Amitav Ghosh steadily built on that reputation by exploring a diverse range of subjects and themes—for example, early 20th century malarial research in The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), the exile to India of Burma’s King Thibaw in The Glass Palace (2000) and the endangered ecology of the Sunderbans in The Hungry Tide (2005).
Ghosh’s narratives are often driven by a range of characters and relationships swept up by the juggernaut of social and political turmoil. His most ambitious venture yet is the Ibis trilogy; its first two volumes, Sea of Poppies (2008) and River of Smoke (2011) are a dramatic account of the migration of Indian labour against the prelude to the Opium Wars.
Trained for an academic career—with his shock of white hair, eloquent speech punctuated by gusts of laughter, he presents the image of the patrician professor—the 57-year-old novelist, who now divides his year between Brooklyn and Goa, seems a little surprised by his cult status and the pile-up of literary prizes and other laurels. In an exclusive interview, he talks to Sunil Sethi about the movements in history and his life that shape his work.
The Shadow Lines came out in 1988. It was your second novel. What were you doing then and what was the trigger?
My first novel, The Circle of Reason, came out in 1985 and The Shadow Lines after a three-year hiatus. It was a very tumultuous period of my life. I was invited to spend a year in an American university and I finished it during a very bitter cold winter. I had just got my first computer but most of it I wrote by hand. The trigger for the book was the 1984 Delhi riots. What the events of 1984 made me think of was the ways in which my life has always been enmeshed in riots. A long part of this book also comes directly from my memories of a riot in Dhaka in 1964 when I was eight years old—it is one of the central scenes in the book—and of the same riot, its mirror image, happening in Calcutta. Later, when you and I were students at Delhi University in the 1970s, there was always tension in the air. So much attention in our world is given to conflicts like war, for example, the Indo-Chinese war of 1962, but 1964 had completely vanished from public memory. I think that was the driving impetus of The Shadow Lines, why such cataclysmic events have a profound impact on our lives. It was something that in my own family we never talked about but, actually, the genealogy of that kind of violence goes back so far.
That scrutiny or anatomy of violence is also evident in your next novel, The Glass Palace, about the convulsions that overtook Burma in its modern history....
My family has roots in Burma and in the 1930s there were anti-Indian riots in Burma. I had uncles in Burma and also in the Sunderbans—I had many uncles—and I suppose what I have been trying to do for a very long time, in fact through all my work, is to represent a plethora of my own family’s experiences in some kind of perspective. The most recent riots I have been reading about in Burma are anti-Muslim but they are reminiscent of what happened once to Indians and occasionally to the Chinese. There’s been a long tradition of such social violence.
Much of your fiction centres on not only the social but also the political geography of eastern India. Is this because of your family’s roots there?
Every part of India has its own markedly different experiences but the experience of eastern India is interesting because of its links with Burma or Malaysia which, for instance, sustained the Indian National Army. What made me curious was actually the margin, the periphery of the great Indian heartland, perhaps a frontier land. Diaspora migrations also interested me because my family left Bengal in 1856 and wandered off in different directions.
As a student at Delhi University, you were marked for an academic career in social anthropology and history. But you veered off into fiction. How did this transformation take place?
You speak of family history as a trove of material but what about central characters like Tridib in The Shadow Lines, Rajkumar in The Glass Palace or a much bigger cast in Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke. Are they composites of people you may have known?
Tridib especially is based on various cousins. I do excavate from memory but also from meetings and encounters with people. When I meet people, I love to learn their stories, I love to learn what they have or experienced. And all of that finds a way in. When I was writing The Glass Palace, I travelled a lot, in Burma and Malaysia, I went to remote plantations, met old INA people. It was fascinating to hear their stories, to get even a tactile sense of their presence.
I’m curious to know how on-ground or archival research meets the fictional imagination. We know of the sack of Mandalay and the tragic exile of Burma’s King Thibaw and his family to Ratnagiri. But how do you get inside King Thibaw’s head?
Writing about King Thibaw was one of the most difficult things I have done in fiction. There are sources for Thibaw but very little has actually been written about him. When I was writing the opening sections of The Glass Palace, I was completely stuck for a long time. I have a rule when I am stuck—I read the Russians because, somehow, Russian literature has the answers. In this particular case, it was Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914. It may not be one of his great novels but there’s a long section on what happens in the head of Tsar Alexander on the cusp of the Russian Revolution. Reading that became very empowering for me; I felt if Solzhenitsyn can do this with the Tsar, I can do it with King Thibaw.
The Glass Palace won Myanmar’s national book award last year. I went to Mandalay and hundreds of people came, including important Burmese writers; many said we didn’t know what happened to King Thibaw until we read your book. Most historians get interested in history through historical fiction. Historical fiction can make things thinkable.
The Shadow Lines was published by the late Ravi Dayal and his small independent publishing imprint. But it was The Glass Palace that brought you international notice. Were you surprised by the acclaim?
The Shadow Lines had no hype when it came out, I wasn’t even in India. Ravi, who I miss so much, believed in it and it had a succes d’estime but over time it found an audience. My next book, In An Antique Land, was non-fiction and it sank without a trace. There go four years of my life, I thought, but today, it’s the most read of my books. There are translations in Arabic and Hebrew. There was no single turning point; books accrue a readership over time.
To what extent was the conception of the first part your trilogy, Sea of Poppies, driven by life on the river?
In Bengal, there is a whole literary tradition of “river novels” but the theme of Sea of Poppies also began with The Glass Palace, the story of indentured labourers and their long march from Burma. This took me into the history of the opium, the degree to which its trade underlined not just the history of India and China but also of the United States. We think of Franklin D. Roosevelt as the great aristocrat but his money actually came from his grandfather who was one of the biggest opium merchants of Canton; or the Coolidge family whose fortune was founded on the opium trade from Bombay to Canton. These American merchants, the “Boston Brahmins”, fed their profits into the railroad system which created American infrastructure. In fact, some of the best museums of the China Trade are actually in Massachusetts. And these themes kept recurring.
Did you conceive Sea of Poppies, with its large cast of characters, as a trilogy from the start?
I started it with wanting to take on a big project but, six months into it, I realised that these characters would be with me for a long time and that’s when I began to think of a trilogy. It was the opium trade, caste conflicts on the Ganges, the life of 19th century Calcutta—all of those things that became compelling because we do not read about those things in history books, it’s not in our conception of the past. With every book, I discover new facts and ways of looking at things. Was I crazy to take on this monumental project? After you’ve written a lot of books your natural inclination is to be lazy, to coast along with what you’ve done and rush about from one litfest to another. But I became gripped by the life of the Indian Ocean, of the 19th century export of opium and Indian labour, infamously dubbed a trade in “drugs and thugs”. Bombay, Singapore and Hong Kong were essentially created and sustained by the opium trade.
One of the fascinating aspects of your fiction is exploration of language—from the non-verbal communication that forges a bond between Piyali the marine biologist and Fokir the fisherman in The Hungry Tide, to spoken Bhojpuri dialect, the Indian seaman’s patois Laskari and Benjamin Burnham’s Anglo-Indian “nabob-speak” in Sea of Poppies. How do you research and incorporate these?
I’m also fascinated by dictionaries which introduced me to the Laskari patois of the Indian Ocean. During the course of writing the trilogy, I read 19th century letters. English, as spoken by the British in India with its mingling of Hindustani, was completely different from standard English.
I read that you are planning a fourth and fifth part of the Ibis trilogy but, for the moment, where will the Ibis take readers in its third volume? Also several of your books have been optioned for films, when is one likely to appear on screen?
I must have been mad to say I was planning a fourth or fifth book of the Ibis series. I’m always wary of talking about books I haven’t finished; I think it’s very bad karma. As for films of my books, it is true that some titles are under option. But oddly the one optioned most often is The Calcutta Chromosome. It’s at the moment with a Hollywood producer who’s made a fortune out of a cartoon series! But who knows? These things are not in the hands of writers. Maybe our children, yours and mine, will one day see the movies.
Edited online to correct the meaning of 'hagte mein bater maar dena'
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Mr. Basu is speaking about a time, when I don't fathom what he means. In West Bengal, there were no riots, either between Hindu and Muslim, and no rioting when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. There were no Hindu-Muslim rioting anywhere. True, that the riots dented the psyche. In many parts of India, the Sikh was as ubiquitious as any sadhu. 'Ubiquitious' means common to sight, or perception. The Sikh was saying, his community had an issue of perception. The community was prosperous, and the only way to identify the Sikh was by his appearance. The Sikh then felt, that his religion was the issue with other communities. The fact was, that if the police had opened fire in New Delhi in 1984, the Muslim, and Hindu communities would have been suspect in rioting. The Sikh community has adherents from Punjabi/Jat Hindus, who follow the religion and customs of the Sikhs. Should there have been suspicion, that the Muslims had a hand in the rioting, to make the riot seem different to perspective even slightly? If police start firing on a mob, which is seen to have elements who are victimised, then what if some Muslims feel, they can kill Sikhs, for a sport?
"Mr. Basu is speaking about a time, when I don't fathom what he means. "
You don't even read the article. The interviewee is Mr. Amitav Ghosh , not Mr. Basu. I also donot fathom mostly what you write.
In West Bengal, there were no riots, either between Hindu and Muslim, and no rioting when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated.
He is talking about the riots of Dhaka and Calcutta in 1964 and not about 1984 anti-Sikh riots in West Bengal. There indeed were Hindu Muslim riot in Calcutta in 1964 as a reaction to the riots in East Pakistan following a report that a relic was missing in the Hazrat bal in Kashmir.
This is from BBC report on Jan 13,1964:
Riots in Calcutta leave more than 100 dead
More than 100 people have been killed following Hindu-Muslim rioting in the Indian city of Calcutta. Over 7,000 people have also been arrested and 438 injured in the clashes which have spread to the surrounding districts.The Indian Government claims that the trouble in Calcutta has taken "a huge toll of life."
Response to P-2: Mr. Ghosh had given a very interesting interview, a day or two ago, where he spoke about the 1984 riots on T. V.. The header intimates the same, '1984 .....'. What is interesting is, that people like Mr. Ghosh seem to feel, that he might become like the Sikh's who were very unfortunate in their travails and persecutions. What is relevant now? Mr. Ghosh seems to be among those, who will not be affected at all, or among the last to be so. Why are people like the considered author experiencing this situation, when they tried so hard to understand, and keep away from controversy, pertaining to the situation? He isn't going to be accused for being an Indian, albeit not a Sikh under any circumstance, for any thing that he might be accused of. Has he been in any unpleasant situation at all? In his place, I wouldn't but be pleasant, and at all times.
Mr Mookerjee ,
Sorry to say, you are clueless about this interview and Amitav Ghosh's line of reasoning. He is an author and not a pamphleteer with an hidden agenda to advance RSS cause like you.
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