Probing questions of ethics in writing: a critical response to The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi by Amitav Ghosh

I was asked to write a critical analysis of Amitav Ghosh’s essay in my writing class. I did not do a great job of that, but I put this up anyway because I read his essay at a time when I was in an ethical dilemma about the exaggeration and dramatization in my writing. This exercise meant more to me than a graded assignment.

I could not put away this piece when I started to read it; I had to run along the words as they raced to the end. Amitav Ghosh does have a way of keeping one engaged, hooked to the essay, reading faster to get sooner to what happens next. Ghosh’s style has a semblance to verbal narration of stories, where the narrator creates a mood of suspense. It is perhaps the pauses that Ghosh cleverly places  in between the essay, so perfectly, while describing what must have been a continuous, unbroken day, that cause one’s mind to dash around to pick up every emotion that the moment on that fateful day must have held. Ghosh demonstrates to the reader the feeling of emptiness and helplessness he experienced as he witnessed the mob’s frenzy and hunger. Ghosh does not forget the minute details of the day in an essay that talks predominantly about events of incomparable magnitude of effect. He details the weather, the mood contained in New Delhi’s air that day, the quiet of the unaware morning and the normalcy of a day that was ignorant of the notorious fame that awaited it. He recreates the day and the keeps the reader suspecting and tense, for the silence is too loud for it to be meaningless.

In Ghosh’s narration, I saw a parallel tale – two worlds. I saw, on one side, an image of Delhi screaming out loud, gritting its teeth in vengeance with cold eyes that saw no wrong in horror inflicted on pleading eyes. People were fidgeting, Ghosh was restless, and some turned still for it was the easiest to do.  It was a Delhi bathed in red, in violence and terror. Simultaneously, lay another picture – where there was exchange of promises in the tinkle of porcelain and saving of lives in the assuring hisses of Hindi and in circles of defying women. In this tale, boys huddled together, families helped each other and nothing else mattered when humanity was at stake.

What caught my attention most is when Ghosh talks about his two ways of viewing the event – as a writer and a citizen. Ghosh confesses a writer s desire and tendency to dramatize events. In literature, tragedy is glamorous and a writer unconsciously sees a need to feed the world with what he/she thinks the world wants to read. In the process, the described event gets distorted – the goodness in it dissolves with every new narration leaving a residual sad story. Ghosh recognizes this and takes a turn from his initially dramatic emphasis on the gloominess and horror of the day and he goes on to talk about the other forgotten side: the humanity that persisted despite all that the day saw. My faith in humanity felt a sense of affirmation as I read this part of the narrative. There is a Hindu family that is willing to risk it all to protect its neighbors. They even sit in the comfort of the living room and talk about the world beyond the violence in the neighborhood, to keep the threatened neighbours courageous. The guard, even at gunpoint, lies to protect his employers. Through this shift, he highlights the aesthetic of indifference that writing tends to create. It was, for me, this audacious confession as a writer that immediately caused me to respect the author and his essay.

Amitav Ghosh is undoubtedly a master story-teller.  He is also a genuine one that tells you all of it; not just what you want to hear, but also what you need to hear.