Amitav Ghosh, one of the most prominent contemporary Indian writers and winner of the Jnanpith Award 2018, celebrates his 63rd birthday today (July 11). From being a student of the renowned Doon School to bagging the Jnanpith Award for his “outstanding contribution towards literature”, Ghosh has had a wonderful literary journey.
On this occasion, the Doon valley and especially his alma mater, feels an overwhelming pride and joy. It is indeed fortunate for the Doon valley to have been the home of several well-known authors. The Doon School itself is the alma mater of writers like Vikram Seth, Ramchandra Guha, Karan Thapar and Amitav Ghosh.
In fact, Seth, Thapar and Ghosh were students at the Doon School at the same time. Seth was seniormost, Thapar next and Amitav was the juniormost (class of 1972).
Both Seth and Ghosh were born in Kolkata. Ghosh was born on July 11, 1956 to Lieutenant Colonel Shailendra Chandra Ghosh, an officer in the British-Indian Army.
In school in Doon, the young Amitav was given to writing long poems, some of which were published in “The Doon School Weekly”. Once Ghosh mentioned in an interview that Seth, his senior, had advised him to look at his poems more carefully. He suggested that he should “stick to prose.” In issue number 1041 of The Doon School Weekly, dated March 5, 1972, one can read Ghosh’s poem titled “The Heroes’. I quote, “Men, born to die, wandering on /lost in futile hopes, wandering on,/and believing, believing against all powers/the powers of black darkness, and the whitest of purity? And in belief, then resurrection.
Criminals, lost in a haze of crime, But yet following the ordained path /the fools, proud, unhappy and very courageous.” Karan Thapar, in one of his articles, has written about his days at the Doon School with Ghosh.
He says that he used to call Ghosh by the nickname “Kuchipuddi” while Ghosh called him “Currybins”. Once, when they both met after a long gap, they immediately connected and called each other by these nicknames. It was during an interview that Ghosh told Thapar how he had discarded three hundred pages-the complete first draft of his first book “The Circle of Reason” after he found it not upto the mark. “I took all the work, all three hundred pages, and threw it away! I think that kind of desperation, that sense that your life depends on it, either the book will kill you or you’ll be able to write a book, that puts life into a book.”
Even after having tasted such success, Ghosh actually still feels “amazed” by his life. “I have a sense of wonderment-to think that my books go out in the world and send back these ripples, is for me, in a sense completely miraculous,” he told his senior, Thapar.
He completed his graduation from Saint Stephen’s College, Delhi University. After leaving Saint Stephen's with a BA in History in 1976, he obtained an MA in Sociology from the Delhi University in 1978.
He went to Saint Edmund Hall, Oxford to pursue post graduate work. He also spent some time at Tunis where he learnt Arabic. Ghosh is married to writer Deborah Baker and has two children, Lila and Nayan.
He commutes between Kolkata, Goa and Brooklyn. In 1999, Ghosh joined the faculty at Queens College, City University of New York as Distinguished Professor in Comparative Literature.
He has also been a visiting professor to the English department of Harvard University since 2005. Ghosh has received numerous awards for his works. Some of these awards are Prix Medicis Etranger for The Circle of Reason(1986), the Sahitya Akademi Award for The Shadow Lines (1988), the Pushcart Prize for his essay, "The March of the Novel through History: My Father's Bookcase" and the Grand Prize for Fiction at the Frankfurt International e-Book Awards for The Glass Palace.
Often categorised as historical fiction, Ghosh’s works show an intense understanding of human nature. His characters are living, breathing people whom his readers, meet, understand and befriend.
River of Smoke (2011) is the second volume of a trilogy. The first, Sea of Poppies, published in 2008, takes the reader along the Ganga and to Kolkata, where the poppies are grown and the opium processed. River of Smoke follows the story through to Canton in China, where the opium is sold.
The novel's strength lies in how thoroughly Ghosh fills out his research with his novelistic fantasy, so that at their best the scenes read with a freshness as if they were happening now. The third volume, published in 2015, is titled The Flood of Fire. His most recent work The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, was released in 2016.