The past master
‘How does one do a trilogy like this?’ I ask Amitav Ghosh in his room at the Taj Man Singh Hotel in New Delhi. He’s just arrived in the early hours of the morning from London and I’m feeling a bit guilty. But Ghosh, sprightly as ever, is fresh with his reply: “When I first started thinking about the book, I realised I can’t fit it into one book. Sure, it was daunting, but at the same time it was also very reassuring.When you finish one novel and start another, there’s a longish period of turmoil. I don’t have to worry about that kind of thing with this one,” he says with a beaming smile.
Sea of Poppies is the first in his ‘Ibis’ trilogy and even within this first volume, the reader gets a sense of ‘to be continued...’ with each chapter interlocking different narratives. “Well, I love that aspect in the serialisations of Dickens and in many contemporary Bengali writers today. But I don’t work like that. For me, the book is a finished artefact.” Or as finished as the first in a three-part saga can be.
In a sense, Sea of Poppies is a 500-plus-page book that describes a foreboding of unpleasant things to come in a time and country that is yet to come to grips with — let alone to a violent uprising against — a foreign, exploitative force. And at the centre of this foreboding lies the opium trade that was to become the engine and the fuel of an Empire that was already addicted to the filth and the lucre that the poppy provided.
“I had researched and written about indentured labourers from India in The Glass Palace and I had become aware of the growth and trade in opium that was being conducted in large numbers. And what also struck me was the large number of migrations that had taken place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries from central Bihar, a place miles away from any sea front. It turns out that there was this great social churning that took place when communities were pretty much forced to cultivate poppies for the East India Company. Now, poppy cultivation is back-breaking work and for the grower the returns were minuscule. Many cultivators were actually producing at a loss — while the Company made fabulous profits.”
Ghosh finds a distinct connection between this opium-fuelled mass movement of migrant indentured workers and the arrival of the likes of Mangal Pandey. And strangely, this vast churning remains almost a blank spot in the history of India. So is it one of his plans as a novelist to write about these ‘gaps’ in history so that more is discovered by real historians? “I think so. Yes. In fact while writing this book I was talking to my friend, the Delhi University historian Amar Farooqui about this. Why, I asked him, isn’t more being done on this period? He told me that he had suggested it to his students but they baulked at the prospect of uncovering historical facts about India’s opium past. Somehow they thought it to be scandalous; they simply wouldn’t touch it.”
Ghosh also tells me how, during one of the readings of Sea of Poppies in Britain, “a nice lady” said that she would read my previous books but found the subject of opium “too ghastly”. Behind the small laugh that he lets out, I note a sense of frustrated incredulity.
But what does he make of the criticism that in this novel he paints a ‘nasty’, ‘one-dimensional’ picture of the English? He seems to control himself and says, “Actually Mr Doughty [a Hobson-Jobson-spouting badmouth of a ship pilot in
Calcutta] is one of my favourite characters in the book. So I don’t know what the fuss is all about.” Then, after a pause, he lets it rip: “How often is there a nuanced description of a Colombian drug lord in a book? Or that of a Nazi German? Does one then make a scramble to look for a ‘Good German’ to balance out things? I think that this kind of criticism actually signifies the inability to come to terms with the horrific nature of what was done historically. By trivialising these things, some people do not want to recognise that these things actually happened.” Unlike us in India, Ghosh adds, the Chinese have not forgotten their history, not even the unpleasant bits. (Especially the unpleasant bits.)
But along with a noxious trade and nasty Englishmen, Sea of Poppies also celebrates the sea-faring lives of the lascars, the multi-cultural, multi-national group of sailors across the Indian Ocean who formed such an important (and again, historically almost invisible) aspect of maritime travel and trade of the era. Ghosh’s fascination for sea-faring stories goes back to his boyhood. “We, Bengalis, have something about the sea, you know,” he says trying to rope me in. “And I loved those stories. Melville is a writer I admire. But sea-faring novels like [Patrick O’Brian’s 1970 published] Master and Commander are full of pink-cheeked sailors. The funny thing is that during the Battle of Trafalgar, some 15 to 20 per cent of crews were made up of lascars.” It’s their pidgin language that underlines the polyglot and gloriously multicultural nature of these ‘eastern sailors’ in the book.
But language plays a pivotal role to bring every character in Ghosh’s book alive — whether it’s the Bhojpuri of Deeti, a woman married to an afimkhor in Ghazipur; the chameleon-like language of the Han Solo-ish Zachary Reid, an American whose mixed descent makes him ‘Go East’ and join the Ibis crew; or the Bengali of the humiliated and tragic Raja Neel Rattan Halder of Raskhali; or the rapscallion Hobson-Jobson of merchant-nabobs like Ben Burnham. “Language is totally fundamental to me. And knowing quite a few languages can be helpful. But you can only play the cards you’re dealt with,” says the trained anthropologist with a laugh.
Linguistic abilities and a curiosity of history aside, it’s the art of the novel that Ghosh is still in love with. “History can say things in great detail, even though it may say them in rather dull factual detail. The novel, on the other hand, can make links that history cannot. And I love the novel’s total inclusiveness.” But the writer is also worried about the future of the novel. “Don’t tell me you’ve become one of those ‘The death of the novel is nigh’ guys?” I exclaim, worried that he’s worried about the future of the next two installments of the Ibis trilogy. “It’s just that a novel requires reading, a certain kind of attention. I don’t know if there’s much of that,” says Ghosh.
Gulping hard enough to feel my Adam’s apple go up and down like a two-mast schooner on a choppy sea, I ask him how his progress has been in the next Ibis saga. He laughs, “I haven’t even started it yet.” Now, was that a nervous laugh or was I just imagining things?