Open Letter to Amitav Ghosh from Vijay Prashad

Dear Amitav,

I had written to you enthusiastically after reading “Relic of a Disputed Past,” when you took yourself out of the running for the Commonwealth Prize, 2001. It was not only the politics that I appreciated and seconded, but also that this withdrawal was for The Glass Palace, a book that is so superb it deserves no formal awards (each reader gives it his/her heart; what more could you want!). The book is about the Burma that you and I share, and I was moved that it was the locus for your letter.

It confused me to find, therefore, that you are going to take the Dan David Prize. I’d have expected you to write a letter, “Relic of a Disputed Present,” as a twin of the earlier letter. In The Shadow Lines (another favorite of mine), you write of the condition of the sectarian riot, “That particular fear has a texture you can neither forget nor describe. It is a fear that comes of the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent, that the spaces that surround one, the street that one inhabits, can become suddenly and without warning as hostile as a desert in a flash flood. It is this that sets apart the thousand million people who inhabit the subcontinent from the rest of the world–not language, not food, not music — it is the special quality of loneliness that grows out of the fear of the war between oneself and one’s image in the mirror.” When I read this section, I thought as well of the Palestinians, who live in their shadow space, always afraid of the loneliness of being shadows themselves, with death lurking, unchecked.

Gaza, is an emergency in its own right, and it has slipped, largely, into the “silence of voiceless events in a backward world” (again from The Shadow Lines). The UN statistics are remarkable: 50% of the population of Gaza unemployed, 50% “food insecure,” 20% of essential drugs at “zero level,” 20% of patients with cancer, heart disease and other severe ailments, unable to get medical permits to go abroad. And then, imagine, that a jurist of the highest credentials (including being a lifelong Zionist), Sir Richard Goldstone, is now being reviled for his report that demonstrates the utter criminality of Israel’s Gaza “war” of 2008. I recall your letter to the Commonwealth, “the ways in which we remember the past are not determined solely by the brute facts of time: they are also open to choice, reflection and judgment.” Much the same with Gaza.

I don’t know the details of the award. I would only hope that you’ll write “Relic of a Disputed Present.” I, for one, can’t wait to read it.

Be well, and take care,

Vijay.

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