In his essay The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi (New Yorker, July 1995), Amitav Ghosh introduces the reader to the Bosnian writer Dževad Karahasan and his ‘remarkable essay called Literature and War (published…in the collection Sarajevo, Exodus of a City), which ‘makes a startling connection between modern literary aestheticism and the contemporary world’s indifference to violence.’ Ghosh goes on to quote Karahasan:
Let us not fool ourselves…The world is written first – the Holy Books say that it was created in words and all that happens in it, happens in language first.
It is when we think of the world the aesthetic of indifference might bring into being that we recognize the urgency of remembering the stories we have not written.
Ghosh is invoking here his own long-held silence, finally broken by the publication of his essay in 1995, an account of ordinary citizens’ reactions to the terrifying pogroms conducted in New Delhi against the Sikh community in 1984–as reprisals for the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi, the Indian prime minister, by her Sikh bodyguards.Ghosh interprets this reticence in light of Karahasan’s remark that ‘The decision to perceive literally everything as an aesthetic phenomenon – completely sidestepping questions about goodness and truth – is an artistic decision. That decision started in the realm of art, and went on to become characteristic of the contemporary world.’ He resolves his indecision about writing about the 1984 killings by conducting a form of self-inquiry: Is he a writer or a citizen? Should he write about the riots and his response to it, as the former or as the latter? Should he only write about the violence, or all else that accompanied it too? Write Ghosh finally does, as a citizen, as a human, as a friend, who is a writer too.
In so doing, in recounting tales of terror, cruelty, and bravery, Ghosh depicts a world infected not by an ‘aesthetic of indifference’ but one of engagement and attention. A world created with an aesthetic of indifference would be a bland and colorless one; it would lack the horrors of the world Ghosh describes but also its animating spirit. Karahasan’s remark about the primacy of the word suggests an even more radical fate for the world not written about: it ceases to exist.
The point to be made here, that the writer bears a responsibility to pay attention to the world around him, to make note of it with an unflinching eye, is an old one. Indeed, it is disappointingly conventional: the writer must write; all else is subordinate to this foundational principle; to not write is to commit an existentialist sin.
Ghosh’s own reflections add another twist: that the responsibility to write about catastrophe has a moral dimension; the writer must not seek out an affected, neutral, ‘from on high’ pulpit from which to issue commentary, but must instead introduce his own moral perspective into the words written, that his writing must bear his personal impress. These perspectives introduce into what would otherwise be merely voyeuristic forays into the violence of atrocities, a much-needed corrective: they make human and comprehensible the inexplicable. In a world underwritten by an aesthetic of indifference we look on unflinchingly at the terrible, but our gaze is a banal and bland one. Its sees little; it feels even less. What could be worse?