Spotlight on Sino-India Ties in Ibis Trilogy's Final Book

New Delhi
Spotlight on Sino-India Ties in Ibis Trilogy's Final Book

Neighbours India and China share a pathological relationship says eminent author Amitav Ghosh, whose latest fiction is set in the 19th century opium trade between the two countries

"For me India and China share a pathological relationship. That neighbours should have conflicts and difficulties is normal, but that people should know nothing about each other is not normal," Ghosh said at a function here last evening.

He was in conversation with diplomat and former Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon about his just launched final book Flood of Fire in the Ibis trilogy.

Menon pointed out that Ghosh's book lays bare complexities of the relations shared between the two nations. In the book although the Indian soldiers were fighting for the British and against the Chinese yet their sympathies lay with their neighbours.

"We tend to fall into two schools (of thought). One where India China relationship is about 1962 and that is bad, and the other is the 1000 years of friendship," he said.

Menon was India's Special Representative under the UPA government to discuss with his Chinese counterpart ways to address the protracted boundary issue.

Set in the first half of the 19th century, Ghosh's latest book is preceded by Sea of Poppies (2008) and River of Smoke (2011). The former was shortlisted for a Booker and the latter for the Man Asian Literary Prize.

The Bengali author said he had never meant the book to be about China when he began the trilogy.

"It was never meant to be about China. It was about Indians who left India to go elsewhere," Ghosh said.

The trilogy gets its names from the ship Ibis, on board which most of the main characters meet for the first time. The Ibis starts from Calcutta carrying indentured servants and convicts destined for Mauritius, but runs into a storm and faces a mutiny.

"I came to understand, quite early on in the 'Sea of Poppies,' how important China has been to the Indian history," Ghosh said.

The author, a former student of history, said he was unaware that there was a place called Hangzhou in China until he began writing the books.

"We (Indians) are astonishingly ignorant about what's happening across the border," he said.

Both Ghosh and Menon expressed concern over this ignorance and the existing gaps in the Indo-Chinese history.

Drawing from his own experience, the writer said, "I have had a whole undergraduate course in history without hearing of the Xianyang emperor."

The emperor is legendary in world histories, contemporary with many world leaders of the 18th century.

"Most of all he remade the map of Indian subcontinent," Ghosh said.

The historical fiction also throws light on the role and intent of the Gurkhas or the Nepalese soldiers.

At the start of the second opium war run by the East India company in 1856, the gurkhas are believed to have proposed a strategy to the Chinese warning them of the then impending British attack, and offered to help by attacking Calcutta. The Chinese, however, had refused.

"So few of us are aware that the reason why Nepal exists as a separate state today is because it was a Chinese protector," Ghosh said.

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