It’s a blistering hot Sunday morning in Delhi and the last thing you expect to hear from Amitav Ghosh is how cold the water in his hotel room is. "They have a pool in my room. Can you imagine? A pool in the room! But I can’t get into it because the water’s too cold."
I get a chance to check the temperature of the sunken pool the next evening and find the water to be invitingly cool. "Hmm, yes, it is better now," he had said before returning to his glass of after-dinner (neat) whisky. I suddenly had this absurd image of Ghosh, arguably India’s finest writer and a contemporary literary master, stretching out in the pool with a gold chain glinting from his neck and helping himself to a line of powder that matched the colour of his snow white hair.
But Ghosh is not a drug lord from Scarface. Or, for that matter, one of those celebrity writers whirling about the world doing the lit fest circuit, providing wise and witty observations about everything under the sun, and appearing on the covers of every second issue of glossy magazines. This Sahitya Akademi-winning author even has problems talking about the thing he does and loves best: writing.
"It’s very hard [to talk about the act of writing]. It’s impossible to say. It’s impossible to know," he says in between sips of Darjeeling tea in the shade of the hotel lobby. He looks remarkably fresh for someone who flew in the night before from London where the book tour of the second volume of his ‘Ibis’ trilogy, River of Smoke kicked off. ("I’m not feeling terribly fresh though," he says with his schoolboy smile.) Once you realise that a few days before he had flown into London from New York – where he lives (dividing time between homes in Goa and Kolkata) with his wife Deborah Baker, an author whose biography of an American woman who moved to Pakistan in the ’60s, The Convert, has also just been published – you are ready to feel bad about having asked him that silly ‘So, how do you write?’ question.
"The main thing about writing novels is concentration and focus and persistence. These are all things which are increasingly difficult in the world we live in," he says in his calming, sing-song voice. "Everything in the world is geared towards distraction, attention deficits. It’s not just that writers have to do tours when the book comes out, or attend all these festivals. As a writer, you could continuously live in a state of distraction."
The piped muzak in the otherwise empty lobby doesnt distract him.
"I’m a very slow writer. It really takes a lot of work to write one page, you know." At 553-odd pages, River of Smoke, took only three years to come out since he finished the first ‘volume’, Sea of Poppies. The trilogy is Ghosh’s most ambitious work, an epic vision of masterful story-telling where history and individuals slosh about in one coherent, remarkable tale of a time set in the early 19th century just before the Opium Wars between the British Empire and China. In River of Smoke, the story starts where Sea of Poppies had ended: a storm in September 1838 on the Indian Ocean catching three ships – the Ibis, the Anahita and the Redruth with their cargoes of indentured labourers from Calcutta to Mauritius, of opium from Bombay to Canton, and of botanical specimens from Mauritius to London – and bringing them and the destinies of their inhabitants closer together.
While the first book chronicled the journey of Deeti and Kalua and other labourers and convicts across the seas, in River of Smoke, Ghosh draws us into a gathering storm whose ingredient is opium. In 2008, at the Mumbai launch of Sea of Poppies, Ghosh had spoken about how the cities of Calcutta and Bombay were built on the riches made by Indians from opium and how we, unlike the Chinese, have forgotten that noxious chapter in history. In the new book, Ghosh reminds us with all the vividness and dexterity of a grand novelist how China played such an important, yet forgotten role, in Indian history.
"The strange thing is that I’ve travelled a great deal in my life, but I’d never before even thought of going to China. But it was Sea of Poppies that took me in the direction of China. Then in 2007-08, I spent a lot of time in Guangzhou – modern Canton – and I became very fascinated with China," says Ghosh with sudden animation. "I think one of the things that hit me in the face in relation to China is our utter and profound ignorance of it and I feel a deep shame for myself and for my country and my culture."
In a way, the story of the first two books of the ‘Ibis’ trilogy tell us about the machinations, the politics, the economics and the psychology behind the selling of huge amounts of opium from the poppy cultivating areas of eastern India to a market in China. In the second chapter, the scene of the precious cargo of the Anahita washing all over the ship’s innards that includes its owner, the rich Parsi Bombay opium merchant Bahram Modi, is overpowering and provides a prelude to the greater inundation to come.
There is another scene, a flashback, where Bahram is trying to convince his father-in-law to diversify his ship-building business and get into the lucrative opium trade.
"Listen sassraji, he had said. I know you and your family are committed to manufacturing and engineering. But look at the world around us; look at how it is changing. Today the biggest profits don’t come from selling useful things: quite the opposite. The profits come from selling things that are not of any real use... Opium is just like that. It is completely useless unless you’re sick, but still people want it. And it is such a thing that once people start using it they can’t stop; the market just gets larger and larger. That is why the British are trying to take over the trade and keep it to themselves. Fortunately in the Bombay Presidency they have not succeeded in turning it into a monopoly, so what is the harm in making some money from it?"
Heavy shades of Sonny Corleone in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather trying to convince his father Vito to take up the offer of a rival mafia family to go into the drug business. (Don Corelone said no; Seth Rustamjee finally relents.) Even as I ask Ghosh whether he wants the reader to find the echoes in opium being ‘force-sold’ in the early 1800s to China with today’s hard-ball globalisation where big economic powers pry open resisting markets, he widens his eyes, nods and smiles, the combination of gestures adding up to an unsaid, “Yes, of course!”
And yet for all the fumes of opium and the geo-economics of the British and the East India Company, with Indian opium merchants playing their large role in this Other Great Game, Ghosh didn’t have the drug and its history or even China and the Opium Wars in mind when he set out to write his epic three-part story.
“I actually didn’t have China or opium at all in my mind when I started this project. While writing The Glass Palace [his 2000 novel on the changing society in early 20th century Burma-India-Malay], the central character Rajkumar got me more and more interested in the story of migrants and migration. So The Sea of Poppies started out as my exploration into the world of indentured workers in the early 19th century, their stories of these epic journeys,” says Ghosh, himself having been a migrant who has moved from Calcutta to Dehradun to Delhi to Alexandria to Oxford to New York and Goa and Kolkata. “One can understand the migration of people from coastal parts of India crossing the seas to go to places as far off as Mauritius. But people from Bihar and Jharkhand, Bhojpuris who don’t have any water body for miles making such a journey was as intriguing as it was incredible. Then it made sense. These were opium-growing regions. Which is where the migrants and the opium story clicked into place.”
As an anthropologist as well as a novelist, Ghosh has always been interested in identities and how people ‘self-fashion’ themselves and the ‘admixtures’ created in the process. In his 1986 debut novel The Circle of Reason, the course of a Bengali weaver is charted as he travels westwards, ultimately landing up in Alegria. Shadow Lines, published two years later, charts the trajectory of a young boy moving from Calcutta to Delhi to London. In the 2005 novel The Hungry Tide, Ghosh moves with his characters not only in space but also in time.And then there’s the sea. While water bodies have played an important role in his earlier stories – in The Hungry Tide, the coastal region of the Bay of Bengal in the Sunderbans is the palpable protagonist – it is in the ‘Ibis’ project that the sea comes into its own. The sea also explains his desire to have a home in Goa. “Just organising everyday life in a city, any city, adds so much to one’s disruptiveness. So I just wanted to be not in a city. Many people love the mountains. I love the sea. I wanted to be near the sea.”
Along with the sea, he also loves his gardens – both in Brooklyn and in Goa. “Did you know that much of what we find in gardens comes from China?” He insists that he’s not much of a green thumb but he simply likes being in his gardens. But loving the sea and pottering about in gardens aren’t the same as making a novel teem with details about ships and plants and other minutae that form this novel set in history. His wrapping a story with facts has been a hallmark as a writer and creator of a world that greatly resembles ours but doesn’t exist or never existed.
Ghosh sounds a bit irritated when I ask him how he balances all those facts in his books with the fiction and whether he ever worried – “now that it’s a daan haath ka khel for you” I added for protection – that with too much research, the ‘Ibis’ novels could become a history book in disguise. He gives out an exasperated sigh and replies, “I could never write a history book in disguise really because... because I am a novelist. I am a writer of fiction. That’s what I do. To write history is a very particular thing. It calls for specific talents, which are not my talents, you know. It’s not something that can happen. First and foremost I think of myself as a storyteller.” He pauses. A sigh later he continues, “But historical research is interesting because of the background. This particular world [of River of Smoke] is so little known.”Earlier in the interview, Ghosh had talked about Orhan Pamuk’s description of the novel being a kind of encyclopaedia. "I was very struck by that. That’s certainly the way I work. All the things that interest me go into my books." I figure he had answered my silly question of how he ‘balanced’ research with storytelling already.
I ask Ghosh at this point whether he has any writer’s kinks. Goethe kept a rotten apple in his desk when he wrote; Philip Roth writes standing up. He laughs and says that he needs to be at his desk while writing. At his three desks at his three homes, he clarifies. He also uses pen and paper. "I’m very obsessive about paper and ink and pens," Ghosh says, leading me to suspect that he’s a fetishist, after which he adds perhaps a little too quickly, "I’m not a fetishist. But good writing paper is surprisingly difficult to find in America or, for that matter, in India. Good writing paper is now only produced in Japan and in Europe."
Which author would he consider as an influence? "I would say Naipaul." He lets out a laugh and continues, "I feel embarrassed to say this now because if you say that Naipaul was an inspiration to you it’s like saying that you subscribe to his idea that women are not novelists and all these crazy things he says from time to time. But in my formative years as a reader, Naipaul was incredibly important to me. Especially his travel books, I loved them. I read them and told myself that I want to do this, I want to go to these places."
So can a writer be disassociated from the person and the views he holds? I ask Ghosh about the old ‘good writer-bad human’ dichotomy that plagues many readers. "I think you really have to separate the books from the person. I mean, I would hate it if someone would sit here talking to me and then think that what I’m saying is the equivalent of my books. Because it’s not. In your books, you work at it, put your most considered thoughts into it and it’s not like sitting across a table at all. But I must say, in the case of Naipaul’s latest statements, you can’t help feeling a sense of derangement. And that’s why I think it’s so important to separate the books from the man."
Ghosh’s novels, especially the latest one, is incredibly visual. His words and passages form pictures in the head in the form of the reader’s private cinema. Are there ‘cinematic’ influences?
“Oh absolutely. Satyajit Ray was a major influence for me. I was deeply immersed in his films. In a way, Indian cinema of the ’60s and ’70s was very important to me. I remember the early Mrinal Sen, his Bhuban Shom. I’m still haunted by that film, its images. But also Hindi cinema of that time. Aradhana.”
Aradhana? Shakti Samanta’s 1969 Sharmila Tagore-Rajesh Khanna-starring remake of the ’40s Hollywood film To Each His Own? Er, why, I ask Ghosh.
“I loved that movie,” he laughs. “I also loved the old Kishore Kumar movies. The ways in which the stories were constructed in Hindi
Cinema, in Aradhana, had an important influence on me and many other writers.”
I still don’t get it. He may have loved these movies, but them being an influence for him as a novelist? I egg him on. “See, I basically lost interest in Hindi cinema during the Amitabh Bachchan period. All that star appeal sucked out everything else. The story-telling power of Hindi cinema just disappeared. It just became a spectacle. But before that, what I would have compared Hindi cinema to would be opera, you know, structured like opera, in the sense that like opera always builds towards drama, in the same way, Hindi cinema was very focused on building towards climaxes, towards creating situations of drama.”
Ghosh also loves art. His way of seeing, he tells me, is very much influenced by what he has seen of art. “It was such a pleasure to have a painter in this book. Suddenly all the art I’ve seen, it just came pouring out of me,” he says gushingly, adding that 17th century Spanish painter Velasquez and 16th century Italian master Caravaggio are among his favourite artists. “In both Velasquez and Caravaggio, there is so much drama.”
Which is what River of Smoke, teeming with characters (including a delightful cameo from Napoleon Bonaparte), places, objects is about: drama. Literary fiction was arguably never such a page-turner, all 553-plus pages of it. But like the reader, the writer of River of Smoke confesses to having tremendous fun writing such a book, piecing the puzzle, fitting one shape to another.
I sensed it even when Ghosh excitedly elucidated about the volcanic island of Krakatoa between Java and Sumatra and when the island exploded in 1883, killing around 40,000 people and then disappeared from the face of the earth. “Oddities about the natural world fascinate me. Did you know that when Krakatoa exploded, in the resulting tsunami the sea receded more than a mile in Bombay?”
It’s that boyish sense of adventure and wonderment coupled with his mastery over the all-encompassing craft of the novel which makes the 54-year-old Ghosh such a profoundly exciting writer. In a sense, the ‘Ibis’ trilogy, with its ships, its sense of changing space, new lands and people from various places of the world mimic the world of a science fiction space opera. “That’s an interesting comparison actually,” says the winner of the 1997 Arthur C Clarke Award for his novel The Calcutta Chromosome, the next evening as he pours a second glass of whisky. His hotel suite, with the sunken pool in the next room, I note, vaguely resembles the set from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which in a way fits perfectly with his continuing saga of a space and time journey into the 19th century. The thought of the white-haired, never-ageing novelist as a time-travelling, shape-shifting alien crosses my mind briefly.
-From HT Brunch, June 26
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