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Monday, June 20, 2011

* At the Opium Memorial, The Governor's Email and Chicken Soup for the Soul

My romance with the British Council library continues. The day before yesterday I got an invitation from Aparna Bhattacharya of the British Council library to attend Amitav Ghosh’s reading of his just released book River of Smoke at Victoria Memorial Portrait Gallery on Sunday, 19th June. I have read most of Amitav Ghosh’s works and liked them immensely. So it was a great opportunity to be in close quarters with the creator of characters like Alu, Tridib, May, Murugan, Piya, Fokir, Kalua, Deeti, and Ah Fatt. The reading session was chaired by the eminent historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharya and the other panelists were Supriya Chaudhuri and Rimi B. Chatterjee.

Under the precinct of the colonial mansion, which Amitav Ghosh termed as the Opium Memorial, since it was the British opium trade that funded its construction, the writer read an excerpt and spoke about his new book, the second of the Ibis trilogy. He dwelt upon the East India Company’s hypocrisy about opium and how they monopolized its trade in Calcutta. In comparison, Bombay’s opium trade was carried by independent entrepreneurs like Behram Moddie, one of the characters in Sea of Poppies who reappears in this new book. Ghosh said that it was his love of history and a tactile sense of the past that made it possible for him to blend history with his fiction. At the academic level history is written much like philosophy, he surmised.  Whereas he is trying to reconstruct the past in his fiction and nowhere it is more palpable than in his depiction of Canton, which according to Ghosh is the real protagonist of River of Smoke.  Ghosh is fascinated by Canton, or the modern day Guangzhou, where past is everywhere present and yet in its enormity it makes even New York look like a village. It was not only opium but also tea, flowers, and image-making industry that fuelled Canton’s economy in the colonial days. As far back as 1763, a Cantonese painter had his painting exhibition in London. Ghosh’s detailing of nuggets of history in his fiction was appreciated by the panelists and applauded by the audience.

In answering to the panelists’ questions, Amitav Ghosh said that he tries to make coincidences plausible in his fiction and he produces conflicting loyalties in his characters to make his narrative pregnant with possibilities. He acknowledged the difficulties of writing the second book of a trilogy, since it is always in media res, but Ghosh sees his book both as an independent work and as part of a trilogy. It is perhaps this important facet of his writing that each of his work has a life of its own, the characters come out of history, inhabit the present and go into posterity. The power of this writer to create in the mind of his reader a world of his characters is what makes him special. When Sujata Sen of the British Council thanked Amitav Ghosh at the end of the session, I too was thankful to the author and the organization for providing me an experience of an extraordinary evening. 
The former Governor of West Bengal Sri Gopal Krishna Gandhi sent to me his best wishes in reply to my farewell message to him - [ ]

Shri Gopal Krishna Gandhi was the governor of West Bengal between 2004 and 2009. The state of West Bengal was privileged to have him as the governor not only because of his illustrious lineage, being the grandson of such eminent personalities like Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari, but also because of his statesmanship and erudition. His translation of Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy into Hindi and his play in verse titled Dara Shukoh are prominent among his accomplishments. During his tenure as West Bengal’s governor he frequented many literary and cultural events in the state and mingled with the public. So when I went to Nandan for Amartya Sen’s lecture on “The Idea of Justice”, he was there in the audience. When I went to Oxford Bookstore for the launch of Sunetra Gupta’s novel So Good in Black, he was there to get his copy signed by the novelist. The governor was widely appreciated for his easy accessibility and friendly demeanor.

Now the governor also happens to be the chancellor of the state’s aided universities. So when in January 2006 I got myself registered as a doctoral researcher in Calcutta University, I was thrilled to have Shri Gopal Krishna Gandhi as my university’s chancellor. I hoped that on completion of my PhD, I will be conferred the doctoral degree at the convocation from the hands of the person I so much admired. Time passed. My research work progressed. And in November 2009 I submitted my thesis to the university for adjudication. The next month the newspapers announced that the current governor’s tenure will end on the 13th of December 2009. I was crestfallen for it dawned on me that the incumbent governor will not be there as the chancellor of Calcutta University when I will be handed the doctoral scroll.

It was the night of 12th December when in a sad state of mind I emailed the governor a farewell message expressing how often I have been in his proximity and how I will miss his grace. I little hoped for any reply since it was the last day of the governor’s stay in Raj Bhavan and surely he would have received hundreds of farewell messages. But the next day there was this one message in my mailbox -

Dear Shri Amit Shankar Saha,

I thank you for your most generous mail. May I deserve it. You have my best wishes.


Gopal Gandhi

It was then that I realized that I could not have been happier.


Read an edited version of my anecdote titled "The Professor" published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Indian College Students -

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