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Author Amitav Ghosh says while there are many fascinating aspects to the writing process, he usually finds the beginnings the most difficult to write
Image: Barbara Zanon / Getty Images
Q. The land your characters inhabit—whether it is the Gangetic plains in Sea of Poppies, the Sunderbans in The Hungry Tide, or the Burmese forests in The Glass Palace—has formed an integral part of your narratives. Is this something you consciously include, or does it happen by itself?
It’s a difficult question to answer because to some degree it is conscious because you have to find out details of that kind. But it’s really conscious in the sense that it is part of a plan; these are things that interest me.
Q. In your stories, there is also a lot of movement where characters are concerned; they, very often, traverse different geographies. How does this come about?
That part of it is really a reflection of my own history. I have always been travelling and living in different places. And also it is the experience of my own family, which was originally from Bikrampur near Dhaka in Bangladesh. They left a long time ago, before Partition; some came to India, some of them went to Burma. These are reflected in my work.
But I have to say that when I started writing, to write about these movements was kind of unusual. Specially in the India context, people usually wrote stories that were set in one town or village or province. Very few people were writing about Indians who were migrating, going elsewhere, were displaced. Now migration is almost mainstream.
Q. A place like Bengal has historically seen so much displacement because of climate and topography. Do you think migrations such as these grab less attention than those caused by political reasons such as civil wars?
That’s an interesting question, and one that I also think about. The whole landscape of Bengal has always been unstable. It’s always been shifting. In some way, people have adapted to that; they have historically always been able to move. And we see this reflected in Bengali literature also. I think you are right that people pay less attention to it for that reason.
Q. Do you think migration due to environmental causes does not attract attention because it has been happening for so long?
Yes, definitely. And it is so unfair the way it is prioritised right now. In Europe, they now classify people who are moving because of environmental causes as economic refugees, as opposed to political refugees. So, it’s like political refugees are good, economic refugees are bad. In fact, often the circumstances are such that you can’t make that distinction. In the Syrian case, in the case of Darfur, you can’t really make that distinction between what is economic and what is political. I think the world is going to have to rethink all these categories.
Because, you know, the world is acting as if the only people migrating out of Syria, or through Syria, are Syrians. You look at the photographs, and you can see that a large part of them are South Asians. It’s strange how this whole thing is playing out.
Q. Is it Western thought processes, then, that label refugees in certain categories—thus compartmentalising them—and do not recognise the links between these categories?
You can’t really blame the Western governments; look at out how our governments have responded. After all, in West Bengal, which should, of all places, be sensitive to refugees, look at what happened in Marichjhapi. They [the government] massacred refugees there; all of them were then moved out to Dandakaranya [now in Chhattisgarh]. Our governments have not been particularly sensitive to these issues either.
[In 1979, the West Bengal government forcibly evicted thousands of Bengali, Hindu refugees, who had fled persecution in Bangladesh, from a cluster of islands called Marichjhapi in the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans. Although the exact number of casualties were not determined, several hundred refugees are believed to have died from police firing, starvation—following a blockade—and disease. Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide, set in the Sunderbans, is against the backdrop of this incident.]