Amitav Ghosh: There is now a vibrant literary world in India

About 10 years ago Amitav Ghosh began work on a new novel about departures. His experience of moving from India to Britain in the 1970s had been “wrenching” and set him wondering what it was like for Indian people travelling to England in the 19th century. “So I began to write about some characters who might have been among the first people to leave India, and immediately I came up against this immense canvas that lies behind relations between India, Britain and China. It was essentially all about opium and it was clear this was not a story I was going tell in a single book.”

So Ghosh set about writing a fictional account of the period leading up to the first opium war (1839-42), in which UK and China clashed over the British importation of opium, grown on their Indian plantations, into China. Sea of Poppies was published in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Booker prize. It was the first part of what has become the 1,600-page Ibis trilogy, named after the schooner that ferries both opium and human traffic. In 2011 River of Smoke, the second part, was shortlisted for the Man Asian prize and the series culminates this week with the publication of the final volume, Flood of Fire, Ghosh’s eighth novel in a career that has seen his work translated into more than 20 languages. This week his entire body of work was shortlisted for the International Booker prize, which was awarded to László Krasznahorkai.

Ghosh, who was about to turn 50 when he embarked on the trilogy, says he found it daunting: “For the next 10 years, this was what I was going to do. But I also knew that I had to set myself something really difficult and ambitious. And that has proved to be the case. I was determined that the individual books should stand alone – it’s indefensible, aesthetically, for it be just one huge book chopped into three. One of my favourite experiences was reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in Alexandria. I love his writing and it is strange how he is kind of forgotten now. He had an incredible range and the books capture all aspects of a cosmopolitan life in the eastern Mediterranean. They do articulate with each other so that you get glimpses of characters across books, but they are not all meshed together. If I had a model, that was it.”

Despite the darkly cynical and violent subject matter, Ghosh’s trilogy is funny, sexy and rip-roaring. “The material is so grim for so much of the time I had to have some leavening. But I also think there is a contemporary sentimentality that assumes people living difficult lives are always gloomy. That is just not the case. I’ve spent a lot of time in very difficult places, and I can tell you that people in desperate circumstances can also be incredibly cheerful and good-natured, often more so than people on the streets of London, for instance.”

The co-option of Indian labour, and soldiers, by the British empire underpins much of the trilogy. “The indentured system was self-consciously a replacement for slave labour,” he explains. “It is strange that people don’t put together that India was to the 19th century what Africa had been to the 17th and 18th: a global sink of labour.” There are obvious echoes of the conditions endured by some migrant workers today, and while Ghosh does not labour the point, there are also inescapable parallels between the opium and Iraq wars. “British merchants were saying in the lead-up to the opium war that there will be joss sticks lit in the streets and the people will be grateful for the overthrow of the Manchu tyrant,” he says. “It is a complete echoing across two centuries and was eerie to see. The other striking thing was the degree of corruption. You have to read between the lines, but the opium war was one of the first to be fought in a complete public and private partnership. The merchants were given contracts to provide services and provisions to the soldiers and they made out like bandits. Paying off British generals, and bad provisions probably killed more soldiers in China than did the Chinese army.”

The book jacket for Flood of Fire features an admiring quote from the historian Christopher Clark and Ghosh has been acclaimed for providing a plausible account of events that had previously been underexamined. “Puzzlingly, there is no military history of the first opium war,” he says, “although it saw the first major use of steam-powered warships which revolutionised naval warfare forever. So I found myself piecing much of the battlefield details together from primary sources. But the difference between writing fiction and writing history is that fiction doesn’t commit you to one view. That is why I was never a historian or an academic. I don’t think theoretically. What interests me about history is that there are so many alternative ways of telling it. I have had my life and experiences and I have my opinions. But I have also forced myself to see the world through, say, the eyes of an opium trader, and that is one of the great strengths of historical fiction. It encourages you to step out of your skin and see the world from other points of view.”

Ghosh was born in Calcutta in 1956 and was brought up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as his family moved around with his ex-soldier father on various secondments to the Indian government. The peripatetic life meant that books became particularly important to him – one early childhood favourite was Richmal Crompton’s Just William series before he moved on to the novels of Sir Walter Scott, for many the inventor of the historical novel as we know it today. “Scott had a huge influence on many early 19th-century Indian writers and I found his books utterly absorbing and remember curling up in bed with them at boarding school”. He was at the prestigious Doon School where Vikram Seth, a pupil a couple of years ahead of him, came back to teach and they talked a lot about writing to each other. “Not long ago I went back there and looked at those same editions of Scott in the library. I was the last person to have checked them out.”

As a teenager, Ghosh enjoyed Indian classical music as well as Deep Purple, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, “all the stuff my kids still listen to” – he is married to the writer Deborah Baker, they have two children and live in Brooklyn and India. “We also had the radical politics of the 1970s. I came of age in the middle of the Naxalite-Maoist uprising. But even then I was much more interested in Gandhism and thought Naxalism was a fetishism of violence of a very ugly kind. Yes, I was sympathetic to many of their aims, but I was not a joiner.”

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