Xenophilia and environmentalism: two new pieces from Amitav Ghosh

I spent the entire morning reading Amitav Ghosh’s two new pieces in the latest Outlook Exclusive (what they call Nano) edition; and, at the outset, let me say that both are a must-read!

The first piece, called Confessions of a Xenophile, is based on Amitav Ghosh’s field study in Egypt. The parts about the cows, Bollywood and Kirloskar are all familiar to me thanks to his In an antique land; however, that does not diminish the pleasure of reading yet another recounting by Ghosh:

Although these interrogations were often wearisome, there was also something touching about the attitudes of my friends. When we were out walking in the fields they would slow their pace when we were passing a cow: it took me a while to understand that they were allowing me time to perform my secret oblations. In the ploughing season, it often happened that we would pass a field where a team of oxen was being driven on with a stick or a whip: on many such occasions my friends would run ahead to berate the poor ploughman, telling him to stop beating his animals for fear of hurting the sentiments of Doktor Amitaab. In vain would I try to persuade them that cows were frequently beaten in India: they wouldn’t believe me, for had they not seen otherwise in Hindi films?

Ghosh goes on to talk about NAM (Non-Aligned Movement), the necessity of such institutional frameworks in making field studies like his (as well as import of movies and machines) possible, and the most important of all, the role of this field study on his writing.

I was happy to see Ghosh endorsing one of my theses, namely, that an anthropological field study equips one to be a better writer (my favourite examples being M N Srinivas, Ramachandra Guha and Ghosh himself). Here is how Ghosh puts it:

In other words, it was decolonization and its aftermath that made it possible for me to live for a time in Egypt. I say this in a spirit of the deepest gratitude, for this experience was critical to my development as a writer: it was my equivalent of writing school. While living in Beheira I maintained a detailed journal, in which I made extensive notes about my conversations with people, and the things I saw around me. Not only did this teach me to observe what I was seeing; it also taught me how to translate raw experience on to the page. It was the best kind of training a novelist could have and it has stood me in good stead over the years. Much of my writing has been influenced by this experience.

Ghosh goes on to give one more reason why, sometimes, the field study might serve a budding writer well:

For any writer, reading is as essential as writing, and in this regard too, my time in Egypt was absolutely essential to my literary formation. Although I have always been a voracious reader, I have never, in all my life, read as much as I did in Lataifa. This was possible partly because there was not much else to do: like most rural communities, Lataifa was a quiet place where nothing much happened. It was in Lataifa that I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and I would not perhaps have felt its influence as powerfully as I did if I had not been living there. One Hundred Years of Solitude alerted me to the possibility that the movement of time may most often be felt most powerfully in places that appear to be far removed from the main currents of history: Lataifa was one such place, an Egyptian Macondo. It was in Lataifa also that I discovered contemporary Arabic fiction.

Of course, the first time when I made the suggestion about anthropology and writing, I was told that the three writers I mention are exceptions than the rule. Ghosh’s piece also gives one indication why this might be so — the goals and motivations behind the field study may also play a crucial role:

My dream was of writing fiction, but like many an aspiring novelist I felt I lacked the necessary richness of experience. The writers I admired – V.S.Naipaul, James Baldwin and others – had gone out into the world and watched it go by: I wanted no less for myself. The scholarship was a godsend because it allowed me to choose where I wanted to go and in my case it was Egypt.

In the West, Third World nationalism is often presented as an ideology of xenophobia and parochialism. But the truth is that many of these movements of resistance tried very hard, within their limited means, to create an universalism of their own. Those of us who grew up in that period will recall how powerfully we were animated by an emotion that is rarely named: this is xenophilia, the love of the other, the affinity for strangers – a feeling that lives very deep in the human heart, but whose very existence is rarely acknowledged. People of my generation will recall the pride we once took in the trans-national friendships of such figures as Nehru, Nasser, Sukarno, Chou En Lai and others.

If I am to think of what drew me to Egypt in 1980, it was, at bottom, the very impulse that I have been describing here – a kind of xenophilia, a desire to reclaim the globe in my own fashion, a wish to eavesdrop on an ancient civilizational conversation.

Ghosh ends this piece with a prescription for the continuance of such xenophilia and its importance in the present context:

I have pointed to that period, rather, in order to evoke the desires and hopes that animated it, in particular to its strain of xenophilia, to its yearning for a certain kind of universalism – not a universalism merely of principles and philosophy, but one of face-to-face encounters, of everyday experience. Except that this time we must correct the mistake that lay at the heart of that older anti-colonial impulse – which is that we must not only include the West within this spectrum of desire, we must also acknowledge that both the West and we ourselves have been irreversibly changed by our encounter with each other. We must recognize that in the West, as in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, there are great numbers of people who, by force of circumstance, have become xenophiles, in the deepest sense, of acknowledging that in matters of language, culture and civilization, their heritage, like ours, is fragmented, fissured and incomplete. Only when our work begins to embody the conflicts, the pain, the laughter, and the yearning that comes from this incompleteness will our work be a true mirror of the world we live in.

The second piece is longer and more substantial (by that I not only mean that there are references and footnotes, but also that none of the material (except for the Bon Bibi myth) was known to me prior to my reading this piece) and is titled Wild fictions; as you read the piece you understand that (in the true Ghosh-ian fashion), there are several layers of meaning that one can give to that phrase in the context of the discussion; also, it begins with one form of wild fiction and ends with another that is very different; along the way, there is some though-provoking statements; I do not want to mar the experience of reading that piece for the readers of this blog by quoting from it, except for this section at the end of the essay:

It is my belief that only fiction can provide a canvas broad enough to address this relationship [between human beings and their surroundings] in all its dimensions; only in fiction can a reconciliation be affected between Bon Bibi and Saint-Pierre’s recluse, between the quest of a scientist determined to prevent the disappearance of a species and the needs of a fisherman who must hunt in order to live. It follows then that if nature is to be re-imagined in such a way as to restore the human presence within it – not as predator but partner – then this too must first be told as a story. In India we are fortunate in that our literary traditions, powerfully influenced though they are by the West, have never wholly succumbed to the romantic imagining of Nature as a ‘pristine’, uninhabited temple. Such writers as as Sivarama Karanth, Gopinath Mohanty and Mahasweta Devi have always been profoundly aware of the predicament of those who live in India’s forests. That a meaningful debate on this issue is possible at all in today’s India is due in no small part to their fictional explorations of this territory.

Have fun!

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