Flood of Fire became a bestseller as soon as it docked. The final installment in the Ibis trilogy is finally out and after staying with it for a decade, author Amitav Ghosh says that the characters are still speaking to him in his mind.
Set in the first half of the 19th century, Flood of Fire is about a varied cast of characters from India to China, through the outbreak of the First Opium War and China’s devastating defeat, to Britain’s seizure of Hong Kong. The novel is preceded by Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize) and River of Smoke (shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize).
Migration and war have often been recurrent themes in the much-feted writer’s works. Ghosh, who writes as many as 40 or ‘even more’ drafts for a single novel, says, "Writing about war tests you."
The series is high on research. A novel so historically rich is bound to be a daunting task. We caught up with the Padma Shri awardee on the trilogy, India-China relations and his books being turned into films. Excerpts:
How have the British and Chinese reacted to Flood of Fire? I have got some wonderful reviews in England. It’s had an incredible reception in China as well.
Now that Flood of Fire is out, are the characters still chattering in your mind or have you bid adieu to them? Yes, in a sense they are still speaking to me in my mind. Very much so, when you have lived with the characters for so long you never really say goodbye to them.
Why the name Ibis? I don’t really know. In those days ships were often named after birds. And I somehow felt that it just seemed right.
When you write about deprivation, oppression and evil, and stay with it for a decade, how does it change you as a person? It puts you in touch with the world. The world is like that. There is a lot of evil and at the same time there is also laughter and love and sustenance. The world was never a place of joy and happiness, we always knew that. The Buddha told us that. So we always have to look for other domains of life. On every side there are some good people and some bad ones.
This book has brought into focus the much-forgotten Opium War. But history is poorly preserved in India. Most historical monuments are covered in graffiti. That sort of graffiti has existed forever. If you go to Egypt and look at the pyramids, graffiti goes back a millennium. Since the pyramid was built people are writing graffiti. Maybe, it’s just a human impulse like dogs marking their territory. But I am happy that my books have introduced new awareness about history. It’s hard to make history interesting to young students. It often becomes very dry and tedious. May be that’s one of the good things about writing a novel. Novels help you understand and imagine the background.
Amitav Ghosh with his mother at the launch of Flood of Fire in Kolkata. (Photo Samir Jana) You have been a critique of Capitalism. How do you see the developments in India, where industry is given first preference keeping in mind what’s happening with the land bill? If they try to push through this kind of land acquisition, in the end it is going to lead to intense polarisation. We have seen that attempt here in Bengal from the other end of the spectrum when a Left government tried to push through this kind of land acquisition and we know perfectly well that at a certain point people will resist and they are already resting. Say, for example, in Chhattisgarh and in Odhisa. I think we are heading towards a dark time.
Your book deals with many facets of Indo-China relationship. But most of us weren’t even aware of the Opium War and only know about the 1962 war. But now there is renewed interest in China. Where does this leave the Indo-China relations? It leaves the India-China relationship in a very difficult place. I think the relationship has been based on these incredible simplicities. On one hand, some people would like to see it purely as a matter of conflict. Others like to see it as 2000 years of friendship. Neither of those is true. We are neighbours and we have a long and complicated relationship and as the former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon says this is a relationship that needs to be managed. That is where really our effort should be in the management of this relationship.
What was the most difficult part of your research while writing this book? You have said that you had to write the military history of the Opium War. Researching the military history was very hard. Piecing it together and making it work. It took a long time to research that part. I have spent years and years. The military history is very complex. You have to reconstruct it from dispatches. In those days, dispatches were written a day after. So, already they are misremembering certain things. It’s very hard to even get the numbers to tally. How many troops were there and what ships were there. It’s almost like sitting down as a forensic accountant and trying to put it all together. It’s a lot of spadework, but it’s also very interesting.
We wait for your books to hit the shelves. We are also waiting for Vikram Seth’s sequel? Whose book do you eagerly wait for? In fact, I am very much looking forward to Vikram’s (Seth) book (sequel to the Suitable Boy). I have the greatest regard and affection for him. Yes, I am looking forward to it like everyone else.
The publishing world is buzzing. But questions about the quality of books are being raised, especially when it comes to popular authors. Where do you stand on this debate of quality versus quantity? I honestly don’t see it as a debate really. In any healthy publishing industry, there will be popular books and books not meant for everyone. And that’s how it should be. I don’t see that as a problem. I really liked Chetan Bhagat’s first book, I thought he is a writer of great talent. I think Amish is a great guy, he is a friend of mine. I don’t see any conflict here at all. People like to see conflict when there is none.
A young Indian author you find promising? Now, that’s a problem you have stumped me there. I think Raghu Karnad is a very promising young writer. Samanth Subramanian and Sonia Faleiro are very fine writers. These are all excellent young writers. Then there is Meena Kandasamy. They are all very gifted.
What book are you reading now? I am reading a book by Anjum Hasan. Sorry, I can never remember titles.
A film was supposed to be made on the Ibis trilogy. What’s the status of the film? Are you open to the idea? The Hungry Tide is being made into a film and the Ibis trilogy was also supposed to be made into a film but they couldn’t raise the money. The Hungry Tide initially was under option from filmmaker Suman Mukhopadhyay, but his option lapsed because he couldn’t raise the money. So, now it’s with another company.
Which writers (and books) have you been most influenced by? One story that has influenced me a lot is Rabi Thakur’s (Rabindranath Tagore) Khudhita Pashan. I translated it into English.
When not writing, what do you like doing? I like playing badminton, cooking and watching tennis on TV. I also grow things like pepper, turmeric and galangal in Goa.
What are you working on next? I am working on some non-fiction projects right now.