I attended the book launch of Amitav Ghosh's new book 'The River of Smoke' last evening held at the Park Somajiguda. He is one of the truly big Indian literary heavyweights and it was but natural that a large crowd had gathered to see the celebrated author speak and get his autograph.
The event was scheduled to begin at 6 sharp at the Oxford Book Store which has a huge space inside the Park. It is a well-hidden piece of work - no one will ever suspect that a bookstore exists there, and such a well stacked one at that with a small coffee shop as well - and only people who have been there may whisper about it to others. (much like the Park itself which is not easy to find!). But it is a fine place and one worth visiting. Amitav Ghosh was there on time, even before some sections of the Press could get there, clad in his trademark waistcoat, looking dapper, healthy and cheerful. He had some one-on-one meetings with the Press at the Bookstore which was too small to conduct a launch for someone of his stature, and after signing a few books there, (I got my copy signed too), we headed to the Ball Room for the actual event.
The Ball Room was packed with people, all the seats got taken and more had to be arranged. Some 200 people or more I'd guess with some well known names from Hyderabad. Jyotirmaya Sharma, well-known academic, writer and commentator on political science, began the proceedings by quoting from Gopal Krishna Gandhi's speech at the Chennai launch, which was hilarious. Amitav Ghosh then spoke about the book and read a passage from it, laced with his trademark humour. It was about a ship load of passengers heading to England who wanted to meet Napolean Bonaparte who was held captive on the island of St. Helena - an actual happening apparently!
And then there was a bit of a discussion between Jyotirmaya Sharma and Amitav Ghosh - how do you feel after all the good reviews the book generated, will this trilogy turn into a quartet, what is your writing schedule like and some other questions - before the field was thrown open for questions.
Questions, for which Jyotirmaya Sharma set the ground rules rather elaborately, they should be sharp, pointed, and short, were by and large sensible, unlike some of the crazy ones I have heard at Book Launches where everyone suddenly is possessed by an urge to ask intellectual questions. There were those on writer's block (yes I paint myself into a corner sometimes, a walk normally clears my head if I get stuck), writing schedules (start writing from 9 in the morning for 7-8 hours), research (I do all research myself), details (journals filled with details, points etc), do characters pull you along when you are stuck (yes they do, Diti did in the Sea of Poppies), languages you know (English, Bengali, Hindi, Arabic, French and a working knowledge of some others), why fiction and not history (fiction is what I have a talent for and like writing),why the name, what message does it have (none explicitly), what is your favourite book among the ones you have written (pass), who are your favourite historians (Gibbon, Ranajit Guha etc), do you create the language for some characters (difficult to create any language), how can you make your books which are so physical connect with the youth which seems to live in a virtual world (I think I am a dinosaur), do you visit the places you write about (yes) and such and such.
One question I liked was from a lady who asked how the passage he read served the plot and whether he sometimes gets tempted to keep certain parts because he liked them even if they did not serve the plot. Amitav Ghosh replied that his readers normally do not get from A to B in a hurry: for such readers they have other kinds of writers, and that the section served a purpose in the book. I thought that the lady wanted to know how he structured that, in his mind, and how he saw it progressing his story. Everyone wants to understand the mind of a genius! But maybe Amitav Ghosh's answer left it to her to figure it out herself! One guy said that the books could have done with more humour - much like the film critics who want a bit more of this and that and not what is placed before them - like Hyderabadis want biryani wherever they go or Madrasis want idli sambar. Jyotirmaya Sharma drew the curtains of the event soon after that.
I read the 'Calcutta Chromosome' many years ago when Indian writing in English was in an exciting phase and loved it. Upamanyu Chatterji, Amitav Ghosh really impressed me and I was amazed at how they wrote - Upamanyu somehow never capitalised on his wonderful start. I missed reading most of Amitav Ghosh's other books (an error I will soon rectify) until I read the 'Hungry Tide' and was astounded at the research and the writing. Amitav Ghosh's reputation grew bigger and bigger after that and he seems almost to fly off into another orbit now and it was wonderful to see him in person, someone who in my opinion could well be taking home the Nobel for literature someday for creating such an extraordinary body of work. He is very approachable, soft spoken, speaks with great clarity, has a fine sense of humour, somehow balances sophistication with an earthiness that is rare in people at the top.
To a question by Jyotirmaya, whether he created characters who were happy despite their obvious troubles, Amitav Ghosh, said that he had met, lived with people who lived in abject poverty, like the Sunderbans for example, and he always found them to be happier than most others. He quoted someone that 'the slaves were found to be laughing a lot more than the slave owners!' Much traveled, much experienced, much researched, someone who calls himself empirical, Amitav Ghosh was truly a delight to witness and meet. And now to the big, fat book he has written, made fatter by the hard cover and the big price, that awaits like a delicious meal to be savoured.