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The novelist as historian

Celebrated novelist Amitav Ghosh talks about the opium trade, displacement, his love of travel and the pain of writing.
Saturday, August 29, 2015 - 05:50
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'It's (climate change) very evident - you see islands disappearing, you see saltwater invading, you can see this is a landscape that is profoundly threatened. It really surprises me that there is so little awareness of this in Asia, where we are the most threatened. It's like we're dancing to our own extinction.'

'MY head is filled with people," says Amitav Ghosh, as he pours himself some Darjeeling tea in a quiet corner of the lobby at the Shangri-La hotel. "I wish I knew where they came from. It's sometimes people I have met. It's sometimes people suggested to me by something I've seen, or read."

The 59-year-old is one of the world's most celebrated novelists and essayists, the winner of literary awards from countries as far afield as Myanmar and Israel, France, the United States and Italy, and his native India.

The day before, Ghosh had been feted at the Singapore launch of his latest novel, a 616-page tome entitled Flood of Fire. It is the third of a trilogy of historical fiction called the Ibis trilogy, set in the early 19th century, amid the opium trade between India and China, masterminded by the British East India Company. Ibis is the name of the ship on which many of the characters first come together.

The trilogy - which runs into more than 1,600 pages and also comprises Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke (both shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction) - traces the often dramatic adventures of a motley cast, some of them modelled upon real people of that time. They include indentured labourers, a Bengali landowner, an Indian Parsee opium trader, a mulatto American sailor, a Cornish botanist and an assortment of British officials and other champions of the opium trade. In telling the story, Ghosh steps into their shoes and views the world through their eyes.

He has written five other novels, and at least five anthologies of essays, in settings as varied as Calcutta, Burma, Cambodia, Egypt and Iraq. His forte is historical fiction, dealing with such themes as migration, indenture and servitude as well as colonial repression and exploitation.

He has a gift for making history come alive, populating his novels with often plausible characters, recreating vividly the moods, sights and sounds of a different time - down to language, idiom and slang; he learned some Cantonese in the course of creating the trilogy on the opium trade. Before that, he learned Arabic while writing novels set in the Middle East. His research is copious. He digs into primary sources for information and detail - letters, court documents, ship records and also news reports and the work of little-known historians. The bibliography at the end of some of his novels exceeds that of PhD theses.

Ghosh knew very early in life that he wanted to be a writer. "Certainly by the time I was 10 or 11," he says. "My father had one of those jobs that took him to different places. I was often left to my own devices, and I always read a lot. That's where writing begins."

After university in New Delhi, where he studied social anthropology, his first job was as a journalist with the Indian Express newspaper. He also taught for a while at Delhi University before he went to Oxford for his doctorate. "When you set out to make your living as a writer, you just have to do a lot of other things to get by . . . you have to be resourceful."

His interest in the opium trade "happened in a roundabout way", he explains. "One of the things that interests me is this whole process of dispersal and the diaspora - how Indians came to be scattered around the world. My own family history has a lot to do with it; my father's family was from what is now Bangladesh, but they left in the 1850s and settled in Bihar.

"I wrote a book called The Glass Palace. A lot of it is about Indian indentured workers going to Burma. At that point, I became very interested in the whole business of indenture and of the Indian migration. So that was how Sea of Poppies really began; I wanted to write about the early years of migration out of India."

But in researching the background to the Indian migration of the early 19th century, he discovered something that he found startling. "Most of the migrants were from the Bhojpur region (of India's Bihar state). That in itself is surprising. If you look at Chinese or European migrants, they're almost always from coastal areas. But the Bhojpur region is deep inland. So the question jumped out at me - why did these migrants come from deep in the interior of India?

"I found that these were exactly the areas in which the British were expanding poppy cultivation. So there was this huge expansion of opium production and there was this out-migration. It's impossible to definitively say that one was the cause of the other, but wherever you introduce a monoculture into a peasant economy, it creates big disruptions in the agricultural cycle. Certainly you do see mass destitution during this period in this area of Bihar. There were also other things happening. The British had shut down the traditional military labour market which closed off one area of absorbing labour. So this picture of colonial disruption in Northern Bihar was very striking. It was through that strange route that I came to the story of the opium trade."

Memories of the trade, while alive in China, have faded elsewhere - particularly in India, where it all started. "Certainly there has been a deliberate suppression," says Ghosh. "Some of the major Bombay business houses won't even allow researchers to consult documents. Many of the companies that were active in the trade consciously try and suppress their involvement in it. Jardine Matheson in Hong Kong very aggressively tries to remove any references to its opium trading past. The British and American governments are also not keen to advertise their experiences with the trade."

Also relatively little known is the extent to which opium financed much of Singapore's development early in the 19th century. "Singapore came about for two reasons," says Ghosh. "One was that the British wanted to dislodge Malacca as the main trading port of this region and the second was because they wanted to control the India-China trade, which was mainly opium.

"A lot of the revenues of Singapore were derived from the auctioning of what was called 'the opium farm'. Every year, the colonial government would auction the right to sell opium to one merchant - almost always a Peranakan or other Chinese - who would pay an enormous sum of money for the privilege. The merchant would then make his money by selling the opium to all the opium dens. This was Singapore's principal source of revenue since 1819. The economy was founded on opium."

Much of the history of the interaction between East and West has been told from a Western perspective. But Ghosh suggests that when viewed from an Eastern perspective, the picture looks completely different.

"We've been fed this heroic story of capitalism, which to a greater or lesser degree, people have bought," he points out. "We've been told a lot about the industrial revolution and the innovations that happened after that. But when you look at things from the Eastern perspective, what you discover is that most of the capital was actually generated by poor Asian farmers - and what they produced was sold to other poor Asians. By controlling this trade, the British were able to generate this enormous mountain of capital which financed investments in Britain."

And it wasn't just opium, he adds; trade in other addictive substances, such as sugar, tobacco and alcohol also played a big role in the early history of capitalism.

A lot of what we've been told about the history of business practises is also nonsense, according to Ghosh.

"If you try Googling the history of commodity futures exchanges, Wikipedia will tell you that the first commodities futures exchange was created in Chicago in the 1850s. Well, in Calcutta, the opium futures exchange was in existence in the 18th century. Across northern India, people were speculating on grain futures way back in the 14th and 15th centuries. In terms of business practices, in many ways, it was the Europeans who learned from us. The only way in which they could control the processes of production was through military force. That was the only thing in which they were more advanced."

Intrepid traveller

Ghosh views travelling as being fundamental to his work. "I was one of the first to start writing about a generation which has lived with the reality of displacement; for us, displacement is not a chance or accidental thing - it's part of the texture of our lives. And very early on in my writing life, I decided this would be central to my work.

He considers the writer and Nobel laureate VS Naipaul - another intrepid traveller - to have been an important influence on him, although he does not share Naipaul's often pro-colonial perspective.

"Naipaul's travel books made me want to travel. I like the early ones the most, such as The Middle Passage. But an interesting thing about Naipaul's work is that his novels are not about travel. A House for Mr Biswas, for example, is set entirely in Trinidad. Travel doesn't enter the realm of his fiction."

The other literary influences on Ghosh are too many to name, he says. He also reads books in other languages - among them, Russian, Spanish and Arabic - in translation, and in his native Bengali.

He is fascinated by language. His trilogy, for example, is peppered with 19th century colonial-era English, old-time Bhojpuri Hindi, Gujarati phrases, pidgin and slang. "I enjoy experimenting with language," he says. "Also, when you're writing a novel, you're creating a world. Every world has its own sounds, its own smells. When you're working in theatre or in film, you're able to work in multiple dimensions of experience. But when you're a writer, you have only words. So you can't limit yourself, you have to use all the words at your disposal. I try very hard to visualise the place and the time and think of the experience of what it might have been. It's very difficult sometimes, for example, thinking back to the Canton of the early 19th century. Guangzhou is such an overwhelming place as it now exists, you have to try hard to imagine an alternative reality."

Apart from Asia, Ghosh has travelled extensively in the Middle East, and even lived in Egypt and Tunisia, writing and doing research in social anthropology in the early 1980s, when he hitchhiked across the Sahara desert. Two of his books and many of his essays are set in the Middle East.

He sees a stark contrast between the societies of Asia - especially South-east Asia - and the Middle East, particularly in terms of their attitudes to the past.

"In many ways, the Middle East is imprisoned in its own history, and this is reflected even in the current struggles," he points out. "Look at Al-Qaeda. They have this whole list of grievances, going back to the crusades, etc. The Middle East still focuses on the break-up of the Ottoman empire, most of all the abolition of the Caliphate. These are living grievances, people live with them day to day. In Egypt, at the level of everyday life, people talk constantly about 'istamer', which means imperialism.

"In Asia, our experience of imperialism and imperial vandalism is certainly just as deep as theirs. But the whole history of the Middle East has been one of constant struggle against Europe. That is a part of history they simply cannot let go of. So whenever you start a conversation in the Middle East along the lines of 'Why can't you work it out?', it always ends up in this infinite regress, in arguments about the past.

"Of course, imperialism has been extremely destructive. But if there is any country in the world that has a legitimate right to be aggrieved, to be angry, surely it is Vietnam, which suffered at the hands of French imperialism and then was obliterated by American power. But they've put it behind them. There's a certain pragmatism. They're looking towards the future, not at the past. I came to South-east Asia for the first time in 1992 and I remember for me, this was the culture shock - that here, they're not stuck in the past, they're thinking about today and tomorrow, about building better lives. It's such an important thing, it really holds a profound lesson for all of us and the world at large. Sometimes, in order to move ahead, you need to have the willingness to forget."

Climate change

In his non-fiction work, Ghosh has covered a breathtaking variety of events, places and people. His book of essays Incendiary Circumstances comprises detailed, reflective reportage about, among other topics, a meeting with a village Imam in Egypt; the Andaman and Nicobar islands after the tsunami of 2004; the plight of Indian soldiers on the Siachen Glacier in Kashmir; the state of Burma in 1996, including interviews with the country's democratic icon, Aung San Suu Kyi; an eyewitness account of the anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984; an encounter with the Cambodian classical dancer Chea Samy who also happened to be the sister-in-law of the murderous dictator Pol Pot; and an exploration of the work of the Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz.

But if there is one issue he is especially passionate about, it would be climate change, on which he has also written extensively.

"I am not a crusader or an activist," he clarifies. "There are many people who are activists on climate change, and I admire them. If I were younger, perhaps I would be one too. I'm just trying to think about climate change and what it tells us about our society and about our history."

His interest in climate change "springs maybe from the fact of my being a Bengali", he says. "Bengal is a very active environment. It has always been like that, even before the present cycle of global warming. The reason my family started travelling was because one day, the river shifted course and swept away our village. That's what started my ancestors on their travels. We were early climate refugees.

"But the time that I spent in the Sundarbans (the delta at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal) really completely changed my way of looking at the world. Because there you see what climate change is doing. It's very evident - you see islands disappearing, you see saltwater invading, you can see this is a landscape that is profoundly threatened. It really surprises me that there is so little awareness of this in Asia, where we are the most threatened. It's like we're dancing to our own extinction."

I wonder about Ghosh's writing habits, routine and discipline. "At some level, there is discipline," he says. "But writing is like music, it's impossible to write unless you practise. At some point, the practice and the writing become inseparable. Your whole life becomes that."

He often spends entire days writing. "Writing is very hard work. It tires me incredibly," he says. "At the end of a day's writing, I can barely stand up. For me, writing is a very intensely physical activity. I feel completely drained by the mental effort. And when you're writing fiction, it taxes you at multiple levels."

Ghosh has spent the better part of the last 10 years on the Ibis trilogy. The characters would be still swirling in his head. What will he write next? At the moment, he says he is preparing a series of lectures on climate change that he will deliver at the University of Chicago in September, which will be published in a book.

After that, he's not sure.

"Some day I might return to the characters in the Ibis trilogy," he says.

The Singapore launch of Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh was organised by India Se magazine and sponsored by DBS Bank and the Singapore Writers Festival


AMITAV GHOSH

Author

Born: Kolkata, India, July 11, 1956

Education: MA University of Delhi (St Stephen's College; Delhi School of Economics); DPhil in Social Anthropology, University of Oxford (St Edmund's Hall)

Novels: Circle of Reason (1986); The Shadow Lines (1988); The Calcutta Chromosome (1995); The Glass Palace (2000); The Hungry Tide (2005); Sea of Poppies (2008); River of Smoke (2011); Flood of Fire (2015)

Non-fiction works: In an Antique Land (1992); Dancing in Cambodia, at large in Burma (1998); Countdown (1999); The Imam and the Indian (2002); Incendiary Circumstances: A Chronicle of the turmoil of our times (2006);

Honorary Doctorates: Queen's College, University of New York; Sorbonne, Paris

Selected awards: Sahitya Academy Award (India); Prix Médicis Étranger (France); Arthur C Clarke Award (UK); Grinzane Cavour Prize (Italy); Myanmar National Literature Award (Myanmar); Dan David Prize (Israel)