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'Coming Under Burmese Fire Was Surreal'

Anthropologist by craft and story-teller by persuasion - Amitav Ghosh is widely acknowledged as one of the most gifted and durable writer-chroniclers of his generation. His most recent novel, The Glass Palace, covers two centuries of Burmese history

INTERVIEWS Amitav Ghosh | 17 July 2000
'Coming Under Burmese Fire Was Surreal'
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Did Dancing in Cambodia... provide the spark for The Glass Palace?

It's more accurate to say that Dancing in Cambodia... was background for The Glass Palace. I had intended to write about the Indian diaspora in Burma: there's even a slight family connection. My pishemoshai (paternal uncle) and his family had been settled in Burma for several generations. As a young man, my father had visited them in Burma.

You have a reputation for thorough research; The Glass Palace is said to have taken five years in the making.

I spent just about a month in Burma, and a lot of time in Malaysia and India. Writing and researching took five years; the longest I've spent on any of my books. Burma is essentially now two countries: the part under military rule and the interior, which is home to resistance movements. It's a truly, truly sinister country, because of the military regime. I was constantly followed and would have been watched all the time had I not found a very good taxi driver. He helped me elude a great deal of the surveillance.

Was your meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi very hard to organise?

It wasn't at all easy even though I eventually met with Aung San Suu Kyi twice, in 1996-1997. It was almost impossible to send word to her: I finally managed to link up with a diplomat from a friendly country. It was very strange. You walk in through this huge, metal gate, where you're videotaped by the army people. The house is old-fashioned, like the ones in Shillong, and it's right next to the lake. Close up, Aung San Suu Kyi is even more beautiful than you might expect! We talked for several hours.

Were you ever in actual danger?

Writing this book did take me into harm's way, something that happens very rarely in a writer's life. I spent a lot of time with the Karenni - insurgents who were under attack from the Burmese army. I marched along with these revolutionaries armed with Kalashnikovs. Coming under fire from the Burmese army was surreal. We were shelled: the Burmese army uses 21 mm guns and some pretty heavy artillery.

It took me back to Cambodia, to the time I found myself looking down the barrel of a gun held by a Khmer Rouge soldier who was dead drunk. I thought, well, here it is, but he eventually moved off. My wife asks me now how I could put myself in danger when I had a wife and children! I wasn't armed, in either Burma or Cambodia.

Are you going to write about all this?

Maybe I will! It was quite an experience, trekking for days through dense tropical jungle as a target. I never got hit, though.

A key event in The Glass Palace is the Long March, when Indians fled Burma fearing Japanese occupation. It's barely been written about...

It's not been written about at all! There's a single article by a historian, that too an Englishman, Hugh Tinker. On the Indian side, there's nothing except unpublished memoirs by survivors. In English, there are two novels to my knowledge: H.E. Bates' The Jacaranda Tree, and a fairly bad novel called The Golden Stair. It's strange - there were over half a million people on the Long March, over 400,000 of them Indian, and there is such a silence about it.

An obliteration of history?

It illustrates the degree to which we're truly oblivious about our own history. I had to hunt for survivors in Bengal; I eventually interviewed about 10 or 12. It wasn't easy finding them; something like the Long March shortens your lifespan by 20 years.Doing the interviews was extremely painful.It was just the absolute knowledge of what they went through on the March, and the realisation that the whole exercise was meaningless! There was no need for the Indians in Burma to flee when the Japanese approached - many Indians did stay back. It makes you realise the degree to which Indians felt themselves to be the sheep of the British; the delusions that governed their lives.

Did you manage to maintain a regular writing schedule?

I usually work to a regular rhythm, but because of the upheaval that accompanied this book, I didn't stick to schedule. To talk to ina survivors, for instance, I literally drove around in Malaysia from village to village, stopping and asking whether there were any ina survivors.

Does a sense of political engagement accompany your sense of history?

That's a question writers get asked a lot these days; personally, I don't believe it is necessary. I barely ever read the papers, I'm divorced from politics! Countdown emerged as a human, not a political, response to the Pokhran blasts. I didn't need the distraction; I was getting to the end of The Glass Palace. But a point came where I felt I really did have to say something, as a writer and as a human being. A lot of the people I had to meet in order to write Countdown were horrible, as was the subject itself. There was nothing edifying, nothing pleasant about it, but I grit my teeth. I wish I hadn't had to do it, but I had to. It was a personal duty: any writer worth his salt has to tackle morality, particularly the morality of history.

You've always stayed away from the media circus that's accompanied Indian Writing in English (IWE)...

It's a liking of privacy and besides, my publisher Ravi Dayal is very old-fashioned - he's not been plugged into the media publicity circuit in India. I feel that suits me, and it suits Ravi. As far as the media and IWE is concerned, I've kind of always felt that I've been outside the machine. Then again, most of the media response to IWE is purely in the house of fiction, and I've been both in and out of that house.

Does living in two countries - the US and India - add a measure of distance to your writing?

It wouldn't have been possible to write The Glass Palace and Dancing in Cambodia if I was living in India - the lack of resources would have been a problem, as would have been the lack of distance. Nayantara Sahgal is right when she says Indian authors who live elsewhere miss the everydayness of Indian reality. To write a book like The Glass Palace, you must have distance. A book like this can't be written exclusively for an Indian or a Burmese audience.

The Khmer Rouge shot at you in Cambodia, the Burmese army shelled you in Burma. What risks to life and limb are you planning to take on with your next project?

I can't really talk about it, but yes, it might place me at some slight risk. I can tell you this: in some ways, what I plan to do now worries my wife even more!

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