When Amitav Ghosh is not writing best-selling novels, he might be riding across Java on a motorcycle or trekking through the mangrove forests in the Sundarbans.
“(The Sundarbans) is the poorest part of India. The people who live there lead lives of unimaginable poverty … and yet, when you’re with them, they live and laugh more than people in Providence,” he said during a discussion yesterday. “The critical paradox of life is most of us don’t really know how miserable we are.”
Ghosh, who is on campus for two days as part of the Year of China, kicked off his visit with a presentation on Guangzhou, historically known as the port city of Canton. He then participated in a conversation on the relationship between India and China with Christopher Lydon, visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, and Professor of Anthropology Lina Fruzzetti yesterday evening in Petteruti Lounge.
“The Year of China has explored a number of different themes across disciplines,” said Shana Weinberg, coordinator of Year of China. Ghosh’s visit fits in with the program’s aim of conducting a comparative study of China with other countries, she said.
Ghosh, who has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and was awarded the prestigious Padma Shri by the President of India, said his interest in China was sparked by research he conducted for his novels. While reading about Indians who left their homeland in the 19th century, he realized the close historical links between China and India.
“It was completely an accidental discovery,” Ghosh said.
Ghosh traced the history of the opium trade, explaining that the British East India Company funded their consumption of Chinese exports such as tea and porcelain by selling opium from India to China. He incorporated historical paintings and photographs into his lecture and focused on Canton’s export-oriented economy, describing it as the “world’s great emporium.”
“It’s very strange when we talk about China adopting some kind of western model,” he said, referring to the country’s capitalist economy. “In fact, it’s a very old model, and it’s completely Chinese.”
He also spoke about some of the cultural similarities he’s observed between India and China.
“Space is treated in the same way,” he said. “There’s the same sacredness of objects.”
But India’s inward-looking mind-set has prevented the country from creating closer ties with its neighbor and exploring these commonalities further, he said.
“This has been one of the great historical disasters of Indian civilization,” he said.
In his conversation with Lydon, Ghosh spoke more broadly about his writing experiences and views on international relations. He recounted an article he wrote for the New Yorker 10 days before the Iraq War, which the editors of the magazine insisted on partially rewriting as a way to “disown the burden of the piece.”
“There are wheels within wheels,” he said. “The plurality of voices which America rejoices – in these moments of crisis, the plurality completely disappears.”
Ghosh compared the United States with the British Empire, arguing that the U.S. Constitution is treated as scripture here, and this “sets in place a system that increasingly seems unworkable.” He also explored America’s interest in the fantasy of empire.
“For him, India is an example of successful empire,” he said. “In the minds of many Americans, India has become a kind of coda to the imperial project.”
Ghosh said he does not want his books to be read purely for their political messages. “We lose something in life when we only look at the big picture,” he said.
The author, who has received a PhD in social anthropology, also stressed the importance of seeing places for oneself rather than readily accepting knowledge. He recounted a visit to Yunnan province with his son, during which he said he realized there is more flexibility within the Chinese system than he would have imagined.
He found that China was extremely user-friendly for visitors and poked fun at his own native India.
In China, “they don’t try to cheat you as they would in India,” he said. “But India is wonderful in its own way – India is India, China is China.”
Ghosh will be speaking about his writing at a lunch event titled “The Fiction of Borders: The Borders of Fiction” today, and he will conclude his visit with a lecture about the Chinese influences on Indian culture.
See The Herald’s in-depth Q&A with Ghosh here.