Amitav Ghosh’s Incendiary Circumstances

“Let your words speak not through their meanings
But through them against whom they are used.”

“The voice of passion is better than the voice of reason.
The passionless cannot change history”

– Czeslaw Milosz, ‘Child of Europe’

“In this mosaic-world of silent
graveyards the difference lies between
death and dying.”

– Agha Shahid Ali, ‘Bones’

Speaking of the ideology of Gandhi and Saad Zaghloul in an essay on fundamentalism, Amitav Ghosh speaks of “a belief in the possibility of relative autonomy for heterogeneous populations”. Nothing embodies such inclusiveness, such an embracing of diversity, as well as Ghosh’s new book Incendiary Circumstances. A collection of essays written over some twenty years, this is a book that covers a lot of ground – literally. Short pieces dealing with 9/11 and American neo-imperalism rub shoulders with deeper explorations of some of the most tortured lands in the world – Burma, Cambodia. Essays dealing with literature and writing are interspersed between articles that talk of cataclysmic events in Indian history such as the Pokhran tests and the 1984 riots. Bittersweet sketches of colourful characters from Ghosh’s stay in Egypt go hand in hand with reports from the Tsunami devastated Nicobar islands, or from a gala dinner (for a good cause) in an upscale restaurant in New York.

And yet all the disparate parts of this book are joined together by a single perspective, a theme that is not so much an idea as an attitude, a belief in the importance of bearing witness, of acknowledging, as carefully and objectively as possible, the faultlines of violence that lie hidden under the surface of our everyday world. Incendiary Circumstances is a hallway of mirrors, an attempt to capture, through a triangulation of glimpses, the face of a beast that lives among us, but that we cannot bring ourselves to look at directly. Ghosh is a writer of quiet strength, and his careful, lucid prose conveys perfectly the solemnity of what he is describing. “Is it possible to write about situations of violence without allowing your work to become complicit with the subject?”, Ghosh asks in the book’s preface. The answer, in his case, is a resounding yes – there is no violence in the tone of the book (though there is plenty in what it has to report), and it is a more powerful book for it.

My favourite essay in the book is a piece called ‘The Greatest Sorrow’, where Ghosh, looking at immigrant writing in recent times, argues that such writing is increasingly becoming more about departures than arrivals. As a generation of writers have been driven not so much towards new lands as away from old ones, as the homelands they loved have been consumed by violence, holding on to the past has become, for these writers, more important than laying claim to the future. This is a fascinating point, and one that Ghosh develops, in my opinion, extremely well (the fact that he uses quotes from Ondaatje and Shahid to make the point stick means I’m entirely biased, of course) so that by the end of the essay one is left with an aching sense of loss, a kind of contagious nostalgia.

The other ‘literary’ pieces in Ghosh’s book don’t quite match up to this standard. The article on Shahid’s death (which is the chief reason I issued the book out of the library in the first place) is well-written indeed, but my own memories of Shahid are too distinct and personal for Ghosh’s perspective to seem right, and I found myself wondering how much of Shahid’s work Ghosh had actually read. Which is not to say that Ghosh doesn’t do an exquisite job, it’s just that his article doesn’t capture, for me, the essence of who Shahid was – as as a poet or as a person. The other pieces on writing – an essay on Mahfouz, another on novels in general and Bankim Chandra in particular, a critique of Jordanian writer Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt novels – are all exceedingly well written (everything in this book is), but you could probably do just as well, for instance, reading the New York Review of Books.

The other essays I really loved in the book were an essay on Fundamentalism, and one that deals with the riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 (‘The ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi’). The latter is really a spectacular work, combining socio-political comment with a deeply heartfelt personal account. My own memories of that day in Delhi are sketchy at best, but if I remember few details the general feel of that horrific day has always stayed with me, the sense of helpless terror so thick in the air that it managed to convey itself even to a five year old who had little idea what was going on. Ghosh captures that sense of horror exceedingly well, twenty years later you can still hear the shock and fear of that day in his writing, but he manages to underlay it with an affirmation – more than anything else in this book, his account of that day is a testament to both the intense brutality of human beings towards each other, and the almost limitless compassion and humanity that they are capable of.

And that, I think, is the true genius of this book, overall. Whether he’s writing of dancers in Cambodia or Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma or of rescue workers in Nicobar, Ghosh manages to walk the thin line between optimism and despair. There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a bitter battle against the forces of fundamentalism and intolerance, Ghosh tells us, everywhere you look the forces of what he calls supremacism are gaining ground. And yet the battle is not lost – for there are also those who have refused to be cowed down or surrender; ordinary people like you and I who have become, through their exemplary dedication and the quietness of their dignity, true champions of the right. It is time that we acknowledged the struggle that these brave men and women are engaged in, Ghosh’s book suggests, it is time that we, having understood exactly what is at stake, took our own stand against the violence.