Wednesday, 2 December 2009

A life on the ocean wave

Amitav Ghosh, the Calcutta-born author of The Calcutta Chromosome, appeared in London last night (1 December) telling a funny tale from his youth.
Ghosh recalled being a homesick anthropology student in Egypt. Often he'd take refuge in a dowdy bar from the mad swirl of life in Alexandria.
One night Ghosh was delighted to see a gaggle of Indian sailors staggering in through the beads.
Happily shooting the breeze with his countrymen over a few drams, Ghosh confessed he envied their ocean roaming from port to port.
One of the sailors asked Ghosh: ‘Why don’t you grab your passport and come with us?'
Ghosh: ‘Wouldn't your captain object?'
Sailor: 'No, he probably wouldn't even notice. He’s Cypriot. He can’t tell us Indians apart anyway.’
The sailors nodded and chuckled.
Sailor: ‘And you can jump ship wherever you like. Manila. Singapore. Rotterdam.’
Ghosh: ‘You make the ship sound like a bus.'
Sailor: 'The world's your oyster.’
The sailors nodded and chuckled again.
Terrified but enthralled, Ghosh spent a sleepless night dredging up enough courage to leave his life behind.
By the time he'd hauled himself down to the docks, he was too late. 
His ship and new life had already sailed.
Ghosh sat on the quay and stared out to sea. 
Until that moment, he'd always regarded himself as well-travelled.
But now his travels resembled a mosquito flitting over a familiar expanse of skin.
The sailors, on the other hand, lived by flowing through the world’s entire bloodstream.

Ghosh feels the web, satellite TV and mobile communications allow migrants to physically live in their new country but remain emotionally connected – and loyal - to their country of origin. 
Even the English diaspora plonks its feet in two camps. London taxi drivers tell Ghosh they’ve taken second homes in the Dordogne because it reminds them of life in England thirty years ago.
Ghosh's half-year neighbour in Goa is a fireman from Liverpool.
Ghosh believes globalisation is evaporating the nation-state, once the goal of bitter wars of independence. But he acknowledges the frustration of people who can't afford to travel but who glimpse on TV a world by-passing their lives.

Ghosh's insights came when he delivered the Jim Rose Lecture 2009, entitled Belonging, Community and Diaspora.The Runnymede Trust organised the event. 
The London School of Economics played host at its swanky new building in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Jim Rose would’ve enjoyed Ghosh's broad brush world outlook.
Rose co-founded the Runnymede Trust in 1968 to counter racism in Britain.
Quietly, behind the scenes, Rose also offered practical support to other anti-racist projects.
I worked for Runnymede in the 1990s and always found Rose an attentive man, thoughtful yet quietly determined.
Sadly, ambitious self-serving Blairite-types shunted Rose and Runnymede's thought-provoking director Robin Richardson to the margins.
The Trust lost its sense of direction and relevance to ordinary people.
Richardson moved on.
Rose passed away in 1999.
Last night's event hints at a possible Runnymede revival.
If so, it's timely.
More than ever, there's a strong need for a thoughtful and dynamic approach to this whole sad business of 'race'.

Amitav Ghosh's most recent novel is the Sea of Poppies.
For more information:

Paul Coleman, London, December 2009.

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