BBC World service
World Book Club
Amitav Ghosh - The Shadow Lines
In the last of the London Calling season of World Book Clubs - which have been going out each Saturday during May - this week the programme are guests of The Nehru Centre, the cultural wing of the High Commission of India in London and talking to acclaimed Bengali Indian author Amitav Ghosh about his haunting novel, The Shadow Lines.
A moving and thought-provoking meditation on the very real yet invisible lines, which divide nations, people, and families, The Shadow Lines focuses on a family in Calcutta and Dhaka and their connection with an English family in London.
From the tales of his colourful cousin the narrator conjures up a picture of London in his imagination that is so vivid that he recognizes it instantly when he visits years later and learns that real places can be invented inside your head.
Amitav Ghosh interviewed by Alessandro Vescovi .
L'Espresso magazine, by Angiola Codacci.
November 24, 2011.
1. Sea of Poppies was hectic, full of adventure and voyage. River of smoke on the contrary is static, a series of "portraits" of different people in different places, from Mauritìus to Canton. Why did you chose this different pace?
A. The books are indeed quite different; the principal continuities between them are of time and certain characters. Even though the books are part of a trilogy they were never intended to be direct continuations of each other. Each of the novels in the trilogy will have its own themes, settings, characters and therefore, unavoidably, its own form.
2. The language of the book is particularly rich. Can you tell us how you worked on it? And do you think english is changing, is it going to become multicultural or "globalised"? English-language writers are often not mother-tongue (Alexsandar Hemon, Kazuo Ishiguro and so many others), but do "newcomers" tend to classical english or do they change it?
A. The Indian Ocean region is an incredibly multilingual area and I wanted to give the reader some idea of this by using different varieties of English. English has been a ‘globalized’ language for a long time, so it is very rich in dialects and registers and I don’t see any reason why these vast resources should not be put to use.
When I was researching Sea of Poppies I looked at a lot of old crew lists, from 19th century ships. These crews were often incredibly diverse, with sailors from East Africa, the Gulf, Somalia, Persia, India, China. It made me wonder how these crewmen, who were all known as ‘lascars’, communicated with each other. It struck me that this must have been an especially pressing issue on a sailing vessel, for it is impossible to work a sailship without clear commands – that’s why there’s such an extensive nautical jargon in English. So how did lascars communicate, with their officers (who were usually European) and with each other? These questions puzzled me for a long time and then one day, while looking through a library catalogue, I came upon a 19th century dictionary of the ‘Laskari’ language. I’d never seen any references to this dictionary anywhere, so it was a really exciting discovery. And the language proved to be a wonderful nautical jargon that mixed bits of Hindi, Urdu, English, Portuguese, Bengali, Arabic, Malay and many other languages. It was fascinating for me personally because it incorporated elements of many of the languages I grew up with.
Similarly, I became very interested in the trading language of southern China – the patois which is known as ‘pidgin’. A lot of the south China patois has actually passed into English - e.g. 'Can do/no can do'; or 'Long time no see' etc. A great deal of the Indo-Chinese patois is still preserved in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The word 'Bund' (which is now the name for Shanghai’s most famous street) comes from a Hindustani root (meaning 'to tie'); similarly 'nullah'; 'shroff' etc. I am completely fascinated by these linguistic interchanges and admixtures.
3. You wrote a historical novel, bout the reader has the impression that you refer to about the present: you talk about the birth of capitalism, and now we see it in a worldwide crisis; you talk about "selling goods that people don't need" as the only way to create a huge wealth, and now we are at a crisis of consumerism. And there's a horrible "opium war" going on today, all around the world but expecially in countries like Mexico. Do you recognize this similarities between past and present? And did you plan it, or is it something you always come across when you write a historical novel?
A. There are many curious parallels between the situation in the early 19th century and now. Then as now the western world had a huge trade deficit in relation to China. This was why the British East India Company started exporting opium to China on a large scale – with catastrophic consequences for that country. Eventually of course the British went to war against China in the name of Free Trade - even though the main commodity that they were exporting, opium, was produced under a state monopoly in the Bengal Presidency!
No one who has looked at the history of that period can doubt that some Western powers would go to any lengths to preserve their economic supremacy – but of course they cannot today resort to quite the same means that they did in the 1830s and 1840s. What they are doing instead is that they are ratcheting up the rhetoric about ‘Free Trade’ ‘Liberalization’ etc. The Western powers have chosen to forget that this rhetoric was first deployed in defence of opium – but if there is any country that is well-placed to remember this fact it is China. So they are quite rightly completely dismissive of this rhetoric.
In India on the other hand a large section of the political elite has also become fervently evangelical about ‘Free Trade’. This is possible perhaps because India has largely forgotten its own involvement in the opium trade. This is true even of historians. I know of several historians who have written about other agricultural commodities like sugarcane, cotton etc. Yet opium, which according to one scholar, may have accounted for as much as half the wealth that accrued to the colonial government, has received very little attention. Only one contemporary Indian historian has written about this subject - Amar Farooqui. His work is outstanding but he has concentrated, understandably, on only one aspect of this gigantic subject - that is the opium trade in Western India. But the bulk of the opium produced in India in the early 19th century came from the East - from Bihar. Very few historians have dealt with this subject in any detail. Why? One can only speculate. One possible reason is that the writing of Indian history is still heavily influenced, through patronage and other means, by British institutions, which clearly have no interest into delving into this aspect of the past. Indians equally, for reasons of shame or guilt or whatever, prefer not to dwell on this. Amar Farooqui once told me that he'd been trying for years to interest his research students in this subject but they just would not touch it. Contemporary India has developed a vision of itself as straitlaced, spiritual etc. and we've chosen to forget that much of modern India was actually built on this drug. Amar Farooqui for example, has shown in his book, Bombay: Opium City that Bombay probably would not exist but for opium.
As for similarities between past and present there were clear parallelisms between the Iraq war and the Opium War, most of all in the discourses that surround them. There is all this evangelical stuff, this assumed piety: ‘we are doing good for the world’. But beneath that there is the most horrific violence, the most horrific avarice and greed. I was writing the novel at a time when this kind of capitalist ideology was absolutely in its ascendant, where it was thought that the market was God. Within this context, it just baffled me that people could not see that for Free Traders, the first major testing ground was opium. All of that has been erased from memory.
But in the last few weeks I have been visiting ‘Occupy’ sites, around the US and also in Italy. I find a lot of hope in this movement. The young people who are involved in it understand quite clearly that the prevalent forms of greed are in danger of destroying the world. At last people have started to push back.
4. The exotic places of your book make great part of its charm: are they realistic or idealized? Could you ever write a book about New York?
A. The principal setting of River of Smoke is a place that no longer exists – it is Canton's old foreign enclave, known as the 'Thirteen Factories' (which I call 'Fanqui-town' in 'River of Smoke'). This part of Guangzhou (‘Canton’) was razed to the ground in 1856. Almost no trace of it remains so I had to rebuild entirely from the historical documents, old paintings, memoirs etc. I tried to make my recreation as realistic as possible because I think it was perhaps one of the most interesting places that has ever existed. It was a much stranger, more interesting place than anything I could have made up – my imagination would not have been able to create anything as ‘exotic’ as the actual ‘Thirteen Factories’.
Interview with Tom Ashbrook, 'On Point', NPR
October 13, 2011.
Novelist Amitav Ghosh takes us into the heart of the 19th century opium trade, when the West fed addiction in China.
Go back almost two centuries, and the global drug trade is roaring. But it’s not bloody Mexican gangs on the US border. Not even close. It’s British traders and American and more – Union Jacks and Old Glory flying high – pouring opium into imperial China.
Vast quantities of opium in chests piled high in sailing ships and warehouses on the Chinese coast. Up river in Canton. Vast fortunes being made. East and West squaring off over a deadly, debilitating trade. It’s quite a moment.
This hour On Point: novelist Amitav Ghosh takes us deep into that drug trade in “River of Smoke.”
- Tom Ashbrook
Listen to the interview here:
“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.”
New Zealand Listener
David Larsen | June 20, 2011
Opium’s shaping of world history “has been absolutely silenced”, according to novelist Amitav Ghosh, but it now has a voice in his ongoing Ibis Trilogy.
Radio New Zealand
Tina Shaw reviews 'River of Smoke' by Amitav Ghosh.
15 June 2011
Mariella Frostrup talks to the award-winning author Amitav Ghosh about River of Smoke, the second book in Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy, set in the waterways around Canton during the events leading up to the start of the First Opium War in 1839.
Tim Teeman / June 11 2011
Amitav Ghosh talks to Tim Teeman about colonial wars, imperial power — and a controversial literary prize.
For Amitav Ghosh's many fans, patience is recommended. The good news is that he has completed, after nearly three years' work, River of Smoke, the second part of his trilogy about the 19th-century Chinese Opium Wars, with a roiling, swashbuckling canvas as a backdrop. But the third and final part may be a long time coming, and it may not end there. "I am so deeply involved with the characters, I may carry on into a fourth and fifth book. I would be happy if it became my lifetime's work," the genial 54-year-old author says with a laugh. "But I'm taking sometime off right now, catching up with family, thinking where to take things next."
Ghosh is also emerging from a hailstorm of controversy after his acceptance of the Israeli Dan David Prize, worth $1 million — he shared it with Margaret Atwood. The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine said: "It's surprising to have to raise Israeli colonialism with a writer whose entire oeuvre seems to us an attempt to imagine how human beings survived the depredations of colonialism."
Ghosh rejects the criticism. "Look, what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is appalling. I very much hope a solution can be found. But, for me, literature is a means to building bridges. The opposition to me accepting the award is reasonable, but the idea of saying to a whole country 'You are untouchable', or to my Israeli friends that they are tainted just by their nationality, is alien to me.
"Who in India can seriously deny that terrible things have happened in Kashmir and the northeast, but am I going to say India should be boycotted? No." (A few weeks earlier, happily, and with a lot less fuss, Ghosh received the $10,000 Canadian Blue Metropolis International Grand Prix, a lifetime achievment award.)
Ghosh, who was raised in Calcutta and Bangladesh, lives in New York for six months of the year in the artsy Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with his wife, Deborah Baker, the writer, (their daughter, Lila, is 20, and son, Nayan, 18). Ghosh spends the rest of his year sequestered in blissful writerly seclusion in rural Goa. He says he has "no time" for any other writing, so immersed is he in the fates of characters such as Deeti, the heroine of his trilogy (big in part one, Sea of Poppies, though absent for most of River of Smoke). The second novel marks a "hiatus", Ghosh says, as the authorities in the Chinese city of Canton try to control the opium trade as political and mercantile interests clash and as war brews along "startlingly similar" lines to the Iraq War today, "when national identity, a colonising power and a battle for control for a profitable natural resource collide", Ghosh says. "People may not know it,, but the Opium Wars were as important as the French Revolution."
Ghosh is as engaging a storyteller in life as on the page, where gun battles, perilous ship passages and the beauty of a newly discovered country are animated vividly. The dialects of the time — British, Indian and Chinese; and the " Laskari" language of the ships' crew from Malaysia and India coalesce into a dizzying polyglot All the political events in the novels happened, he says: his research has taken him from the National Maritime Museum in London to the Harbour Master's offices in Sydney, where he studied passenger and crew lists from ships travelling between England and Australia more than 200 years ago.
"I like big books," Ghosh says. When he was young he lapped up the Captain Blood series by Rafael Sabatini, and "piratical fiction". He grew up in Bengal (as well as Calcutta), surrounded by the sight and smells of water, which were particularly "powerful during monsoon season". Planning the trilogy in 2005, he learnt to sail in the British Virgin Islands. He had travelled on boats in Egypt and Cambodia and "loved" water, but learning to sail a modern two-masted schooner helped him to write. "I realisedjust as on a 19th-century sailboat, how important language is. Every part of the ship has a precise name. Every ship is a floating dictionary."
The crews of the 19th-century ships were mainly from India, East Africa and the Philippines, he noted. At Harvard he found a dictionary of Laskari dating from 1812. "The base stratum is Portuguese, there's a fair amount of English, Persian and Malay butting heads too," he laughs. "All the commands were listed in the dictionary, like 'I'm going to kick you, you bugger' and 'You rascal, get out of my sight'. Everything happened in this compact space, which made it emotionally, socially and politically compelling." By the end of River of Smoke, the Opium Wars proper have yet to begin, because for Ghosh "the build-up is much more interesting than the war itself, which is like any colonial war where the colonising power has big guns and the other side primitive armaments".
In River of Smoke Ghosh's focus shifts from Deeti to Bahram, a wealthy Parsi opium merchant "facing a set of ethical problems". Much of the action takes place in the vividly realised Canton, which Ghosh has visited and which bears no resemblance to the 19th-century city in the book. "One of the really startling things is how much of India remains there," Ghosh says. "There are Buddhist temples and many houses the Indian merchants built in the 1860s." Britain agreed to halt opium trading only in 1910-11, after 150 very profitable years. "It was their financial basis for Empire," Ghosh says. "In India it was the single largest sector of the economy. Every one was connected to it. My own ancestors moved to Bangladesh in the 1850s, then a major opium trading post"
The books were inspired, he says, "because I'm from a family that has been displaced many times. I wanted to write a book about leaving India, and then discovered this whole history of opium, which formed our world. One of the wonderful things about Indian life is the relationships you build with other people and their children. It's that sense of inter-generational interconnectedness I want to convey." The Chinese recognised early on how addictive opium was and tried to form a strategy to cope with mass addiction, Ghosh says, "but it became the basis of mass corruption, smuggling and money-making", with government agencies complicit in its illegal cargo and evangelical religion compounding the frenzy. "The then-English governor of Hong Kong said: 'Jesus Christ is free trade and free trade is Jesus Christ.' By free trade he meant the opium trade."
Ghosh's father and mother regaled him with stories when he was a boy: his father's ghost stories were particularly memorable. One featured Ghosh's father's sister seeing their mother cross her garden in Burma (where she was married to a teak merchant). The next day she heard that her mother had died thousands of miles away in India. Ghosh's father was in the Civil Service, seconded to the Indian foreign ministry, and the family moved around a lot, hence Ghosh's love of travel.
At the age of 7 or 8 he remembers a mob outside his house (street mobs were common then); his father bundled him into a bedroom and locked him in. "Under thepillowwasapistol. 1 thought it was a toy and I remember my father coming in and yelling. 'What are you doing?'" (The mob dispersed eventually.) One boarding school that he attended was "particularly Dickensian and the boys unbelievably cruel. But I was never bullied, I got by by keeping in the shadows." Ghosh immersed himself in books - Bengali fiction was a pleasure because it was his first language —and writing for the school magazine.
Indian independence was already established when Ghosh was growing up, but he returns to colonial themes in his fiction, including in his fourth novel, The Glass Palace, which was sourced in his father's stories of fighting in the British-Indian Army in Burma in the Second World War. "He was an officer and was once called a 'nigger' by a white South African officer. My father got very angry and hit him with his belt. The colonel summoned my father, who thought he would be court-martialled, but the colonel said he shouldn't have done what he did and sent him back to his post. The colonel was being a good manager: he knew he couldn't alienate his Indian officers or morale would have collapsed completely." The incident reminded Ghosh how prevalent racism was in the 1940s; the Indian officers were not all into the same social clubs as their white counterparts.
Having relished the itinerant themes of V. S. Naipaul and James Baldwin, after university Ghosh travelled to Tunisia to learn Arabic, then hitch-hiked across the Sahara. When Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister, declared a state of emergency in 1975, the ensuing social turmoil radicalised Ghosh, by then a young journalist. He doesn't feel that he could have written Sea of Poppies or River of Smoke had he not accrued "so much experience with age".
Ghosh does not recognise India "as the new superpower". For him, "the most startling thing is how much of it, almost a third, has slipped out of government control and been taken over by Maoists and warlords", who are opposed to the Government's seizing of large swaths of land that "has eviscerated tens of millions of people". Ghosh notes that anyone who owns land in the city is rich: a friend's modest Delhi property "is worth twice as much as a Park Avenue apartment, although I think it's a bubble. However, I love India," he says. "It is my home, the air that 1 breathe. I feel completely Indian,"
The Royal Society of Literature
Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Linda Grant
Chaired by Colin Thubron
Monday 6 June 2011 7pm
The Tagore Memorial Meeting
Venue: Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House.
Miguel Conde / 1-5-2011
Saga contra o esquecimento de um crime histórico.