Amitav Ghosh has an amusing anecdote to tell about the power of translations. In 1983, when he was living in Kerala and working on his first novel, The Circle Of Reason, he was pleasantly surprised by the immense popularity enjoyed by the Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938) among Malayali readers. “Some of my friends told me that their grandmothers thought Saratbabu was a Malayali, such was his appeal,” Ghosh says on a Zoom call from his home in Brooklyn, New York. “Saratbabu is hugely popular across India—think of the number of screen adaptations his books have led to—he’s deathless, really, far more widely read, probably, than Rabindranath Tagore, even as we, Bengalis, continue to worship and revere the latter.”
We are on the subject of translations because Ghosh’s latest novel, Gun Island, recently came out in Hindi, Marathi and Malayalam editions, rendered into these languages by Maneesha Taneja, Ashlesha Gore and K. T. Radhakrishnan, respectively, and published by Eka, an imprint of Westland Books. Although his books have appeared in multiple foreign languages, finding new readers in Indian languages is always special, Ghosh admits. Is there a non-English, non-Indian culture that has co-opted him as their own, as the Malayalis did with Chattopadhyay “Not in the same way, for sure,” Ghosh laughs, “but my books have acquired a certain resonance in some parts.”
In Italy, for instance, Ghosh proceeds to add, his books have a large following. “That’s partly because I have a wonderful translator, Anna Nadotti (one of two people to whom Gun Island is dedicated), who has worked on my books for the last 30 years.” There is a synergy between Italian and Indian cultures, too, in their fondness for food, family and friendships. In Gun Island, Italy is in fact a major setting for the action; it’s a country Ghosh has been visiting for three decades. “In the 1970s and 1980s, there weren’t as many South Asian immigrants there,” he says. “All over Venice these days, you hear Bengali spoken by the Bangladeshi migrants.”
A babel of voices
In 2019, when I spoke to Ghosh about Gun Island for a Lounge cover story, he pointed out the persistence of the figure of the merchant in his books. “All my life I have been writing about merchants,” he said. “At the heart of In An Antique Land is a merchant, the figure of the merchant also looms over the entire Ibis trilogy.” The other, less obvious but just as longstanding, theme that occupies Ghosh is perhaps language. From Judeo-Arabic in In An Antique Land to Bengali in The Hungry Tide to the Laskari dialect of the Ibis trilogy, a babel of voices speak throughout Ghosh’s fictional and non-fictional universe. And this polyphony is not surprising, considering his background.
Ghosh’s paternal family came to India from what is now Bangladesh in the 1850s and settled in Bihar. “Three or four generations of them spoke fluent Bhojpuri, alongside Bengali—it was the language of their intimacy,” he says. “I grew up with the language around me.” At the age of 11, when he was sent off to boarding school in north India, Ghosh suddenly found himself surrounded by boys who spoke Punjabi, Hindi and other unfamiliar tongues. “Indians are inescapably multilingual,” he adds, our society “systematically” encourages polyphony. But this melting pot of tongues poses a peculiar challenge for writers, especially novelists who work with one language. “How do you represent such an incredible variety of languages?” Ghosh says. “For me, it has involved using other languages and other registers of the English language.”
Most writers in the West, regrettably, grow up in the “linguistic monoculture” of English, though they really don’t need to if they pay more attention to the world around them. “Spanish is spoken everywhere on the streets of New York, for example,” Ghosh says. “You will hear it if you listen carefully.” He recalls a “terrible novel” by American writer John Updike called Terrorist, which he had to review for The Washington Post some years ago. Its protagonist, an Egyptian boy, lives in New Jersey but speaks like “a Bedouin”, Ghosh says, laughing. In contrast, the cultural backdrop in which educated Indians of a certain generation grew up presented a richness beyond measure.
I ask Ghosh about being a multilingual reader from a tender age, an experience that he wrote about in a marvellous essay about his grandfather’s bookcase in 1998. We return to reminisce about a moment in Bengali literary culture when iconic writers like Shakti Chattopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay would take weekly French classes at the Alliance Française in Kolkata—at quite an advanced age—so that they could read, appreciate and sometimes translate French literature into Bengali. This legacy of curiosity is flickering now, largely because the Anglophone monoculture—which Ghosh rightly deplores—has left many educated Indians proficient only in English.
Making old tales new
Ghosh’s own relationship with Bengali, as a writer who publishes in English, goes deep—not only because it is his mother tongue, the language of his spirit, but also because it flows through the intellectual universe of some of his most celebrated books, though they may be written in English. For instance, Gangopadhyay, Ghosh says, maintained that The Hungry Tide was a Bengali novel written in English, which makes its Bengali translation (by Achintyarup Roy), replete with local dialects and registers of Bengali that the English original may not have been able to convey, a fascinating text.
“It was a strange experience,” Ghosh admits. “I worked closely with Roy on the Bengali text and even slipped in passages of dwipodi poyar (an archaic Bengali meter, which literally means the two-footed line) into the prose!” Though Ghosh’s linguistic trickery went largely unnoticed in that instance, it appears, in an even more audacious form, in his next book, titled Jungle Nama, forthcoming from HarperCollins India in February.
Illustrated by the acclaimed artist Salman Toor, the slim volume is an adaptation of an episode from the folklore of Bonbibi Johuranama, told and retold by generations of people who have lived in the forests of the Sundarbans in West Bengal and Bangladesh. Bonbibi, the goddess of the jungle, is worshipped and placated by the locals, for she may otherwise, like the vengeful goddess of snakes Manasa, visit retribution upon them. “The story, essentially, is about balance, about not taking too much from the forests,” says Ghosh. “Our ancestors recognised, long ago, the predicament we are in now due to climate change and deforestation.”
Toor’s dazzling artwork, from the limited samples one can see on the internet, complements the text in more senses than one. Not only does it illustrate the action and the mood of the story, it also harks back to an age-old practice of storytelling in rural Bengal, using images painted on scrolls or enacting them in jatra (rural theatre). The act of telling stories, in this ancient tradition, transcends literacy, as it brings into its fold song, pictures and the drama of orality. Instead of the practice of silent, solitary reading, which has dominated our consciousness since the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the storytellers of rural Bengal put the primacy on the voice. Without this alchemy of speech and hearing, stories didn’t come to life. “We have undervalued these non-formal texts all this time,” Ghosh says. “We have to work now towards loosening our idea of what is a text.”
Gun Island is a gesture towards one experiment in freeing the moorings of the modern novel, as it traipses from the jungles of the Sundarbans, echoing with folkloric myths and superstitions, to the shores of the Mediterranean, where a contemporary tragedy of forced migration is enacted. Between these two poles extends a vast landscape of journeys—some imagined, others real—all secreted into the word that gives the novel its title: bundook.
Ghosh begins his story with the etymology of this word—he says the novel is “an etymological mystery”—and unpeels the meandering and mysterious journey it undertakes through the centuries to assume its current form. “I remember being shocked to learn that the word balti—so ubiquitous in everyday Indian life—actually comes from the Portuguese!” he says. “In etymology one encounters history, one’s past.”