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Issue 50 / December 2012

Amitav Ghosh Credit Jerry Bauer.jpg

“I’ve been away from home a lot so it’s something I think about, especially the sense of being away from your country, being away from everything that is familiar, being in a place that’s completely different and new. I think it’s one of the most wonderful things to be able to have that sense of wonder, and I do think that people challenge themselves more when they are away from home.”

Photograph: ©Jerry Bauer

Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta in 1956, and grew up in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India. He has taught at universities around the world, most recently Harvard. In his international bestseller, The Glass Palace (2000), Ghosh displayed his mastery of the literary historical novel. His latest novel, River of Smoke, is the second in the Ibis Trilogy. The first, Sea of Poppies, was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2008. Beth Jones caught up with him in London.

"For me, home is my desk," says Amitav Ghosh, pouring himself Earl Grey tea from an elegant silver pot. "I go to my desk at about nine in the morning and I write till mid-afternoon. I mean it's the only thing I do - I go to my desk and work. Writing is home for me."

But today, home is a long way away - Ghosh's writing routine disturbed by the demands of a global publicity tour for his recently published novel, River of Smoke. While a regular day would be spent at his desk in either Goa or New York, the Indian novelist is now seated in the old-fashioned luxury of a London Mayfair hotel with only a small side table on which to perch his latest hefty tome. At 517 pages, River of Smoke weighs in above its 496-page prequel, the 2008 Booker-shortlisted Sea of Poppies. Amazingly, both were written by hand: "I find that if I go straight to my computer it creates a kind of tension or anxiety that hinders my writing," he says, "so I do most of my writing longhand, with a fountain pen."

The novels, his sixth and seventh, are two-thirds of a proposed "Ibis trilogy" and are set in and around the Indian Ocean just prior to the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century. The first took us along the poppy fields of the Ganges where opium is grown and processed, while River of Smoke explores the streets of China where the opium is sold. Fifty-four-year-old Ghosh is insistent, however, that they don't have to be read together: "I think of them all as individual books that can be read on their own," he says, his perfect English inflected with a subcontinental lilt. "I never thought of it as a linear trilogy going from one to the other. When I started, I had no idea what would happen in the second book, just as now I have no idea what will happen in the third. It would actually be impossible to think about all that in your head."

Both books contain a dizzying kaleidoscope of characters, cultures and places. Sea of Poppies is set between India and Mauritius as a cast of Indians, Americans, Chinese and French find themselves aboard a ship called the Ibis sailing across the Indian Ocean. Many are indentured labourers - unskilled workers who have sold themselves to work for years on the Mauritian sugar cane plantations in return for food, clothing and lodging. A storm alters their course, and River of Smoke takes up where that novel left off, following the travellers to the crowded harbours of China and the trading town of Canton, "as crowded a stretch of land as you will ever see, with houses, walls, bustees and galis extending for miles into the distance". Ghosh writes of meetings with Napoleon, opium raids, the search for the mythical golden camellia, while his characters get married, form dynasties, cross-dress and are hanged. Could he ever imagine writing a book not quite so packed with plot? "No," Ghosh laughs. "I really admire those who can. You know, someone's written a book about just climbing up a staircase and all the thoughts that go through your head. But it's not for me."

In Sea of Poppies, Deeti, an impoverished widow from northern Bihar, becomes the maypole around which all other characters dance. In River of Smoke it's the character of Bahram, a Parsi opium trader from Bombay, with whom Ghosh seems most enamoured. "It sometimes happens that your characters take over without you really being aware of it, you know, and with River of Smoke, at a certain point Bahram took it over. He just became the central character and pulled it forward. And I found myself much engaged with him. I would say he was in many ways my favourite character in the book."

Bahram has sailed to Canton with a boatload of raw opium ("a plague from which no one can escape") with which he hopes to enrich his ever-growing fortune. But the authorities in China are trying to halt the illegal import of the drug and so his cargo must wait, along with that of the other, mainly British, traders in the waters just off the coast. Bahram needs the money his opium will bring in order to appease his wife and her family at home, but also to help his illegitimate son, Ah Fatt. Through Bahram's trials and tribulations, Ghosh manages to humanise and complicate the ethics of drug trading. During a meeting with the French Emperor-in-exile, Bahram mounts his defence: "Opium is like the wind or the tides: it is outside my power to affect its course. A man is neither good nor evil because he sails his ship upon the wind. It is his conduct towards those around him... by which he must be judged". Ghosh explains that from the start, he wanted "to make it very much about how Bahram thinks about what he's doing. Most of all he's an opium trader but he's not a bad man, as such. His circumstances are very complicated and he's trying in some way to reconcile what he does with his own sense of ethics and of course, that's not possible."

Each of the characters in River of Smoke are somehow affected by the illicit opium trade - whether the drug is making their fortune or wrecking their lives - and although the Opium Wars are looming on the horizon, Ghosh manages to avoid any sense of inevitability. In The Guardian, the Orange long-listed author Tessa Hadley has written that one of Ghosh's strengths is that, whereas in most historical novels the past feels tamed - "hindsight, hovering just off the page" - River of Smoke succeeds in "taking us back inside the chaos of when 'then' was 'now'." Each of Ghosh's books is meticulously researched and the acknowledgements in River of Smoke contain a bibliography which would put academics to shame. Several characters and events are taken straight from life: the meeting with Napoleon; a Chinese boy sent back with a consignment of plants to the gardens at Kew; an English painter working in India. "I never mess around with real characters who might be alive today. But when it's historical characters, especially 200 years ago, I think it's quite fair. I mean after all, all these books written about Queen Elizabeth, what do they really know about her?" he asks. Ghosh's critics argue he overloads the reader with such a wealth of historical information that it feels as though you have "dipped into a textbook" (Sunday Times) and it is true that in River of Smoke the characters and plot are, at times, not quite loud enough to drown out the constant chatter of background information. But amongst the dense pages of period detail, there are enough historical gems, which Ghosh has carefully mined and polished from libraries, letters and archives, to make the text glimmer and sparkle - keeping you captivated and turning the pages for more. For example, he writes of the complex plant exchanges between Chinese and British traders - of the boats carrying precious camellia and wisteria thousands of miles across the seas - which resulted in such flowers adorning the gardens and streets of Britain today. This morning Ghosh walked across London to his various radio, television and print interviews and as he did so, he says, he couldn't help but wonder at the myriad of botany here which owes its existence to traders of this time. "To me, it seems one of the most extraordinary things that so many of the plants we see today come from China, especially when getting them out was so difficult."

In the trading enclave of Canton, it's not just plants that were exchanged and interbred. In each alleyway and on every street, there's a hybridity born of cultural contact, a rich intercourse of goods and people of difference countries, races, classes and languages. "Bahram would hear the voices of the Chulia boatmen talking, shouting and singing in Tamil, Telegu and Oriya", Ghosh writes, but it isn't just Bahram who is exposed to such foreign tongues. "In the first four paragraphs alone, readers are expected to make sense of 'pus-pus', 'palki', 'bonoys', 'belsers', 'bowjis', 'salas', 'sakubays', 'bandobast' and 'gardmanzes'. How many are going to make it as far as the fifth paragraph?" the reviewer from the Telegraph complained. But this is unfair. To be immersed in unfamiliar words and expressions is one of the strongest ways in which Ghosh imparts a sense of time and place. "When I started writing Sea of Poppies I knew I would have to find some way of suggesting a very multilingual universe," he explains, "because that's what the Indian Ocean is. People speak thousands of different languages and that is the experience of people who grow up there. You are always surrounded by languages you don't understand. It would be untrue to that experience to make things always transparent because that's not how it happens."

Indeed, nothing in River of Smoke, is ever quite as it seems. Drug-pushers become heroes; women disguise themselves as men; indentured labourers are really Indian rajahs - all are far from home. Much of Ghosh's fiction has been concerned with diasporic communities and this book is no different. Ghosh's own life has been somewhat nomadic: born in India and raised in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, he then studied in Delhi, Oxford and Alexandria before settling in New York. He has written about America, Bangladesh, Britain, Burma, Cambodia, Egypt and America and cannot even contemplate what kind of a writer he would have become without his own peripatetic existence: "I sometimes wonder about that, what would I have become, but it's not something I can really think about. I can't imagine it. It's literally unimaginable to me," he says.

The notion of home is one which dominates this trilogy. Most of the characters aboard the Ibis are facing a new life in Mauritius and know it's unlikely they will ever see the place of their birth again. While never downplaying the terror this must have caused ("I have touched to some degree on the horror that they lived through. It's actually unimaginable, what they had to cope with"), it seems, for Ghosh, to also be a positive influence on their lives, a kind of rebirth. "I've been away from home a lot so it's something I think about," he says, "especially the sense of being away from your country, being away from everything that is familiar, being in a place that's completely different and new. I think it's one of the most wonderful things to be able to have that sense of wonder, and I do think that people challenge themselves more when they are away from home."

Does he think that when people are taken out of a familiar context then they become better versions of themselves? Ghosh stops to think, sitting back in his armchair, and for a moment there is not a single sound in the quiet corner of this hotel sitting room. "That strikes me as absolutely true," he slowly nods. "Being cut loose, coming adrift, that suddenly makes you have to define yourself, decide 'this is what I am'."

"In fact, one of the things which inspired the entire trilogy," he reveals, "is something quite startling which I discovered in Mauritius. People would often introduce another person to me and say, 'We are ship brothers,' and I would say, 'What does that mean?' and they would say, 'Well his great-great-great-great grandfather and my great-great-great-great grandfather travelled on the same ship from India.' So there was a sense in which they had this sort of community which emerged from the belly of the ship - a family not out of blood, but out of sympathies. And that was something which really intrigued and excited me because that's exactly the kind of community that I myself am drawn towards - a community of experience."

"What's important," he continues, "is what people make of things. The poorest place in the world must be this forested area called the Sundarbans, which is a delta region in Bengal, which is where I am from and I've spent a lot of time there and I tell you I've never been in a place where people laugh so readily and smile so often and yet they lead lives of such utter deprivation and poverty. But they don't think of it as such. Which is not to romanticise poverty, you know, but at the same time, I think it's a kind of sentimentality which makes people think of the poor as always sad or depressed. That's just not the case. They have done extensive studies and the place where people are really depressed and really unhappy and where there's very little joy and happiness is America. The place they always find the most optimistic people are in places like India. And why is that? I think the difference is in having a community. I think if there are people there to share your difficulties it's easier to overcome them."

Ghosh is animated now, his tea finished and his body leant forward. "See, I think that's one of the major differences between slavery and indenture," he goes on. "Because what happened with slavery is people were torn away from their communities, torn away from their brothers and cousins whom they would have relied upon. Their fear is not only of what is happening to them but also fear of isolation. In the indenture, they went as communities. They were people from the same castes, from the same villages, they spoke the same languages, so I think that made an enormous difference. They went with people who knew the same songs. That gives people more of a capacity for happiness."

And as for Ghosh himself, what makes him happy? It's no longer fame and glory: "Prizes don't mean so much as you get older - they are like having a sunny day. Wonderful to have them, but you know you'd still be doing the same thing without them." But rather his family: "travelling with my kids gives me back a sense of magic and wonder because it's so exciting to see things through their eyes" and, of course, his home. Now his children are older (his daughter is 20 and his son 18) and no longer in school, he finds himself spending less time at his desk in New York and more at his desk in Goa. "I live in the country and it's very quiet and there are lovely people," he says. "Goa is lovely, completely lovely and tranquil. What's not to like?" Nothing, perhaps. Much like the charming Amitav Ghosh himself and his fantastic far-flung fables.

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River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh is published by John Murray.

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Tuesday, 5 July, 2011

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