Inter-lingual wordplay enchants Ghosh | mumbai | Hindustan Times
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Inter-lingual wordplay enchants Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, the second book in his Ibis trilogy, is fascinating for its mellifluous mingling of English with words from Cantonese, Bhojpuri, Creole, Gujarati and more. Aarefa Johari reports.

mumbai Updated: Jun 22, 2011 01:31 IST
Aarefa Johari

Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, the second book in his Ibis trilogy, is fascinating for its mellifluous mingling of English with words from Cantonese, Bhojpuri, Creole, Gujarati and more.

For Ghosh, this fascination with inter-lingual wordplay has its origins in an unlikely source: “In my teens and 20s, I would read Stardust, and thought it was a wonderfully innovative magazine,” said Ghosh, 55, sipping his usual black tea hours before the Mumbai launch of his new book on Tuesday. “It pioneered the khichdi of Bombaiyah Hindi and English, and I remember feeling very enchanted by it.”

River of Smoke, published nearly three years after the first Ibis book, Sea of Poppies (see box), travels from the poppy fields of interior India to 19th century Canton, the Chinese port where opium was traded and a multitude of cultures and races mixed. In the book, language becomes the primary manifestation of this mélange.

“What interests me are the vast places where languages meet,” said Ghosh, whose trilogy – like most of his previous works – is peopled with drifting migrants such as the opium traders and indentured labourers who forge cross-cultural ties on merchant ships.

To bring to life the overwhelming sensory appeal of 19th century Canton, Ghosh did everything from learning Cantonese to pouring over archives in museums around the world.

“Recreating Canton was like trying to re-inhabit a vanished city. Though I threw in some of my own imagination, I have mainly followed all the written records about the city,” said Ghosh, who describes old Canton as an “incredibly campy” place where foreign women were not allowed and men enjoyed each others’ company in ways that were inevitably suggestive.

In his recreation of the debates on the smuggling of opium and the hypocrisy of European free trade, Ghosh once again sticks to historical records: many of the characters in River of Smoke really existed, and the author blends fact with fiction while quoting directly from their letters and speeches.

“I withdrew my opinions because I wanted the sources to speak for themselves, particularly the Chinese arguments,” said Ghosh, who believes one cannot help but connect it to the nature of capitalism today. “People talk of free trade as if it’s a God given right, which is completely crazy.”

Completely absorbed in his Ibis epic, Ghosh intends to spend a long time writing the third book. Smiling apologetically at the mention of eagerly-waiting fans, he said, “I don’t want to hurry through it – for me, the fun is in the writing.”