Amitav Ghosh and Anthony Burgess are two of the reasons why I never had the courage to publish anything until I was fifty. “I could never do that,” I used to tell myself. This remains true. I just became braver in my old age. Amitav Ghosh has influenced me profoundly along the way, particularly a slim little book called Countdown. It assesses, in his usual calm and methodical way, the possibility of nuclear war breaking out on the subcontinent. It would take you an hour to read, and I guarantee that once you’ve done so, you won’t be sleeping much that night. Whenever I see Arnab abusing retired Pakistani generals on TV (“Already we have so many potatoes on our head,” one of them once said, pathetically, “Now you are mongering the war?”) I feel like throwing one of my copies of Countdown at the screen. I have two, just to be on the safe side. The other thing that influenced me strongly was his account of the 1984 riots, sad, clear-eyed and personal, from the edges, afraid to look too closely. That essay, and Rahul Bedi’s searing report, are the two things that defined 1984 for me, and they have never let me go.
I remember him right from the beginning, actually. I remember enjoying Circle of Reason when I was in college. My head was full of Marquez and Jorge Amado and Vargas Llosa in those days, because it was Calcutta, and the girls liked their men to be well-read. His first book seemed to fit right in, with its strange goings-on, and a boy called Alu. Salman Rushdie seemed rather showy by comparison, although you had to admire the pizzazz. Amitav Ghosh was always the quiet one, more staircase than elevator. He has slogged away and built a reputation, step by careful step. His body of work before the Ibis trilogy would be the envy of most writers.
The Ibis trilogy is where Amitav Ghosh has gone global. Which makes sense, because globalisation is what these books are about. It makes us look at the British Empire with new eyes. Up to this point, most of those eyes have been British, and they have tended to look mostly at themselves. In these narratives, our role has been to fetch the gin and run after missy baba. I remember watching The Jewel in the Crown regularly with friends, because the only other option we had was Hum Log, and the experience was profoundly humiliating. We were so menial. Our accents were strange, and none of us were in any of the good scenes. Art Malik did play an Indian with an actual personality, but he was unrelatably god-like. It reinforced a narrative all of us had bought into. Of enslaved India, and superhumanly capable overlords.
Students of history always knew better, but for the rest of us, Ghosh has now set the record straight. He shows us the British Empire from the ground up, and we realise that there was a lot more to it than Cornwallis and Warren Hastings. He uses the Opium War to do this. In the process, he reveals that Queen Victoria was essentially a drug lord, like Dawood Ibrahim, but with better headgear. It becomes clear that the British Empire was more money-minded than most, and that their captains of industry controlled the armed forces. In 1839, these captains decided that opium was good for China, and if the Chinese proved reluctant, then by god, the Royal Navy would teach them a thing or two. However, they also needed soldiers, which is exactly where we came in handy. This book reveals to you, very clearly, how the Opium War of 1839 was, in effect, the first Indo-China War. It was largely fought by Indian sepoys, with a few foul-mouthed white troops for company. He shows us how the local Chinese gradually come to hate the men from ‘Yindu’. We realise that there is more to the relationship between India and China than our historical links through the Buddha. Other things have happened in between. Given that much of modern Chinese policy is based on the need to avenge centuries of humiliation, and the fact that we did a lot of the humiliating, we should worry.
The military parts of this book, which form the bulk of it, are where Ghosh shines brightest. He tells us the story of Havildar Kesri, from the young boy who watches with envy as his elder brother joins the Mughal army, who gets the best girls, to the point where he enters Canton, a slightly exhausted father of four, after the last of a series of meticulously recreated set-piece battles. If there has ever been a better fictional account of sepoy life in an Indian army, I haven’t read it. The Shadashiv stories, by Sharadindu Bandopadhyay, about the adventures of a young boy in the Maratha army, come close.
There is much more to this book, of course. This is widescreen history. Some of it is surprising. There are long and detailed passages on masturbation, summing up the state of the art of Victorian knowledge on the subject. They were deeply interested, and studied it extensively. There are unexpectedly large amounts of sex, done Victorian porn style. I recognise the genre because I have a friend who used to be a connoisseur. He used to read out the good bits. We learn about nineteenth-century Parsi society. We watch Muslim lascars come ashore to pray at the Huaisheng mosque. We hear the hypocritical cant of Victorian robber barons, and the cheerful lilt of the Singapore Chinese. We discover that the Gurkha king Rajendra Bikram Shah had begged the Chinese, repeatedly, to join him in invading Bengal. Amitav Ghosh has done prodigious things to create these books, such as learning how to sail and mastering six languages. It’s all there on the page, and lightly trod upon. I have never really understood what literary is, but this does not seem so literary. It’s written in simple language, and it picks up steam as it goes along, like a regular thriller.
But there’s more to all this than a good yarn and some technicolor reconstruction. The basic job of a novelist is to tell the truth, because who else will? The essential truth that I learned from this book was this. Throughout the rule of the British, some Indians made a lot of money. Some were traders. Some were soldiers. Some were babus. The essence of British rule was that their native supporters would live off the land, with British prestige and small amounts of British money to support them. It was understood that on every contract that the natives entered on their behalf, they would make some money on the side. This is not a system designed to encourage the rule of law, and indeed it is a system which continues to rule us. Our complicity in our servitude, then and now, has never been clearer. Our truths are personal, and they can vary. But this is what this book said to me.
It has been a fine ride for the Ibis. Amitav Ghosh has brought her home.
(Shovon Chowdhury’s second novel, Murder With Bengali Characteristics, is set in a Bengal occupied by China)