Facsimile of the published article

Amitav Ghosh is great hope for fiction in the 21st century and now, at the height of his powers, his influence is all set to grow bigger, writes Sayandeb Chowdhury

Amitav Ghosh’s novels are an Olympian event; a peripatetic storm in the largely sterile cultural topography of this ‘city of lost causes’ as he calls Calcutta succinctly and appropriately. On his arrival, the city’s literati suddenly wake up to the possibilities of fiction, a possibility that is repeatedly slaughtered every Autumn in the assembly line delivery of literature to a largely anaemic readership. Not to say that Bengali literature, especially of the seasonal kinds are all drag, but evidently, there are few men and women of letters in Bengal who think big.

Bengal is the obvious comparison to Ghosh’s intellectual largesse because he is by birth a Bengali even if and thankfully so, not by habit. Also, in spite of having a global readership at his door and all the reward it brings, he returns to the country of origin with the curiosity of an anthropologist, which he is by training; the imagination of a poet and the epic sweep of a classical historian. And if you have read Milan Kundera’s extended meditations on the art of the novel, you would know why the above together gives birth to what is the archetype of fiction at the hands of its best practitioners. Ghosh’s latest, River of Smoke, the second of his intended Ibis Trilogy, following from his hugely successful Sea of Poppies, is no exception.

“I began by researching on migrant labour”, Ghosh began after sipping on his Darjeeling, a brew that perfectly complimented the rain-drenched day outside the posh lobby at the Taj in Calcutta. “Migration and displacement have been a constant preoccupation for me. I have always grappled with why people move and what drives them; what are the pulls and pushes of mass movement etc. And then, while researching on the history of migration of the Indian indentured class did I chance upon this huge factor of opium and then learned about the links between the hinterland of Calcutta, which included large parts of Bihar, and the new economies that were taking shape thanks to the ever-expanding colonial attendance — Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad. And I also learnt about the link with China, which was virtually enslaved by opium for most of the 19th century due to the unrepentant assiduousness of a class of British and other European merchants. It’s incredible how the opium network financed East India Company to run its Empire. But it’s true.”

Sea of Poppies started in Calcutta with Kalkatiyas departing the city’s port in what is going to be a hard and storm-tossed journey to newer shores, in search of a living, away from the inevitable fate of underclass exploitation in India. In River of Smoke, we find few of them, tossed and turned by sea, land up at Canton, what is now Guangzhou. River of Smoke is largely about foreign life in Canton, seen through charismatic Parsi merchant Bahram Modi on one side and English painter of note George Chinnery on the other, in the months that led to the First Opium War. Much of the novel is about daily life spent amidst rising tension in the city by the Pearl River, the tension about aggressive English barter of opium, mostly illegal, and an increasingly poppy-weary Chinese authority, who could foresee doom if the smuggling of opium from India continued with abandon. “Chinnery and Modi in their own way embody the two dominant nineteenth-century ethos: the cultural and the mercantile thirst for movement. While Chinnery moved from England to India and then Canton haunted by a creative impulse and feeing the chains of domesticity, Modi, like the British, is the vintage travelling salesman, the itinerant trader who goes from country to country in the way others sell from door to door.” Together they are the perfect contrast to a body of travellers we call the indentured class and this contrast of the two sets of characters, thrust into a turmoil of nineteenth-century movement of men and goods, is what is the raison d’être of Ghosh’s magnificent trilogy.

For River of Smoke particularly, Ghosh relishes on the habits and customs, on manners and exchanges of trade wisdom, on the behaviour of men on foreign lands and in a foreign company. This gives the narrative poise, a relaxed, expansive mood in which the author is in no hurry to rush to the end. And that is perhaps why Smoke so justifiably smells of an impending, climactic storm that is to follow.

So isn’t it likely then that the trilogy would climax in the Opium War which is just months away from the time that Smoke ends? “I wish I had any idea”, Ghosh says mischievously. “I need to go back to my desk and work out the options in front of me. Only then do I know which way the third book is headed. Also, in an old fashioned way, you can say what interests me are my characters. Events are incidental. So I take time to push my characters to this way or that. And for all you know, it even may not be a trilogy.” That sounds sumptuous. And more so because each book can be read independently, though they can perhaps connect a bit more if they are read as a series. “Yes, I intend the links to be tangential, like Lawrence Durrel’s Alexandria Quartet. It’s a favourite book of four of mine and may-be also because I have lived in Alexandria.”

Then is it also true, as he repeatedly said, that the Trilogy isn’t following a counter-Odyssey, which starts on the Sea then moves on to the River and may well be headed for more drama upstream? “It may be incidental, maybe not. It depends on how the story pans out”. But he must surely agree that his Ibis is the allegory of the Noah’s Ark, because the jahajbhais’ past, with its attendant logia of identity, custom and tradition are stripped before they embark on the life-changing and mind-altering journey. “That’s in a way true. But isn’t that true for any object of mass transportation? Take a bus from here to downtown Esplanade and you will see so many kinds of people, even if, not all sections take a bus in Calcutta. Compared to that the ship in the nineteenth century was a site where class moorings were often subverted, identities were duly usurped, where past was literally a foreign country or rather a country that had become on embarkation of the journey, physically foreign.”

Movement is so crucial to this author and yet, he takes time to write a book and goes as much deep into research as he can. Ghosh learnt the now obsolete Judaeo-Arabic for his acclaimed book of non-fiction In an Antique Land. So he must have learnt Cantonese too for Smoke? “Yes, I had to. There is no other way. See, the Canton I describe in Smoke is as good as gone. Vanished. Which is but natural. It’s after all mid-19th century. So unless I learn the language I could not in any way re-imagine, re-create the Canton of my book.” But didn’t he feel intimidated by the famed Chinese penchant for secrecy? “On the contrary, China, at least for me, was one of the easiest countries to do research. There are fantastic institutions, academics, researchers who have helped me immensely. One can move around China as easily as one’s neighbourhood. In the US, I have to pick and choose the time of travel because of crime. In China, there is none and the infrastructure is world-class.” But hasn’t it taken a toll on their past, especially for one like you who was looking for it? “I wish I could parrot the answer that the West throws at us. Of course, there are incredible signs of industrial energy all over China but they have restored and preserved parts of their heritage equally. One of The world’s oldest mosques built fifteen hundred or so years ago by Prophet Mohamed’s own uncle is in Canton. The mosque and the dargah beside have been not only preserved but has been landscaped to perfection!”

Coming back to language, Ghosh, perhaps with Rushdie, has completely taken the guilt out of the use of multiple languages in their narrative. Indian writing of yore dwelt on it for long hours only to go back to a faux-puritan use of language, rolling over the nuances and tenor of Indian languages, including Indian English, in their prose. In Ghosh, but, there are a sprinkling of Hindi, Bhojpuri, Bangla, Parsi and other languages, which are used without the italics. “English is a language in which if I start making concessions for words borrowed from other languages then my whole book would be in italics. For example, a term like ‘mandir’ has been used in English language for more than three centuries now. So why should I italicize mandir and not italicise, say, turban? This way where do I stop?” He did not say it but perhaps his is an invitation to his foreign readers that if they want to read a book set in nineteenth-century India and near countries, it should learn to know the intonations of English’s famed Others well. And needless to say, this pride suits no one else better than Ghosh, on whom the world calls regularly.

This way he must also be feeling vindicated that the smug and atavistic literary communities in India, who had once disowned Indian writing in English as the playground for the English educated Nomenclatura, now routinely crowd his readings and fan clubs. “Well, yes, I suppose by now they know that I am not writing towards any end. That for me, writing is the end itself.” And they, especially their Bengali variety, must have eaten humble pie when it was known that it was Ghosh’s Hungry Tide that brought back into public the ghastly Marichjhapi Massacre of 1979, an act of astonishing systemic violence that the Jyoti Basu government perpetrated and then arranged to erase from collective memory? “I must say yes to that too, because Hungry Tide kind of showed that I might write in English but I am actually never too far from where I was born and more than anywhere, perhaps, belong.”

This belonging is indeed a contested space as Ghosh learnt last year when he decided in favour of receiving the prestigious Dan David Prize. His friends in India, mostly from the Left academic elite, signed a petition asking him to denounce the prize because it was instituted by Tel Aviv University and had blessings of the Israeli government, which has its ‘hands full of the blood of Palestinians.’ In a consummate letter, Ghosh declined their request and put it down why he did not find it logical to deny the award. “There is a great difference however in supporting a disinvestment motion and undertaking a gesture such as that which you enjoined upon me. A disinvestment motion has a specific significance and function; it can be imposed or withheld as circumstances demand, and in that sense, it is an instrument of policy. What you were asking me to do was something else altogether: the gesture you were asking me to make was one that would have had the import of denying the legitimacy of all Israeli civil institutions and thus of Israel itself. As such it would have been completely contrary to my beliefs.”

This is a stand that Ghosh believes wholeheartedly. “See, I am an author. My only job is to communicate. I care for my readers and by extension all people. I am not in the business of grandstanding for the sake of it. Because nothing, nothing can replace civilized means of communication to end conflicts. Also, if Tel Aviv University can be accused of being a willing collaborator in Israel’s warmongering then half of the US universities should be boycotted for the Iraq War. Or for that matter, Delhi University professors should be held responsible for the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir. Culture and politics are famously intertwined but surely there is a logic of nuance and practice!”

Talking of the author self, his books, since the nineties, stand in tall protest against the fashionable theory, common in some intellectual circles, which routinely announce the end of grand narratives. “I perfectly understand what you mean. Delhi in the seventies, when I was a student, was vehemently anti-art. When I started, I did not tell anyone that I was writing a book. You know that’s why I admire Satyajit Ray so much. That man worked rigorously through the sixties and seventies without ever compromising his artistic vision, clarity and integrity. He never put his work at the service of an ism, mostly Left, because he knew that would mean the death of the filmmaker in him.”

Is it this integrity which is behind the architecture of his narratives in which the margins press themselves into the centre and gradually make space for itself? “I am glad you raise this, because I would like to look at each of my novels this way”, he says gladly.

The distraction of isms is one thing but standing in the slippery world of 21st century, when every second is a phantasmagoric succession of words and images, sound and light, yin and yen, it is surely not easy to look for a firm footing as an author of epic novels. “Yes, sometimes I feel that I am a practitioner of a recondite form of meditation whose whole life is a struggle to shut his doors to the world while he tries to concentrate. But that’s the best I can do. Writing is the only thing I know. So I keep doing what I know best.”

Surely Mr Ghosh, it’s the intellectual occupé like you who still make words come back to us in a trance, forever fresh and forever intoxicated, as if we are have just been awakened from an opium-induced dream.