PROFILE: Amitav Ghosh – Where Memory meets History

Guest post by Haimanti Dutta Ray


amitav ghoshName: Amitav Ghosh

Born: 1956, Calcutta, India

Novels: The Circle of Reason; The Shadow Lines; The Calcutta Chromosome; The Glass Palace; The Hungry Tide; Sea of Poppies; River of Smoke.

Non-fiction: In An Antique Land; Dancing In Cambodia And At Large In Burma (Essays); Countdown; The Imam And The Indian; Incendiary Circumstances (Essays).

Awards: Padma Shri (India); Prix Medicis Etranger (France); Sahitya Akademi Award & the Ananda Purashkar for The Shadow Lines; Arthur C.Clarke Award for The Calcutta Chromosome; International E-Book Award (Frankfurt Book Fair) for The Glass Palace; The Crossword Book Prize The Hungry Tide; Man Booker Prize (shortlisted), Vodafone Crossword Book Award (co-winner), Dan David Prize (co-winner) and India Plaza Golden Quill Award for Sea of Poppies; Man Asian Literary Prize (shortlisted) for River Of Smoke.


I bought Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Shadow Lines at the Calcutta International Book Fair many years ago, when I was still a student. I remember leafing through the hardbound volume, struck by its deft jugglery of language. The book was a moving and thought-provoking meditation on the real, yet invisible, lines that divide nations, people and families. It questioned the benefits of nationalism and the meaning of political freedom in the modern context. This was not surprising, given the author’s personal history.

Born in Calcutta to a retired army officer from colonial times, Ghosh grew up in post-independence India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The bulk of his formal education was in Delhi, but he finished with a D.Phil in social anthropology from Oxford. His education, the sociopolitical milieu he saw and his first job (as a journalist) all impacted his later writing.

Considered a pioneer in the genre of historical fiction, almost all of Ghosh’s works are the product of painstaking research, and act as a confluence for history and fiction, memory and exactitude. He is as widely travelled as he is meticulous, and so all his novels have separate backdrops or settings in locations the author has explored and lived in.  All the permutations and combinations in the relationships between his characters are carried out against these natural and historical settings. A case in point is The Hungry Tide, which is set in the Sundarbans – an immense archipelago of islands towards the Eastern coast of Bengal. The book meanders through the ebb and flow of the bay waters, with whose whims the fate of the principal characters, Piyali Roy and Kanai Dutt, are inexorably linked. Ghosh’s magnum opus project, the The Ibis trilogy, chronicles the journey of a ship. The Ibis is an opium carrier, carrying a consignment of convicts and indentured labourers in the first book, which reaches the crowded alleys and waterways of nineteenth century Canton (specifically modern China) in the second book. Ghosh’s The Glass Palace is set in Burma, modern-day Myanmar.

The confidence and ease with which he switches geographies can be seen in his non-fiction writing as well. In The Imam and the Indian, a collection of 78 essays that hinge on his experiences in Egypt as a researcher in the early 1980’s, we find the Author as Anthropologist. In an Antique Land provides magical insights into Egyptian history and culture from the Crusades to Operation Desert Storm. The ship of Ghosh’s oeuvre ploughs on through many different seas, steered by a voice that is polished and profound, intellectual and incisive. No matter where they are set, his books seem to transport readers to a realm of illusory realism wherein they get trapped by the mere act of reading itself.

Ghosh’s works have been translated into more than twenty languages. He has served on the jury of the Locarno Film Festival (Switzerland) and the Venice Film Festival. He joined the faculty of Queen’s College, City University of New York as Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature in 1999, and has been a Visiting Professor at the English Department of Harvard University since 2005. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2009, and is also Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, and the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum.

He lives in New York with his wife Deborah Baker, who is Senior Editor at Little, Brown and Company. The final volume of the The Ibis trilogy, Flood of Fire, is due to hit stands in 2015.


Haimanti Dutta Ray

Haimanti Dutta Ray has written for The Statesman, The Times of India, and The Telegraph, among other publications. Creative writing is both her passion and her vocation. Her poetry has appeared at, and art criticisms have been published in Art India and Art & Deal journals.  At present, she writes book reviews for