Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

An Interview With Amitav Ghosh

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Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh (b.1956) appeared several times on Just Books. In part, this is because he is the most approachable and affable of authors but perhaps also because, of all the writers featured in this book, I have known him the longest. We were near contemporaries at Delhi University; that makes access easy and creates a congenial rapport.

Of his generation of Indians writing in English, with hasty inaptitude dubbed the “St Stephen’s school of fiction writing”, Ghosh is the universally-applauded topper and his is the master class in story-telling. His subjects and themes have grown diverse and increasingly complex, from the passion and remorse of an Indo-British family saga in The Shadow Lines (1986) to explorations of the India-Burma connection in The Glass Palace (2000), the Sunderbans mangroves in The Hungry Tide (2005) and the 19th opium trade and migration of indentured labour in Sea of Poppies (2008), the first part of a planned trilogy. Each successive novel is more densely plotted, with a beguiling cast of characters who powerfully drive the narrative. Ghosh has been as prolific in producing non-fiction, including essays and travel writing that include Dancing in Cambodia and At Large in Burma (1998), Countdown (1999) and The Imam and the Indian (2002).    

Ghosh was educated at Doon School, St. Stephen’s College and at Oxford where he took a D.Phil. in social anthropology. He has been a Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, and taught literature at Queens College, City University of New York  and at Harvard University. He has been honoured by numerous awards at home and abroad; in 2008 Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

These two interviews were recorded at the Frankfurt Book Fair after the success of The Hungry Tide and in New Delhi before the launch of Sea of Poppies. Ghosh looks very much the distinguished campus professor, with his prematurely shock of white hair, and is a man of flowing moods: the concentrated frown swiftly dissolves into ebullient smiles and loud chuckles.

With friends he is affectionately teasing and altogether delightful company. As happens with people who have known each other a long time, we catch up with news of family and friends during random encounters; on the last occasion we were musing about how much Delhi has changed since university days and I began to describe the new shopping malls sprouting all over the city. He thought I was being disapproving but, on the contrary I said, malls were a good thing: an easy pacifier for children, happy air-conditioned family outings with movies and food courts, and a useful crutch for the tired and elderly who could be parked on benches.

For a few moments, Amitav Ghosh fixed me with his basilisk gaze, then exploded in mirth. “What a wonderful image that conjures up of you, wandering round malls. But tell me, truthfully, are you in need of pacifying or a crutch?”

The book that everybody’s been talking about since it came out is The Hungry Tide which takes readers into the mangroves of the Sunderbans. It’s had a very enthusiastic response. Do you think it’s because of the book’s theme of the survival of threatened ecosystems and endangered river dolphins in conflict with indigent human populations that is very much a raging debate of our times?  

The book has had a wonderful reception in India. When people come and talk to me about the book I can make out that they are really touched and moved by it and that it has given them a place to inhabit imaginatively that simply didn’t exist before. Sunderbans is one of the most astonishing ecosystems in the whole world but it is strange that it is absent from the Indian imagination, even from the Bengali imagination. When you ask anyone in Calcutta what does a forest look like they only think of the Himalayan forest or the deciduous forest, they never think of the forest that is literally in their backyard.

Did the book come out of your visits to the Sunderbans when you were young?

Yes, absolutely. I had an uncle who was an officer on Sir Daniel Hamilton’s estate who lived there and I had a close relationship with him. The extremes that one sees in the Sunderbans  are shocking and my visits there profoundly influenced the book. One of the first things that local villagers will tell you is, “Oh, to you we are just tiger food, aren’t we?” The suffering there is very moving. The local people don’t necessarily see their existence as a choice between the tigers and their livelihood. That’s the dichotomy: I think both can live together but what you have to do is to provide some form of income generation or some form of other livelihood which compensates them for the loss of the forests.

What makes The Hungry Tide so accessible to readers is also that the conflict between endangered species and local inhabitants is presented through intricate relationships between outsiders and locals, for instance, between Piyali Roy the Indian-American marine biologist researcher and Fokir the young, illiterate fisherman . They have no language in common yet they develop a close association. In such ways you communicate a layered story with many points of view. How did the characters develop?

When one writes it is essentially the characters that are at the centre of the story and I write about characters who are alive for me. This young researcher was like young researchers are known to be and her translator could be any of us. One of the things that interested me, and which really compelled the book, is the idea that how do you create some sort of equitable balance between the demands of nature and the demands of people in an incredibly impoverished land. I think that, in some general sense, we cannot protect other species if we are completely indifferent to our own species. The suffering of our own species is certainly no less than the suffering of other species.

Many of your novels including The Glass Palace, which is set against the backdrop of the sack of Mandalay by the British and King Thibaw, the last king of Burma’s exile to India, move across frontiers and sometimes and across big time spans. Generations come face to face at particular moments, whether in Egypt, India or America, linking the past with the present. Dense patterns emerge, complex realities interconnect…   

What has been a very conscious thing for me since the start of my career, since my very first book, is to write about the realities of lives, of my life or of my lives. And what are our lives? My family is originally from Bangladesh, what was earlier East Pakistan. My great great great grandparents migrated from that part of Bengal to Bihar in 1856.

And you had an uncle who served in Burma…

Exactly, it is that reality, the reality of our lives which become dispersed. It’s our experience, it’s not an experience contained just in Calcutta or just in Delhi. All of us have travelled. We have studied in various places and we have lived in various places. It is a dispersed experience. It’s not the experience of, say, the 19th century novel where everybody is rooted in a single place. Our dispersal is what I have always sought to write about. When I first started writing about this, the reception of my books was, “Why do you write about people who travel here and there.” Now, 20 years later, people see that writers like me are writing about a world which is coming into being— the globalised world.

In the sense that there has always been an Indian diaspora?

There has always been an Indian diaspora but our consciousness of it is that it did not exist. I remember when we were growing up in Delhi we thought of all those Indians who were abroad with a sense of dismissal, as if they were somewhere else, as if they had left the country. But the current state of India is very different—I mean where did the IT industry come from? Even current forms of culture and the way the Hindi films are made. There has always been an important link between India and the diaspora— Gandhiji  connected it to South Africa and Netaji’s Indian National Army to Burma and Malaysia. These links are old and powerful but we have ignored them for so long.

You are part of the Indian diaspora because for more than 20 years you have lived and taught in New York. How do you keep this intense connection with India alive? You live in America but your subject matter remains India—most of your characters are Indian and your inner and imaginative life is Indian.

c And that’s where I feel very grateful for having had this time outside because it made me realise that to be Indian is not just to be living in Murshidabad or Moradabad. It’s much more than just a localised experience. I found myself fascinated when I wrote The Glass Palace by these people who had never been outside a small village in Orissa and they found themselves travelling in a ship to Burma or Malaysia. It must have been an extraordinary experience.

Your principal occupation is as a fiction writer but you trained in social anthropology as an academic and you taught for many years.  How did these two lives co-exist?

 I really stopped teaching as a professor when I left Delhi University in 1988. Since then I taught occasionally. I have arrangements which allow me to teach a semester and take one off.  Teaching has not been the centre of my life for the last 18 years. Actually, what has been much more central to my life is journalism. I have done a lot of journalism in the last 15 years or so and that’s informed my work very much.

Your long report on India’s emergence as a nuclear power for The New Yorker was later published as a book called Countdown. In that context what do you make of the Indo-American nuclear deal?

It was interesting for me to write Countdown because I have always been anti-nuclear. Maybe I belong to that generation of peaceniks. I certainly believe in non-violence as a central aspect of political strategy. The Indo-US deal is a very technical deal. Some friends of mine who are experts say that it’s good for India and some say it’s not. I am not technically qualified to judge it but one thing concerns me—I have a close relationship with America, I am married to an American and so America is the country that I regard with the greatest sympathy.

So is America a sort of home?

It’s not home. It’s a place where I live. I don’t really think of it as home. But the one thing that worries me is that America is like any other great power. When it creates any relationship it is usually in order to manipulate or to use towards its own advantage. I think India has for many centuries experienced these forms of subordinate relationships. The time has come when India must think of its own future and think about its own interests. What we see very much at play in today’s world is a manipulation of India into some sort of adversarial relationship with China. I think this is a very dangerous thing because I don’t think that such an enmity exists between India and China. In 5,000 years of our history we have fought only one war with China. No other two civilizations have attained that record. We have existed peacefully with each other and there is a deep sense of understanding between the cultures.

India and China have a lot in common and the most important thing they have in common is that neither seeks to dominate the world. I think what India and China want in the future is a system of equal and multilateral relations amongst the important nations of the world. I think China should be our ally in achieving this.

Before the 18th century fifty per cent of world trade originated in India and China. Today, here in Frankfurt, so many people come and say that India and China are the big threat. And I say, but what is the threat? What you are seeing here is the restoration of balance. It is the restoration of balance that once existed and it is going to exist again in the future. India and China have more than half the world’s population, so obviously we are going to produce at least half the world’s goods and services.

Perhaps the long view of history is that it’s not linear but cyclical?

It’s exactly that and the world will have to adapt to it…but I think we should also frankly admit that India has been a very self centred civilization for a very long time. In general Indians really did not look outside in a very enthusiastic way…

Is that because there are so many Indias that Indians, whether at home or abroad, often regard one another as outsiders, “the other”. Even though well-versed in the idea of nationhood we are beset with divisions of region, religion, caste, class, Indian and overseas Indian?

 I think that began to change in about the 1960s. In literary terms I would say V.S.Naipaul as a writer is an aspect of our connecting with the larger world. In Bengali we had some very major writers who began writing about their experiences of the world. I like to think that I represent part of that phenomenon. I represent the generation that come from a post-Independence India which is reclaiming its place in the world. I think of it as a very important responsibility that rests, in some ways, on our shoulders because never again must India allow itself to be blind to the world. This was the terrible mistake earlier generations.

When we look back to the Middle Ages, at the Mughal Empire for instance, a very great with enormous resources but it never woke up to notice the powers building around them. They just never noticed. Emperor Babar’s wonderful memoir the Babar Namah is so amazing, because all his life even though he was in India, he was always looking back towards Central Asia. He was never looking towards the sea. He was never looking outwards towards the world. This is something which we can never allow to happen in India. We must be aware of the world and we must understand how the world is changing.

What’s your next book going to be about?

It’s too early to say. I find it very hard to talk about a work in progress.


Sea of Poppies is a work on a large scale, five hundred pages long, possibly your longest novel. It’s also peopled by an enormous range of characters and situations. The two major themes you deal with are the opium trade and the flight of thousands of impoverished Indians forced to cross the ocean as indentured labour. What triggered off this foray into 19th century history?

Sea of Poppies is about the same size as The Glass Palace, so not quite the longest but among the longest of my books. The subject has been an interest of mine for a long time because I have always been interested in the story of migration and people leaving India. But I really became interested in the early years of migration of indentured labour, especially the movement into Mauritius, which started in the 1830s, and the migrants who were from the major poppy-growing regions in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Among the range of characters that you develop is an upper caste widow, saved at the last minute from her husband’s funeral pyre, and low caste Dalits. So the migration that took place and the relationships that developed cut across caste lines. Is there basis to this, given that the migrants came from a society with deeply entrenched caste prejudice?  

It’s one of the most interesting things about migration. When you are actually on that ship, people who are forced together on that ship, and are crossing the black water, kala pani,  in a sense all of them become outcasts because they are crossing the polluting kala pani ; and so they create their own communities you know they create their own world. They create their own little sansar.

So the jahaj, ship, on which they travel, creates a kind of bhai-bandi, a brotherhood and a sisterhood. It becomes a floating island on the ocean.

In fact if you speak to girmitiyas, as they are called, they will tell you that you know his father and mine were jahaj bhais, a kind of kinship; they think of themselves as cousins, like you and I might think of ourselves as being from the same village. The migrations may have diluted caste but they didn’t do away with caste altogether. Because if you go to Mauritius today, caste is very important, important to their politics and important in many parts of their lives. But it’s not like caste in Bihar, it’s something else, it has changed and become more malleable.

What’s also fascinating in Sea of Poppies is your richly detailed and researched portrait of 19th century Calcutta—its high life and low life, from the indebted raja and his rajabari, feudal estate, to overnight fortunes being made by European ship owners to the flood of impoverished humanity from the hinterland to be shipped overseas…

Not just opium, they were shipping out prisoners as well, that was the other great trade. Calcutta was the port of shipping out, as it used to be said in those days, of drugs and thugs…

Many of the characters speak a variety of tongues in Sea of Poppies—linguistically it is fascinating for the range of patois it employs. For instance, there’s a veritable mining of Anglo-Indian dictionaries like the Hobson Jobson for the Anglo-Indian speech of the British in 19th century India…

Let me put it like this: if you read 19th century English books they tell you that the British nabobs who come back from India spoke incomprehensibly. They spoke a kind patois—so many were brought up by Indian servants and they grew up learning Hindi or Bengali. So I thought to myself, why does no one ever actually recreate that patois? Because when Thackeray writes about these people they end up speaking standard English but I am sure they were speaking standard English. They created a complete language of their own, interestingly linked to Hindustani, Tamil and Bengali.

 One of the things that’s happened to 20th century English is that it has undergone a sort of “whitening” process. People today think that English is a global language so it is accepting many different influences. But actually the opposite is true. I think in the 19th century English was a much more open, more permeable language and it took in a great variety of influences. In the 20th century, through some sort of anxiety, many of these words came to be excised from English.

The Hobson-Jobson is one major dictionary of Anglo-Indian words and phrases but it’s by no means the only one; there are three or four of them. One of the interesting ways that Indian languages entered English was through gypsy slang which was a very major part of English slang in those days. Take a term like “Ray Sahib” or “Rai Sahib” and the famous 19 century novel Romany Rye by George Borrow—the Rye in it is actually the same as Ray in “Ray Sahib”; it means gentleman but it enters through gypsy slang.

Other than exploring the Anglo-Indian hybrid you also use the lilting cadence of Bhojpuri music and songs and the all-but-forgotten nautical lexicon Laskari, another patois that developed by laskars, Asian and Arab sailors and pirates…

That was one of the most exciting things about writing this book. I have always been interested in ships and sailors and I suddenly started looking at actual crew lists, not only of ships sailing out of India, but of crew lists of ships taking immigrants from England to Australia in the 19th century, you will often find that there will be four English officers and sixty laskars. And the laskars came from all over the Indian Ocean—there were Tamils, Malays, Chinese, Filipinos, Arabs and Africans who created their own lingo. I had the great good fortune to actually find a dictionary of that language. It was a dictionary written in 1812 in Calcutta by an Englishman but it was a very popular dictionary for more than a hundred years. Every sailor who sailed in the Indian Ocean had to have this Laskari dictionary.

Many streams come together in Sea of Poppies—the migration of girmitiyas, the opium trade, the rise of Calcutta as prosperous entrepot and the exploration of vanished tongues—but it is also about another important thing: the evocation and exploration of the Ganges, the river of north Indian plains and its vast estuary in Bengal. It’s a geography that many Indians regard as sacred but in the 19th century it was a strategic and economic waterway, and the main seafaring route to other parts of the world. Were you conscious of this when writing the novel?

A large part of it has to do with my being Bengali because we are the riverside people; rivers mean a lot to us and we think of rivers all the time. But, yes, I really do believe that one of our great national tragedies since Independence is that our indigenous shipping industry on the great waterways has completely dried up.  Rivers were the trading heart of India. The Ganges had so much traffic for centuries and today you can barely sail a hundred miles on it. It’s also an incredible tragedy because if you think of the technology of sailing it is such an environmentally friendly technology; it’s a technology to which we will have to return even though we have wilfully allowed ourselves to forget it.

Your affection for the Ganges estuary is a recurring metaphor: the Sunderbans was the landscape of The Hungry Tide and, again, it’s crucial to the sailing of the vessel called Ibis in Sea of Poppies.

Absolutely. I slowed down the Ibis a little bit when it got to the Sunderbans because I have such a love of the place that I just wanted it to go through it very slowly.

But, ultimately, it’s the cast of characters that drive the narrative of Sea of Poppies, which is the first part of your planned trilogy. How do you conceive this huge canvas and its large cast?

The geography, the history and all that is incidental in a novel.  A novel is about characters, and if the characters don’t work, nothing else will. Until you have the characters, and if the characters aren’t compelling for you as a writer, then they won’t be compelling for the reader. In the end, it is the characters that carry a book.

Things happen to characters in a novel, situations and actions drive them, and that is the novelist’s gift to make readers believe that it happened. Sometimes, though, what happens is rooted in reality. For instance, in the Sea of Poppies, some of the migrants leaving the Bay of Bengal are so frightened by the receding shoreline that they throw into the sea. Did such suicides occur?

Yes, you read about them all the time in the accounts of these journeys. At the last minute, they would completely panic and they would think, “What am I doing? Where am I going?” because they had no conception of what lay at the other end. They thought of a place peopled by demons; there were all sorts of rumours about the things that would be done to them. So it was with incredible terror in their hearts that they set out on these journeys. I must say that visiting Mauritius today I felt so proud of these people; because having arrived generations ago, they have created a viable working vibrant society. Twenty years ago Naipaul thought they were doomed.  Far from it. They have actually made a wonderful go of it which makes Mauritius perhaps the most successful nation in Africa.

Migration has been with us a long time and though there are differences between 19th century migrants and migrants today looking for job opportunities abroad, there are also similarities in the apprehension and uncertainty Indian labour to the Gulf must feel. What are the differences?    

Migration in the 19th century was very tightly controlled; sometimes there was a little bit of coercion but, I think, there was often some degree of motivation as well. But the basic thing is that migrants were controlled, they were kept in camps, their every movement was watched and there was incredible surveillance. It’s very hard to do that today. But you are right, migration continues and people often leave at incredible cost to themselves.

There’s another parallel to our times that drives a couple of characters connected with the sailing of the Ibis in the Sea of Poppies, and that is extreme religious fervour. Benjamin Burnham, the wealthy Calcutta merchant, is a raving Christian fundamentalist while Nob Kissin Babu, the crazy Bengali overseer, believes his female guru is beginning to inhabit his body and that he must follow this avatar of Krishna across the ocean. Were you conscious of the parallels when creating these evangelists?   

Nob Kissin Babu was founded upon people I have known.  It’s not uncommon in India for people to think that they have been transformed in their inner selves, especially people with a great devotion to a certain deity. In front of Lord Krishna everyone is Radha so that is the transformation you see. It seems far-fetched but I think it’s a glorious thing in our tradition that it’s possible for people to transform themselves from male to female, it speaks of the fluidity of being. As for Burnham, yes, a lot of those opium traders were fierce evangelists in the same way as the neo-cons in America today.

And in that way Christian religious fundamentalism is also linked to the arguments they make about free trade?

That’s absolutely the case. I didn’t make up that line about Jesus Christ is free trade and free trade is Jesus. It was said by an Englishman at about the time of the founding of Hong Kong. There was this great evangelical fervour and, at the same time, these very people were selling opium; often on the same ship they would load opium on the one side and Bibles on the other.

Where does the Ibis go from here? Do you know how the ship’s voyage and the future of its cargo will develop in the coming parts of the trilogy?

No I don’t and, even if I did, I wouldn’t say.

After years of living in America you have now found yourself a new home in Goa and  spend part of the year there. What prompted the move?

It is true that I spent a lot of time in America but, actually, I was spending a lot of time in India too and I never thought of myself as living in America permanently.  My children were going to school and college; but at a certain point, the realities of life kick in, so I am doing what I always imagined I would do. Now I intend to spend most of my time in a small village in Goa where I have a house.

January 2007 & June 2008                    



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