Amitav Ghosh is refreshingly in -your- face in his refusal to provide a glossary for the several rather archaic words that he uses in the trilogy. I attended two events centred around the launch of Ghosh’s River of Smoke in Bangalore and the question surfaced at both the cocktail do at the Taj West End and the cosy bookstore, PageTurners. A truculent reviewer in The Telegraph, UK has charged Ghosh with “looting the dictionary for words that time forgot”.
Ghosh says there is a glossary, “It’s called the Oxford English Dictionary”. I rather enjoy his pugnacious stance. When we have adopted so many words from a plethora of languages, why can’t he use words that have evolved in India? Words like palki, paltan, bonoys, belsers, bowjis, salas, sakubays, bandobast fit perfectly in the timeline of the Ibis trilogy of which River of Smoke is the second.
“Why do writers feel the need to be prescriptive?” Why indeed. He even questions the need to italicize words borrowed from another language whose meaning is universally known. His website has a section on the Ibis Chrestomathy; chrestomathy (from the Greek words khrestos, useful, and mathein, to know) is a collection of choice literary passages, used especially as an aid in learning a foreign language.
It traces Neel’s (a central character in Sea of Poppies) fascination with this subject, “Words! Neel was of the view that words, no less than people, are endowed with lives and destinies of their own”. Neel’s hobby is a manifestation of Ghosh’s own interest. It’s the sheer pleasure of words that make him a voracious reader and a writer. His publishers in the US change his words written in the UK style; “They change footpath to sidewalk”, he winces.
In an era that limits communication to 140 characters and 15 -second tv commercials, the popularity of a long involved saga of over 500 pages is an oddity. It’s certainly surprising to Amitav Ghosh, who blandly declares, “My books are not for everybody”. The sale counters that are ringing aloud say otherwise; Penguin says Ghosh’s just launched River of Smoke made it to the bestseller list within a week of release.
Perhaps, he surmises, people get tired of activities which demand very little attention and hence the popularity of his books. This is the second of his trilogy; the first, Sea of Poppies, is close to 500 pages.
This article is adapted from my column in 0Heraldo, published on July 4, 2011