Amitav Ghosh's body of work is a sprawling canvas of fiction and nonfiction—ranging from the eccentric relationship between India and Egypt to the treacherous landscape of the Sunderbans.
Born in Calcutta in 1956, Ghosh grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; he now splits his time between the alternative hubs of Brooklyn and Goa. His writing occupies the imagined lives led in transition and on the margins of the many lands he has come to live and grow in. Ghosh liberates history into sprawling narratives of the individuals' tale—successfully bringing alive ghosts of memory.
Lauded as one of the leading minds of our times, the multi award winning writer has recently been nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, been elected a fellow of The Royal Society Of Literature and been awarded the Padma Shri.
In 2008, Ghosh published the Booker-shortlisted Sea Of Poppies and announcedhis most ambitious project till date, the Ibis trilogy. Set in the 19th century, the writer took on the story of the opium trade between India and China run by the East India Company. Welcome to the complex and interconnected world of zamindars, officers, lascars, interlopers and outcastes all aboard a ship. In 2011, River Of Smoke, the sequel, followed with resounding praise. Now, with Flood Of Fire, the last and final book, Ghosh gives us yet another masterpiece.
On a balcony piled high with copies of his new book, with Humayan's Tomb, probably Delhi's most beautiful spectre, on one side, and the reassuring presence of one of India's greatest writers on the other, Vogue listens in as Ghosh shares the decade-long journey of his trilogy.
You've lived with the Ibis trilogy for a decade now. What was the impetus behind it all?
It all started with the characters. I conceived of Bahram Modi (a Parsi opium trader from Bombay) right at the beginning, even though I didn't write him in till the second book. These characters led me into unexpected and surprising worlds; they were my teachers. Ordinary people intrigue me; those are the stories I want to tell. I called it the Ibis trilogy because of the ship as metaphor, where people from different backgrounds come together—it's the world in microcosm. The trilogy was a process of discovery; I didn't begin writing the books because I wanted to uncover a history. It was while writing that I realised the Opium Wars shaped our subcontinent the way we know it today.
After creating and inhabiting this massive world, how difficult has it been to let go?
It is the final book and the trilogy is definitely over. But my characters are not dead; I can always revisit them if I ever feel thus inclined. I don't know if I will, though. Writing the last book has definitely come with a sense of triumph and relief—I accomplished what I set out to do. The actual act of writing, though, was a mortal struggle—it really felt that way. There were days I thought these books were going to kill me. Over the last decade, I have put off everything else. So, it's time for me to get my other projects off the backburner. I'm currently working on two books; a lecture series titled The Berlin Lectures, and a non-fiction book on the research that went into the trilogy. It will talk about how the China trade created modern India, with a lot of archival material and images.
From uncovering forgotten histories to learning Cantonese—and I hear your novels are written on pen and paper. How does it all come together?
When you're writing a novel, even if it is a historical novel, it's still fiction, so no one's reading it for the research—that's not what's important, it's all about the storytelling. It's not like I begin the research and then sit down and write. It goes hand in hand, a constant pairing of sorts. I have followed the same writing process most of my life; I think I'm too set in my ways. I make sketches with pencil on an artist's pad—ideas and scenes. I then move to fountain pen and paper, which becomes my first draft, although by this time it's closer to the third draft. And then, I move to the screen. That's the big jump—if I do it prematurely, it doesn't work for me.