August 09, 2020
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'The System Of Nation-States Is Under Strain'

On writing, especially in his latest book of essays, The Imam and the Indian, on the riots in the last century to 9/11 and after, and the role of a writer in these confusing times.

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'The System Of Nation-States Is Under Strain'
Jitender Gupta
'The System Of Nation-States Is Under Strain'
Violence and riots have a way of walking into Amitav Ghosh's living room. It happened in 1984, when the events following Indira Gandhi's assassination overtook him in Delhi, and it happened again in New York when he watched the WTC crash from his window, and he had to walk out into the chaos to rescue his daughter from her school across the river. Fortunately for him, and everyone else, the only menace in the graciously appointed living room where he conducted this interview with Sheela Reddy was the sultry weather outside. It was that peaceful hour when everyone is away at work or in school, and the only sounds in this comfortably middle-class south Delhi home in Green Park are of the sabjiwala outside and the maid in the kitchen preparing the tea tray. But in its uncanny way violence worked its way into the interview, as it has worked its way into Ghosh's life and his writing, especially in his latest book of essays, The Imam and the Indian. Some excerpts from the exchange that ranged from the riots in the last century to 9/11 and after, and the role of a writer in these confusing times:

You make an interesting connection in your book between violence and banality -- how violence in the ultimate analysis is so banal and devoid of all meaning?

It's an extension of the famous phrase about the banality of evil. When I was talking of banality and violence, I was speaking in relation to the riots in the sixties and seventies. Because in some way riots didn't change anything. You had this "disturbance" -- in those days it was always called disturbance. They would have them for a few days, then they would end, and then things would carry on much as before. Until the next riot. It was, in that sense, so horrifyingly banal. When you have a war, something changes. There is a new approach to history, a new approach to international relations. To me that was the most disquieting aspect of that kind of social violence. But after September 11, something has changed very drastically in the world.

And what is that?

Perhaps it is a symptom rather than a cause as such. The whole system of nation states, on which the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were made, is coming under increasing strain. It is coming under strain from two ends: one is at the top end of the scale where the rich countries are essentially more and more a single unit -- they act as one unit, borders don't really apply between them. At the bottom-end of the scale, in countries like Pakistan and Burma, again borders have melted away and there's a general collapse of the state. I think we are really at a point where one ideal of nationhood -- the nation as a way of organising society, of organising international relations -- that system is no longer holding, and some other system is coming into being. And what that system is, we don't know.

Post-September 11, what is the role of a writer, especially in a world where the threads of the old stories have broken?

I think the stories are changed, they are fundamentally, radically changed. If I would make a claim for myself and my work, I would say that I've been aware of the way things have changed for a very long time. Because I've lived in the Middle East, I've been in Burma, I've been in places where the changes are occurring. So that awareness has been a part of my fiction for a very long time. My fiction has always been about places that are in the process of states coming unmade, or communities coming unmade or remaking themselves in many ways.

So 9/11 has posed the biggest challenge to writers of the west?

I think it is impossible for me or anyone to say that writers as a collectivity have a single challenge. Every writer responds to this in his or her own way.

But there is no way a writer can't respond to this challenge?

Of course it is possible. There are a few writers who are writing tender love stories, and that has its place in the world. I think it is completely authoritarian to say everyone has to write about this.

Not that everyone has to write about this, but that everyone is changed by this, both in the decision to write about it and the decision to ignore it.

I think it is in that sense a historical event that has become a huge block we have to walk around. But in the long run it is also important to remember that it's only one event.

That is true. But personally do you find it becomes more difficult for you to go on writing after the events of last September?

One of the strange things that I found, especially while putting this book together, and when I look back on my life, is that somehow -- it is just a coincidence, I think, but whenever these eruptions have occurred, somehow I found myself in the middle of it. This was true of 1964, and 1984, and when it happened in New York, I was watching it from my window. My daughter was in school across the river. Two of our neighbours and friends died. Two of my son's classmates lost their parents. So it was very immediate. For one week we had these two children living with us whose father had died. It was not something very distant and far away. It was just as it was in 1984 when the whole city was in turmoil. I must say that when it happened in New York, I was reminded really very much of 1984. Not because of what happened but because when a city is in that kind of turmoil, there are always some similarities: there's the sense of terror, there's the sense of a mass of people responding in a certain way. So I would say these are coincidental things, it's not for me to tell other writers what they should write or not write. This is my life, this is what I write about.

You mention that whenever in India we have a riot, we sweep it under the carpet, and go on as if nothing has happened. Why does this continue to happen?

Yes, this is what really worries me. When I wrote Outlook that was one of the things I was really thinking about. If you go back in the whole history of these disturbances, the collective assumption has been that as development occurs, as change occurs, these things will become less, and there will be an automatic social solution, as it were. But as Gujarat shows us, that is not the case. In fact, as more development occurs, there will be more of these riots. We used to think development was the solution. Now it seems development is the problem, it creates these riots in a way. Gujarat is the most developed state.

That's an interesting point of view--that development is the problem, not the cure.

I don't mean in a general sense. Of course, development offers many solutions. What I am saying is that there are aspects of it which clearly create, or rather exacerbate, the violence when it does occur. So that's why I think it is very important that we begin to think of some sort of institutional response to riots. Rather than just letting it occur, and then wringing our hands, there's a very emotional few days...the new thing about it now is that there is a new media spotlight on it. But it's exactly the same process that's been occurring since the early part of the last century.

But there is a difference in the scale of these riots?

I don't know if you can say the scale is any different. In terms of absolute numbers of people killed, more were killed in 1984, especially in Delhi more were killed in 1984. But I agree with you that there is something peculiarly horrible about the Gujarat riots. But I would say, rather than thinking of it as a quantitative change, what we have here is an ascending graph. In no way do I seek to mitigate the absolute horror of what happened, but the temptation to think that every last occurrence is the worst possible occurrence is also in its own way a dangerous temptation. It is because we look at it like that, we don't think of an institutional response.

So what do you mean by an institutional response?

It is clear that politicians will always have the incentives to create riots. so we have to set up the mechanisms mandated by the legislative body that makes it possible to create a rapid deployment force that would respond immediately during riots wherever they may occur in the country. That's my feeling, of course it's not very realistic, but it seems to me that we do have to think of some sort of institutional response. Because think(ing) of these things merely in terms of lamentation and mourning, is not enough.

Do you see any big difference in India post-Gujarat?

Massacres like this kind have happened before, but I think this one has been taken into the national consciousness, largely because of the presence of the media. Here again, you have to give credit to the heightened awareness in India, there's been a very much more intense engagement with what has happened in Gujarat.

You have talked in one of your essays of the close connection between modernity and religion, how religion is often used as a weapon against modernity...

Yes, fundamentalists often use the word pseudo-secularist to describe those who are opposed to them. But I think it is they who are pseudo-religioists. Name me a single fundamentalist who has anything to say about the spiritual content of religion. They have nothing to say, they are interested in politics. And that's why so many of these young fundamentalists are actually engineers and so on who have the most banal ideas about religion. They have no idea about it at all actually. And that is true of Islamic fundamentalists, it's true of Hindu fundamentalists.

Would you say the Americans are responding to 9/11 in the same way Indians have to riots?

No, they are not. I think they are responding to it in a very different way. For one thing, the scale of whatever it is they've started afterwards is much, much larger. Also, the whole business of memorialising it has become the focal point of the nation's constitution. September 11, immediately after it happened, has just completely entered the nation's consciousness there.

Considering the incidents of Indian visitors who are being harassed there, do you think that Americans have become paranoid against coloured people since 9/11?

I really haven't seen that at all. And I'm always astonished when I see these pieces (news items). I live in New York and have travelled a lot in planes since September 11, but I have never even been searched. And it's not as if I look any different from any other South Asian. I think the thing over there is that they have lived such a safe life so long that when it suddenly happened, suddenly they feel that they are not safe, they don't really know as yet how to respond. They are feeling their way. Besides, most of this is centred around airports. I would like to remind you that after 1984, for example, there was a whole range of anxiety against anyone wearing a pagri on their heads. I'm not saying it is natural, but a certain amount of anxiety comes into being. The whole point of terror is to create anxiety. To tell you the truth, when I'm on a plane in America and I see someone behaving in a peculiar way, I get scared.

You talk in your recent book about "our unwitting complicity in violence."

What I was saying is that in some way what we see with terror, what we've seen since the start of the century, is that the sort of performance that is required to catch our attention has grown increasingly accepted. So, say in Gandhi's period, just the sight of a man who was starving was enough to shock the nation. During the Vietnam war the most powerful image I have was the monk who burnt himself on the crossroads. But now I hear that because of the agitation in Jharkhand, people are trying to commit suicide, then some filmstar was insulted, so his followers burn themselves on the streets, so from being spectacular acts these acts can become almost trivial. And in the gap between them you really see what humanity was and what it is now.

You also talk of the "aesthetics of violence"--how in writing about violence, writers sometimes sacrifice truth and goodness for the spectacle.

I think it's a real problem when you have aesthetisation of violence. As a writer when you respond to it, I know there is always the temptation to make it all heroic. As a writer we have to resist that temptation. For me the challenge came up when I was writing Shadow Lines: How do you write about violence in a non-violent way? When you just hold up a mirror to violence, all you see is more violence. The issue is really how do you write about violence with a perspective. Is it possible to write about violence in a non-violent way, that's really been, in a technical and formal way, an important issue?

Modern literature seems to have moved away from its most profound concerns i.e. celebrating its emotional and spiritual life, and that space is now being filled by writers of chewing gum spirituality. Why?

I don't disagree with the thrust of your question. Certainly in literature one of the things we see is an increasing movement towards a very hyper-ironicised view of the world where everything is ironicised, all human yearning, emotions, all spiritual yearnings that create humanity as we know it. And I think it is a very sad thing. But I feel one of the things that is very strong especially in Indian writing is that it is not afraid to tackle those things. and that's why people around the world respond to it as well.

I could give you any number of examples -- in a way, The God of Small Things is a very emotional book. I think Michael Ondatje has been an incredibly intensely emotional writer, even if the emotion is not on the surface. Or Agha Shahid Ali, the poet, has the most vaulting ambition, where he was looking at Sufi poetry, contemporary politics and trying to find a form that holds it together, and I think he was uniquely successful. Similarly, over the last few years, in small ways and large ways, many, many South Asian writers have given me the feeling that -- they're not always successful in realising what they're doing, but the ambition is there, of some sort of moralistic truth.

(Slightly short version of this interview appeared in the print edition)

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