At 52, life couldn't get any better for Amitav Ghosh. At an age when other writers begin to worry about running out of words, he has just embarked on his biggest writing project. It's a labour of love, he says in an interview with Sheela Reddy, that will perhaps keep him busy for the rest of his writing life. The first of his serial magnum opus, The Sea of Poppies, will hit the bookstores on June 1.
Is this your most ambitious novel so far?
This is the great labour of my life. Many of my books have been ambitious, but this one I think is ambitious in different ways as well. The range of things in it is greater. I am now 52, and I have a lot of experience of the world and I wanted to pour it all into this book. It is a kind of trilogy, but it could be more. As I see it, I am going to be working on this for the next 10 to 20 years of my life.
You do several years of research for each of your novels. Is it true for this one as well?
The research, as I've always said, is for me the easy and fun part—travelling and going to libraries, especially maritime libraries. But the most exciting part was learning to sail. I spent some time on a schooner in the Caribbean, and that was very useful for this book.
This book is full of nautical terms which comes as a surprise.
As a Bengali, I love boats and there are boats in all my books. They are central to my work. I felt for a very long time that one of the real tragedies of modern India is that we turned our back upon our very rich history of seamanship. Until a hundred years ago it was possible to sail the entire length of the Ganga, but you can't do it anymore. I can see a future where the sailing ship will have to return because clearly the diesel or petrol-powered mega ships that we have today are not sustainable and it seems to me very sad that this technology and expertise has disappeared.
A good portion of this novel is in a Hobson-Jobson type of English?
I love dictionaries and have many, not just of English, but dictionaries of laskari and nautical language. If you read these dictionaries, it becomes perfectly clear that English people when they were living in India were certainly not speaking like Jane Austen or George Eliot. In fact, it is often said when these nabobs went back home to England, people couldn't understand them. We don't know how Englishmen spoke in the 19th century, so perhaps my representation of how they spoke is perhaps as close as Thackeray's.
You also did research about the opium trade?
The bulk of the opium came from Bengal and Bihar, and no book has been written on it. I had to spend a lot of time in archives digging up original sources, finding letters and journals of opium traders. My description of the Ghazipur opium factory came from a chance discovery in the British Museum of a book written by the guy who was the head of the Ghazipur factory, a Scotsman. He wrote a book about it describing it in excruciating detail to serve as a tourist guide to the opium factory. The Ghazipur and Patna opium factories between them produced the wealth of Britain. It is astonishing to think of it but the Empire was really founded on opium.
Most of your novels are triggered by some fragment of family history. Is this one too?
In a way it is. I was told by my father that my ancestors left East Bengal in 1656, and after much wandering they settled in Chhapra in Bihar and remained there for the next 150 years. My father grew up speaking Bhojpuri. Then it struck me that if we moved to Chhapra in 1856, what would have been the attraction? Clearly, the major economic activity in that region at that moment was opium.
Why did you start working now on this particular idea?
I think we have such a distorted idea of our history of the 19th century in some ways. When you actually look at the past, it was so different. From writers like Naipaul and so on, we had a picture of what it was like for the Indian migrants after they arrived in places like Mauritius. But for me what was so hard to imagine, so incredibly poignant, was the moment of departure. What did it mean for them? They were farmers, the most rooted people. The courage it took at that time for a Bihari to set out across the kala pani is something you and I can barely conceive of. I felt so moved by that, such admiration for them in a way that I wanted to write about it. I wanted to think about it in detail, what was it really like, the actual moment of departure when you see everything you know disappearing behind you.
Did you have to wait till you finally gave up your day job to afford to write a book like this which involves so much research and travelling?
I realise now there's so much energy that one dissipates in doing other things which I can now pour into my work.
You must be the only successful writer who waited until his seventh novel to give up his day job?
I never really had a day job. I took up various teaching assignments where I would teach one day a week, never more than that. For one year I was distinguished professor of New York University, but then they expected too much and I gave it up.
There's more sex in this book. Is this because you're now over 50 and no longer prudish about sex?
In all my books, I've never been shy about sex. In fact, one of my books, Shadow Lines, was denounced in Japan as pornography.
You have always resisted being marketed in the way authors are these days...
For me it is always important that my books should matter more than me, and I consider it an extraordinary privilege that it has been so. I am not a person who is made personally to be in the limelight, but if my books are, I am delighted. My books no longer carry my picture.
But is it possible for a writer to say today that I want my readers to know only my books, not me?
Maybe it won't be possible for someone who is starting today but it has been possible for me, and I feel grateful for that. I am not someone who sought publicity or who would feel comfortable being like one of these mega celebrities. But as I always tell young writers, it's a great mistake to think there's only one pattern of doing things. The book industry is unlike, say, the car industry or the air-conditioner industry. In the world of books, everything has to be different. It's like saris. No one buys a sari if someone else is wearing it. And similarly, no one buys a book which is like another one. It applies to writers as well. People recognise that it's the individuality of the writer that creates their works.
You dreamt of being a writer since you were seven. How did you go about it?
It was very difficult when I was starting out. I knew when I finished college at 20 that I wanted to start writing. But in those days there was no publishing industry in India, there was no such thing as a literary life. It was so strange to say you were writing a novel that you never mentioned it. For years you never spoke about it because people laughed at you. I only spoke of it to a few close friends, who remain to this day my basic support group.
You wrote your first book in a servant's quarter in Delhi?
It was tiny, maybe 10 feet by 10 feet, on the top floor of a house in Defence Colony, burning hot. I had a job in DU as a research assistant at Rs 600 a month.
You also took a job as a journalist with the Indian Express around this time?
I went into the Indian Express straight after college because I wanted to start writing at once and I thought this was the only literary life I could have. But I left because I realised that I wouldn't be able to write my novel.
How have you grown as a writer since those early days?
Many of my contemporaries feel clearly that they have done their best work in their 20s or 30s. But I feel I am growing. I am not at the end of something, but at the beginning. I have seen a lot of the world, I've brought up children, I have an experience of the world that I can put into my books in a way I couldn't when I was in my 20s because I didn't have that breadth and depth of experience.
You have a rare thing in the literary world: a successful marriage to another writer. How does it work?
Touch wood, one can never say, but yes, I must say I feel very fortunate. We live in Brooklyn, which is in the old part of the city and we have this house that goes up a long way. My wife is on the fourth floor and I work in the basement. Our interests are very different but we love to be in India.
Each of the three big Indian writers in English—Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and you—has taken a very different path in your writing?
To me, it's been interesting to write in the fabulist way at times, but as I've grown older, what has interested me more and more is the absolute unbelievableness of what is true. If you look back on The Sea of Poppies, what these people endure is unbelievable, nothing magical could equal it.
Your novels have as much non-fiction as fiction. So why not just write non-fiction?
Because novels are what interest me. The novel as a form allows you this incredible freedom, it allows you to put in anything you want. I think of the novel as the most complete form of utterance known to man. It allows you to write about people's fashions, sex, food, history, everything. That for me is the great challenge of the novel, its completeness. It allows you that kind of ambition. I very much also enjoy the smaller novels about particular moments in time, and there's a place for that.
But you'd never write one of those?
It's not the way my mind works.
I hear you are a good cook and like to feed young Indian writers in New York?
Like all Indian boys who go away, I learnt to cook to feed myself. For me, leading a literary life is not going for literary festivals, which I don't like but friendship and communication at a very deep level. When I was young I never had any older writers to encourage me, so with young writers I try to be helpful.
You and Vikram Seth go back a long way, when you were both in Doon School. And everyone remembers his one piece of advice to you when you showed him your poems: "Stick to prose."
It wasn't said rudely, but in a very sweet and mentoring way. He was two years senior to me in school, and one day we were walking along. I used to be this fountain of verbal energy then, lots of long poems and this and that. And he said, "You should look at your poems more carefully." It was said very gently but it had a very deep impact on me. It made me more sensitive to form.
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