitalism and globalization. Globalization in the sense of trade, migration and cultural contact is not itself really that new. Also, the Afro-Asian society, despite the tragic upheavals due to colonization, owes enough to European colonialism. The postmodern literature celebrates the lives of men and women with little power, whose petty stories are framed against the grand narratives of histories of nations and the world. In short, Ghosh’s world of literature proposes other ways of thinking about the past, culture and identity. His two-third complete trilogy is a commentary on the socio-cultural evolution of Indian subaltern society and the then India-China relations under British colonialism. Both the civilizations were the ‘other’ in the eyes of the Europeans. Amitav Ghosh’s postcolonial postmodern novels proposes the perspective that as world citizens in the era of globalization, we need to communicate with one and all – races, class, cultures, past, and above all the ‘other’ and in all forms, whether old or new. Thus, we would be able to build new bridges across hearts all round the world. In a global village no one should be the other. Moreover, their languages and cultures shouldn’t be other languages and cultures as English cannot claim to be the universal language, and the McDonald culture doesn’t fit all societies and worldviews.[vii]



[i] The Shadow Lines, 153

[ii] Ravi Bhushan makes these observations (1) Sea of Poppies is laced with political overtones, revealing the hypocritical and dangerous mindset of the then Englishmen, who compelled the natives to the level of subaltern in their own land, (2) it is a commentary on socio-cultural evolution of Indian subaltern society, (3) Amitav Ghosh‘s work like that of other major sub continental writers-Tagore, Premchand, Senapati, Chughtai-is imbued by a deep commitment to human values. Ravi Bhushan, Ph.D. and Ms. Daisy. Deconstructing Human Society: An Appreciation of Amtav Ghosh‘s Sea of Poppies. Language In India, Volume 10 : 1 January 2010: ISSN 1930-2940

[iii] Prof. Siddhartha Biswas. The Sea of Poppies and the Narrative of Migration. Abstracts of Papers Presented in Two Day National Seminar on Amitav Ghosh: Page 9

[iv] Christopher Rollason apprehends: “If River of Smoke represents Amitav Ghosh’s newest contribution to IWE’s expanding shelf, it may nonetheless be predicted that some critics will ask, polemically, whether this novel is finally in English at all – and even deny that it is.” Quote from « Apparently Unbridgeable Gaps of Language »: Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke and an Emerging Global English?

[v] Christopher Rollason elaborates: “Ghosh’s text is marked by a general and pervasive awareness of language issues and by a sense of the complexities of multilingualism and the interaction of languages: Indian tongues – Neel’s Bengali, Bahram’s Gujarati, and the then Indian lingua franca Hindusthani, but also ‘Tamil, Telugu and Oriya’ (60) and ‘Marathi, Kachhi and Konkani’ (292); Cantonese Chinese; Portuguese, French, English; Mauritian creole; and the hybrid that is pidgin.”

[vi] Claire Chambers maintains that the main concerns of Amitav Ghosh are: (1) attempt to find connections between seemingly unrelated subjects, (2) challenges the artificial “shadow[boundary] lines”, (3) preoccupation with hybridity, “in-between” spaces, and diasporas in postcolonial debate, (4) the ways the partitioned South Asian subject has been affected by, and yet can to some extent resist, colonialism’s legacy, (5) knowledge is produced by structures of dominance, particularly the military, economic, and epistemic strategies of colonialism, (6) the impact that Western paradigms of knowledge have had and continue to have on India, (7) highlighting filiations and connections which go beyond the (neo)colonial relationship, such as the persistence of pre-colonial trade connections between the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian peninsula, or the existence of an Indian community in Burma which was almost entirely erased by nationalism, (8) form and genre in order to adumbrate a dialogic, non-coercive method of knowledge transmission, (9) rejects any single historical or anthropological account’s claim to provide an authentic and complete version of the Other , (10) fieldwork methodology is based on concealed relations of dominance, (11) Unlike more insular ethnographies, then, Ghosh is always at pains to set his village community against the international historical context, (12) The “anonymity of History” is constantly counterbalanced by his imaginative reconstructions of historical and contemporary characters. Claire Chambers, Leeds Metropolitan University. Anthropology as Cultural Translation: Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land. Postcolonial Text, Vol 2, No 3 (2006). Page 1. Downloaded on 25.07.2006.

[vii] In any case, the standard Queen’s English today hardly enjoys a position of dominance in the plethora of regional versions of the language.




  • Amitav Ghosh. The Circle of Reason. 1986. London: Granta Books, 1998.
  • __, The Shadow Lines. 1988. New Delhi: Ravi Dayal, 2001.
  • __, In an Antique Land. 1992. New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 1992.
  • __, The Calcutta Chromosome. 1996. Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 1996.
  • __, The Glass Palace. Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2000.
  • __, The Imam and the Indian: Prose Pieces. New Delhi: Ravi Dayal, 2002.
  • __, The Hungry Tide. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2005.
  • __, Sea of Poppies. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2008
  • __, River of Smoke, London: John Murray, 2011


  • Amitav Ghosh’s official website:
  • Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2008.
  • Hutcheon, L. 1988. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. London: Routledge.
  • Claire Chambers, Leeds Metropolitan University. Anthropology as Cultural Translation: Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land. Postcolonial Text, Vol 2, No 3 (2006)
  • Ravi Bhushan, Ph.D. and Ms. Daisy. Deconstructing Human Society: An Appreciation of Amtav Ghosh‘s Sea of Poppies. Language In India, Volume 10 : 1 January 2010: ISSN 1930-2940
  • Abstracts of Papers Presented in Two Day National Seminar on Amitav Ghosh : A Writer Extra-Ordinary 25th & 26th March 2011 Sponsored by University Grants Commission Organised by Department of English Tarakeswar Degree College Tarakeswar, Hooghly, W.B., PIN-712410
  • Christopher Rollason, Ph.D. In Our Translated World: Transcultural Communication In Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. The Atlantic Literary Review [New Delhi], Vol. 6, No. 1-2, Jan-Mar and Apr-Jun 2005, pp. 86-107
  • K. Dhawan (ed.) The Novels of Amitav Ghosh. New Delhi: Prestige, 1999.
  • R. Chenniappan & R. Saravana Suresh. Postmodern Traits in The Novels Of Amitav Ghosh The Criterion: An International Journal in English. Vol. II. Issue. II. June 2011. ISSN 0976-8165

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