IT IS HARD to simply skim through the materials on Amitav Ghosh’s website. The information is bountiful, and the data is incredibly varied, indexing the many dimensions of his oeuvre. One is forced to pause periodically to contemplate each new facet of Ghosh’s interests and writings.
His works of fiction include The Circle of Reason (1986), The Shadow Lines(1988), The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), The Glass Palace (2000), The Hungry Tide (2004),and now the recently completed Ibis Trilogy: Sea of Poppies(2008), River of Smoke (2011), and Flood of Fire (2015). Works of nonfiction include In an Antique Land (1992), Dancing in Cambodia and at Large in Burma (1998), Countdown (1999) and The Imam and the Indian (2002). His essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times,and elsewhere, around the world.
His prizes and awards are numerous as well: The Circle of Reason won the Prix Médicis étranger, The Shadow Lines won the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Ananda Puraskar Award. The Calcutta Chromosome won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 1997. Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, was the co-winner of the Vodafone Crossword Book Award in 2009, and co-winner of the 2010 Dan David Prize. River of Smoke was shortlisted for Man Asian Literary Prize 2011. The Indian government awarded him the civilian honor of Padma Shri in 2007.
Even though one can use the names of genres as rough descriptions of what one finds in each of the texts mentioned above — imaginative fictional worlds, creative nonfiction books and essays — once one delves into the works themselves, one finds an array of perspectives: linguistic, philosophical, scientific, anthropological, historical, and, yes, literary. Ghosh’s writings comprehend and restore a complex world that has been systematically segmented, specialized, and compartmentalized — and increasingly so — in modernity. He sees, and delivers to our vision, a large-scale, big picture.
His latest and most ambitious accomplishment so far, a set of three novels known as the Ibis Trilogy, displays this complexity. The Ibis is a sailing ship whose course over the three novels ranges across the Indian Ocean, traversing and transporting peoples, goods, commodities, and ideas. Most importantly, the trilogy explores, untangles, and reassembles the intricately and intimately connected histories of India and China, and the British imperial and colonial projects. What most binds these peoples and governments and economies is opium.
Ghosh’s trilogy is unswerving in its commitment to probing and exposing the excitement, greed, despair, violence, and ambitions that informed the opium trade, revealing to us how it fed into the best and the worst of humanity. Importantly, it makes more than a few allusions to today’s neoliberal regime.
I sat down with Amitav Ghosh in Berkeley this past summer, interviewing him in the small business center of the hotel where he was staying and then continuing our conversation over lunch at a restaurant close to the University of California, Berkeley, and during a drive across the Bay Bridge, finally delivering Ghosh to his destination — City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Not for a reading, but to buy books.
DAVID PALUMBO-LIU: I’ll just start with this. You’ve been trained in writing as a social scientist, and as a historian as well. And there are also elements of anthropology, history, science, and linguistics found in your novels; yet you’re devoted to fiction writing. What does fiction allow you to capture that you think is most fascinating?
AMITAV GHOSH: Since I was a child, I loved to read; I loved novels and I loved fiction. I knew from quite early on that fiction was what I wanted to write. And on the way I did a lot of other things as well. I happened to be an undergraduate in history, but I also worked as a journalist for a very long time and I had all these other interests. They don’t exist in different boxes in my head; they all feed into each other.
I think that’s why fiction is a very fruitful place for me to be, because novels actually have an extraordinary capaciousness; they can accommodate everything. For me, the novel is an overarching form that can provide a unified field, if you like, where you can have emotions as well as cuisines as well as trade. All of that can come together in a novel, and, historically, they have. If you think of Balzac, or Melville, or Dickens, or Zola, that is what the novel did; it was this great synthetic form that drew in all these aspects of life. I think novels are much less so now.
Why is that, or how is that?
It’s a question I ask myself a lot. I think it’s one of the effects of an emergent modernity; it starts at the end of the 19th century and it accelerates through the 20th century. There’s a turn towards interiority, there’s a turn towards a certain kind of abstraction, there’s a turn away from the non-human. You really can’t think of a 20th-century writer writing about animals in the way that Melville did. What happens in the 20th century is that the novel is drawn into the project that Bruno Latour calls “partitioning”; sort of deepening the gap between nature and culture — the imaginary gap, if you like.