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The Master of Tides

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Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy comes to a glorious finale with the publication of Flood of Fire. The novelist in conversation with Rajni George

Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy comes to a glorious finale with the publication of Flood of Fire. The novelist in conversation with Rajni George.

One year shy of sixty, master novelist Amitav Ghosh is one of our most triumphant storytellers, taking India to the world, and the world to India. Moving from Egypt to Cambodia, from the Sunderbans to Burma, his hunger for history has stirred a generation of readers who grew up on this alternate primer to the colonial register. This week, one of his most ambitious projects drops anchor. Flood of Fire, the painstakingly recounted culimination of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy—an epic historical saga which begins in Mauritius and moves towards the Opium War which set China and British India against each other—is one of the literary world’s star events this year. The achievement of a decade, the Ibis trilogy has redefined a period in history some have forgotten about, or never truly seen, taking Ghosh, with his twelfth book, into the new realm of blockbuster fiction (a movie option just lapsed, Ghosh tells me, but interest is bound to mount again, with the release of this third book).

Ghosh’s work has been translated into twenty languages and he has won countless awards and accolades, including the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Ananda Purashkar, the Crossword Book Prize and a Dan David Award (shared with Margaret Atwood). Awarded the Padma Shri in 2007, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Ford Foundation Art of Change fellow, and has taught and published widely in India and the USA. While the Booker has eluded him (he was shortlisted in 2008 for Sea of Poppies), and Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai beat him to the Man Booker International prize this year, Flood of Fire may finally take him all the way to the big prizes.

In the Taj Mansingh’s Diwan-i-Khas, Ghosh spoke to Open while nursing a bit of a cold, hankering for fresh turmeric and fresh from the beginning of his tour in England: about how the Ibis will never leave him, the legacy of race in India and his necessary efforts as a historian. Excerpts follow.

What does it feel like to have lived with the Ibis trilogy for a decade and be done with these characters, is there a sense of relief or exhilaration?
I can’t say that they have left, and I suppose that’s one of the things about doing this for ten years. They become such an intimate part of your life. I don’t really feel like they have left me, in some sense. You know, usually when you finish a book, there’s a sense of melancholy, a kind of post-partum feeling of depression. But I didn’t feel that at all with this book. I really felt a profound sense of fulfilment.

Do you have a favourite character?
I have many favourite characters in these books, often they take you by surprise. In this book, I think Mrs Burnham took me by surprise. A lot of characters just become their own people.

There’s a character like Zachary Reid, who is really gray, and does some wonderful things and some unscrupulous things, some for love, some for ambition. He is the one we may empathise with most. How did it feel to have him be the survivor of all of this?
In many ways, Zachary was my favourite character in all three books. The direction he took was very difficult for me to deal with. And yet, I think that’s the way it would have gone.

How close have you gotten to the poppy seed, for research purposes?
The thing about opium is that we all are very close to it. If you’ve ever taken any cough medicine, most of them have opium in it. Or if you have taken imodium, which people take for upset stomachs, it has opium in it. All of us are taking opium all the time, that’s the strange thing about opium. As a medicinal ingredient, opium is also matchless.

Yet there is the truth also that the British were overwhelming the Chinese with opium, flooding their markets.
Yes they were. Opium is like fire, it has to be very very carefully controlled. It’s a substance of such incredible power. It is very easy to be overwhelmed by it.

I thought that this was one of the real lessons of the book, the fallout of there being too much of one powerful element. And you have that great line about the difficulty of understanding other people’s despotisms.
That’s right. Look, there can be no doubt about it: that policy was really, incredibly wicked. They left them with no choice.

You have found a corner of history that people haven’t talked about, in this way. Was it the Opium War that took you to the trilogy?
No, not at all. The book began with Deeti, she was the central person in it. It was only looking into the central background of Deeti’s life that I came upon the whole background of opium. Suddenly, the opium became a sort of character of its own. It taught me how important opium was to India, not to speak of China, in the nineteenth century.

With Kesri you see a very different trajectory from Deeti. There is also this wonderful sense of this brother and sister (Deeti) running parallel to each other and missing each other.
Yes, in those days if you were on the frontier in Assam, to go back to Bihar could take you months. So much could happen, and so much did happen. Even now it happens like that.

Shireen Modi, the wealthy Parsi widow is one of the few women of that time with a sense of agency and a chance to go out and make a life for herself. Yet she is also like Deeti, who comes from very different circumstances. Was it tempting to put in a very middle-class character, or were they all extremes?
You have to remember that Shireen is wealthy, from Parsi society, if anyone who could do things like this it was her. It was possible. And in that time, there wasn’t really a middle class. It was all extremes, yes. In some sense, I’d say Kesri is middle class. So much of the middle class today actually has military roots.

That may be part of it, finally deciding to reclaim it and be proud of it?
I don’t know if we should be proud of it, but it’s there. We can’t escape it.

Do you speak to soldiers who have read the book?
I have had many interactions with soldiers, especially when I was doing more reporting. I spoke with soldiers all the time. Apart from that, my father was a soldier, so it’s not a life that was alien to me. However, it has to be said that nineteenth century soldiering was a completely different kettle of fish from modern day soldiering.

Was there ever a point when you were piecing together these primary accounts of military history, when you were looking for missing pieces which we might not even know about?
It was an incredible challenge. A great deal has been written about them, but strangely, there exists no military history of the opium wars. I had to do that whole work, of digging out the dispatches, the letters, the memoirs, collating the whole thing. Finding out exactly how many soldiers were there at this moment, how many guns they had.

It’s really a historian’s work that you were doing.
I was stuck with that task, because nobody’s done it. And I don’t know why, it’s so interesting. It just makes you wonder! (Laughs)

You got the monotony and the very wonderful aspects of war. Was this just the writer’s imagination at work?
No it wasn’t, I can’t say it was just my imagination. That came from deep immersion in the sources. Nineteenth century was nothing like twentieth century war, it was very very different. For one thing, this whole business with camp followers: for every single fighting man, there were ten men.

So many non-military people were supporting the military people, yes!
That’s right. Or, the very fact that there would be children, in the middle of a battle.

And then you have Neel, who is on the other side. His isolation is quite remarkable, he is one of them, and he really feels for the Chinese. There are so many fronts in this war.
That part is not fictitious, because even though we have no accounts of the opium wars, we do have Indian soldiers being used to suppress the Boxer Rebellion and so on. One Indian soldier actually wrote an account of his experiences in China, and he was incredibly sympathetic to the Chinese. I haven’t actually read the book because it hasn’t been published yet, but there was this soldier, Gaddadar Singh, who wrote a very beautiful account. He felt very passionately sympathetic towards the Chinese.

Would you ever move back to China for the next trilogy?
Oh I don’t know if there will be another trilogy! (Laughs)

When you think of the modern sense of time running out, this sense that we all live with now, that we are hurtling towards our own ends—what are the lessons we can take from a far-reaching war like this? How do we use what we learn, in historical novels?
You know, I find it hard to ascribe value to them. I just love doing it, I love reading historical novels.

There is so much of a focus on science fiction and futuristic works, which are also dealing with time, just going the other way. Would you look to a genre like this now?
That’s right, there are many similarities between historical novels and science fiction. Some would argue that I have already written one. [The Calcutta Chromosome, 1995, is a futuristic medical thriller.]

What does it feel like to be a writer now, as someone this generation has grown up with and in leaner times; to be in this vibrant market and age of literary superstardom?
It feels like being on another planet. I can’t believe I’m sitting here in this room like on a throne (laughs). Listen, when I wrote my first novel, I literally had to take it by hand to the two or three who then existed in Delhi, and they only published textbooks. They asked me, ‘Subject kya hain?’Now, there are so many publishers, so many young writers who are writing wonderful books. It couldn’t be more different.

I feel like Tridib (the hero of The Shadow Lines) would have been very impressed, and amazed. Is there a sense of alarm, as well?
I know, the world of Indian publishing has absolutely changed. It’s always good to have more voices, to have more being written. There are always interesting books, and non-interesting books, as in any publishing setup. It’s very good that there is such a huge spread. Compare that to the nineteenth century for example: between 1760 and 1900 literally millions and millions of Indians fought in Britain’s colonial wars. There is not a single account of a soldier’s life in the nineteenth century.

Are you looking back towards fiction at this point?
No, not towards fiction. I have all these other things to write. Right now I am focussing on non-fiction. I am doing a set of lectures which I have to deliver at the University of Chicago in September, to be published as a book. The subject is climate change. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. It’s so important. Look at our epic heat wave.

What has the response been like, from other parts of the world|
There was an incredible response in England [five appearances in the last few days], my appearances were sold out. It was stunning.

To go back to Zachary and Deeti, the two heros of the book, and this sense that they have survived and escaped history in a sense: was their story invented?
Yes. But I always think of history as a river. The river is flowing in a certain direction, and we are all swimming in it, it’s the water that surrounds us. We’re all swimming in different directions. We can create our own ecosystems within the flow of the water. There’s no doubt that there were people like this.

Everybody wants to escape. You even see Havildar Kesri finally make that touching attempt at autonomy, so like his sister Deeti at this point.
Of course, that is what history is like. Look at you and me, we are surrounded by history, it’s our history that brings us here. But yet, we make our own way.

There are lots of bodies of water of course, in your books: the sea, the river, the flood. Is this a result of living in Goa?
It’s a result I think of being a coastal person. As a Bengali, the water is always around you. I feel this deep attraction to water, and in that way that’s what is really nice about being in Goa. The landscape of Goa in some ways is very like that of Bengal; the coconut trees, the water.

In The Shadow Lines, you have a real sense of race, and what an issue it was ‘then’, in this trilogy you are inevitably rethinking those same issues, even further back? Can we escape the past in any way?
It’s a very significant concern, the British empire was really built upon race. In a way, that was not true of the Portuguese empire for example. If you’re dealing with this material, it stares you in the face. Why should we not wish to acknowledge this? I think in India, we don’t really do so; we have a terrible sense of shame about it. It’s really because I spent time in the US, in my neighbourhood in Brooklyn, which is overwhelmingly African-American; African American cultural life was very important to me. It alerted me to the acknowledged presence of race in many of my narratives.

We prefer not to talk about it.
Yes, I read a book by a historian who was writing about India in the nineteenth century, and she says, ‘Oh, the English didn’t think of Indians as black’. I don’t know where she gets it from, they were constantly calling Indians black all the time. There was no qualification!

Yes, we are not in a post-race society yet. That would be a great science fiction novel.
That would be, yes. (Laughs)

To read Amitav Ghosh's Flood of Fire: Requiem for a Dream click here