The Glass Palace
by Amitav Ghosh
Random House, 475 pp., $25.95
Although the British formally left India more than half a century ago, their presence still sits at the center of that culture like a picture of Miss Havisham’s lost fiancé. It has been tempting—too tempting, perhaps—to place all the Indian writers recently so conspicuous in the West on a spectrum represented at its poles by Salman Rushdie on the left, trying to get back at the Empire by turning its very language and literature into sentences as crowded and noisy as the streets of an Indian city, and, on the right, V.S. Naipaul, perfecting a style more Augustan and austere than even that of his historical masters, and writing with a self-conscious concern for clarity, and for making fastidious discriminations, in an international world ever more without a center.
The distinction is a political one, of course, as well as a generational one (Rushdie’s great good fortune, aesthetically and personally, having been to come into the world just as the British were leaving India), but on neither side have any Indian writers been able to find a resolution of their competing literary legacies as sonorous or affirmative as that, say, of Derek Walcott. Midnight’s grandchildren look a little like children in the wake of a messy divorce, having to choose between an imperial father who’s gone off to lick his wounds and an indigenous mother who, though supportive, seems a little lost.
In recent years, as the American Empire makes its presence more urgently felt in India, and as the West itself begins to be colonized by young Indians in their thirties, the old divisions have at last begun to fade. Many of the most accomplished “Indian writers” now in view (some of them from Sri Lanka or Pakistan, some of them never having even lived in India) refuse to be placed within the old colonial frame. Arundhati Roy, in her God of Small Things, addresses the age-old Indian theme of caste in a style that seems driven by a Lawrentian fury and a cinematic sense of structure, with very little of classic English literature behind it; Abraham Verghese, born to Indian parents in Ethiopia, trains his compassionate diasporan eye on the shifting migrant cultures that overlap in the American South; and Pankaj Mishra, in his impressively lucid and unshowy first novel, The Romantics, turns a style of Naipaulian transparency and rigor on the latest passengers to India, circling around an Indian student who’s never been outside his homeland. In his last novel, An Equal Music, Vikram Seth does not even mention India, and someone who’d never seen his face or name would never guess that he had anything to do with the subcontinent.
Amitav Ghosh, though only forty-four, is already an elder statesman in this field, having published his first novel, The Circle of Reason, in 1986, well before the current vogue for Indian writing began. And he fits into it interestingly because, right after that book, he visibly moved …