In conversation with Amitav Ghosh
The Booker nominee closes his Ibis trilogy with Flood Of Fire
Amitav Ghosh dreads that time in between books. It’s maddening, he says, that period after a bout of intense labour is done and suddenly, your days are empty. (Except, of course, for being shortlisted for the biennial Man Booker International Prize, whose results will be announced this month. “It’s an honour just to be nominated,” he says. “The outcome is not really germane.”) Besides, he’s not quite ready to say goodbye to the characters he’s lived with for a decade. “When I started writing the Ibis trilogy, I thought I would follow these families all the way into the 20th century. But in the end, I’ve only covered four years, so that’s kind of chastening.”
Ibis is that rare trilogy that doesn’t require to be read in sequence. Set in the mid-19th century, it travels back and forth in time, telling the story of an assorted crew of indentured labourers, prisoners and seafarers who meet aboard the Ibis, which sets sail from Calcutta to Mauritius in the first book, Sea Of Poppies. Where River Of Smoke plunged into the opium-addled lanes of China, the latest Flood Of Fire takes to the Indian Ocean again, with some members of the original Ibis gang off to battle the Chinese on behalf of the British. At the end of this three-volume saga, the 58-year-old author says, “I want what any novelist wants, for the reader to feel an intense sympathy, a sense of having shared these journeys, some of which lead to ruin and disaster, and others to happiness and a sort of redemption.”
One of the best things about an Amitav Ghosh novel is that it’s positively feverish with details. So even if the tale is epic in scope, its impact is personal. It’s not just a talent for historical research that brings urgency to far-removed events like the Partition (The Shadow Lines), the Second World War (The Glass Palace) and the search for a malaria cure (The Calcutta Chromosome). It’s also Ghosh’s ability to see the world through the eyes of his characters, even if this means he doesn’t know how it’s all going to end any more than they do.
“People ask me if I knew what was going to happen at the end of a book — I barely know what’s going to happen at the end of the page! I stumble along, I take a lot of wrong turns, I have to throw away long swathes of prose. It can be like that when you’re writing about people and their lives. But it’s not a wasted process, you know. You end up discovering something about the characters.” His curiosity is infectious. You can talk to Ghosh about the editorialising of news, the perils of climate change and the delicious versatility of upma, and you’ll find him passionate on all counts. It’s a treat to be able to talk to an author you admire about whatever snags your interest, and be met with equal enthusiasm. The only danger is you’ll forget yourself and mention that The Calcutta Chromosome scared the shit out of you. That earned a satisfied chuckle.
Happily, he promises another icy dive into the uncanny soon enough. But before he gets to that, Ghosh will be travelling to India to promote Flood Of Fire, as well as finishing up two non-fiction books. He divides his time between his home in Goa and Brooklyn; most fiction writing happens in Goa, while the frequent and satisfyingly long blog posts on his food discoveries, travelogues and correspondence with readers are usually written on the fly.
The blog and his Twitter timeline are a pretty good representation of what absorbs this writer; it often echoes of stories he’s written, like he can’t quite abandon those characters and their precarious worlds. One persistent preoccupation is climate change. The Hungry Tide, set in the fragile eco-system of the Sundarbans, is as significant to environmentalists as it is to literary critics. Ghosh is a fount of depressing facts: The annual groundwater loss from India is adding as much to rising sea levels as the melting of Alaska’s glaciers. Many of the aquifers in Bihar and Bengal are depleted to the point that now all water that’s pumped up is tainted with arsenic. The bread basket of Punjab and northern India, which sustains much of the country, is now fed by groundwater that has almost run out.
“It’s amazing to me that these issues are not discussed in the press. When you look at evening talk shows, everyone is bloviating about something or other. But issues that are of urgent necessity never seem to surface.” And when they do, it’s as problems that can be solved if only each of us was more conscientious about recycling or turning off the tap while brushing our teeth. You’re not encouraged to ask what your country can do for you.
“What we’re facing here is a problem of the collective. We’re living at a time when even politics has become so individualised, that we have no means of conceiving of common problems. But there’s no way around it — climate change cannot be addressed as a sum total of individual decisions.”
Ghosh started his career as a journalist with The Indian Express in the mid-’80s. It was a different time. “Our great pride was that we had the widest network of reporters in India. There was a reporter or stringer in every town. We looked towards those who editorialised with mild contempt. We thought they were gasbags, while we were doing the real work. But now that equation has changed quite dramatically. We hear more and more opinion and less and less reportage.”
No less worrying to him are the opinions that aren’t aired, given our government’s growing taste for bans. “The domain of expression is shrinking, but it’s not always the state doing the censorship. Corporations are also very much involved in the suppressing of facts and speech. Thanks to their massive intervention, the press is no longer telling us how things really are.” He gets around this by reading — and retweeting — widely. An effort to pin him down on recent authors he’s enjoyed provokes anxiety typical of a devoted reader who just can’t pick a favourite. To him, today’s abundant crop of Indian writers tackling everything from mythology to campus stories speaks to the vitality of the work being done in the country. He reads in Bengali and Hindi as well, and enjoys the challenge of languages. The Ibis trilogy reflects this, with various Indian dialects and the pidgin of the sea; it comes with a chrestomathy, to help decipher phrases in 19th-century sailor-speak. If he weren’t a 58-year-old Padma Shri awardee, Ghosh would be a geek.
History, the environment and food are all part of the same field of view to him. “To be alive to the world around you, you have to be alive to what you’re eating.” A keen cook and an early adopter of superfoods like quinoa and buckwheat, he also grows his own pepper. “I’ve become interested in ingredients that have historically been cultivated in India but are now neglected in favour of more refined products. Indigenous foods like ragi, amaranth flowers and mahua are so interesting to cook with, and have such great textures.” He even lives in a Goan village for a part of the year, surrounded by rice fields, with his wife, biographer Deborah Baker. “It just clears my mind to be in those surroundings,” he says. Time away from the writing desk is spent gardening, re-reading beloved Bengali classics and playing badminton. It’s a life of quiet, absorbing pleasures.
Amitav Ghosh’s deep vein of concern for humanity spills abundantly into all his work, and the people he writes about. He may have closed the book on The Glass Palace 15 years ago, but he’s still as moved by the lives he illuminated there. On his blog, he has published a 30,000-word memoir of a soldier who made the arduous journey from Burma back to India in the 1940s. It is, after all, through his abiding sympathy that Ghosh creates worlds which never quite fade from view. This way, he doesn’t ever have to say goodbye.
His new book Flood Of Fire is out May 26
Photographs: Emilio Madrid-Kuser