In two separate interviews, Amitav Ghosh discusses Sea of Poppies and The Glass Palace.|
Amitav Ghosh discusses Sea of Poppies
How long did it take you to write Sea of
About four years.
How much research did you have to undertake
for details such as nautical references and the language used?
I love nineteenth-century nautical fiction so many of
the details were just buried in my head. As for the rest, it was so
deeply pleasurable, I don't know whether I should even call it
research. I traveled to Mauritius, to look at the National Archives and
some other libraries; I spent some time in Greenwich, England, looking
at the magnificent collection of the National Maritime Museum. But the
best part of all was learning to sailthat was an experience that
surpassed everything I had imagined.
How much of a challenge was it to write the
language used by the lascars?
A ship manned by lascars must have been a kind of
floating babel. Sailors from all around the Indian Ocean went by the
name 'lascar'East Africans, South Asians, Filipinos, Chinese, Malays.
When you look at one of those old crew lists, you can't help wondering
how things got done on a ship with such a cosmopolitan crew. It must
have been a specially pressing issue on a sailing vessel, for it's
impossible to work a sailship without clear commandsthat'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
nineteenth-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
What made you choose to set this book in the
lead-up to the Opium Wars?
Opium was not at the forefront of my mind when I
started thinking about this book. I was more interested in travel,
migration and the dispersal of Indians across the globe. But this
dispersal began in earnest in the 1830s, just before the first Opium
War, and the earliest immigrants were from a part of British India
(northern Bihar) which became, under the rule of the East India Company,
the single most important opium-growing region of the world. There was
really no getting away from opium: in this period, India, China and
England were joined by a Sea of Poppies.
Sea of Poppies is the first in an
epic trilogy. Did you plan the remaining two books before you began
writing? Can you give us any hints as to what to expect from the
I have some ideas about where the narrative might
lead, but experience has taught me that books have minds of their own.
There's no point thinking about where they'll go. One never knows till
How long do you think it will take to
complete the trilogy?
I honestly don't know: the longer the better as far as
I'm concerned. There's nothing else I'd rather be doing.
There are lots of different characters in
the book; do you view any particular character as central to the story?
Which characters did you feel most attached to when you were writing?
Deeti was, for me, the central character in this book:
whenever I was at a loss, I always looked to her to help me out, and
somehow she always came through. But I also came to love many of the
other characters, especially Paulette, Zachary, Baboo Nob Kissin, Neel
and Jodu. Mrs. Burnham is not onstage very long, but she quickly became
You've lived in quite a few different
countries but where do you consider home?
The more I travel, the more it becomes clear to me
that I'm never more at home than when I am in India. But as with the
characters in my book, travel is one of the realities of my life so,
like them, I've had to learn to carry my home in my head.
Amitav Ghosh, March 18, 2008
A Q&A with
Amitav Ghosh about The Glass Palace
How does the current political situation in Burma inform this novel? The
novel concludes with a scene in front of democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi's
house in contemporary Burma. Why did you choose to end the novel there?
For me, the scene in front of Aung San Suu Kyi's house was both the
beginning and the end of the book. The beginning, because I happened to attend
one of Aung San Suu Kyi's gateside meetings almost immediately after I arrived
in Rangoon, on my first visit to Burma. The meeting made a very powerful
impression on me, and my memories of it remain intensely vivid to this day. The
end, because it was in a way, the culmination of a long history that I was
already familiar with, at second hand.
Your characters seem to float between boundaries of both geography and class.
Uma travels effortlessly through Asia, Europe and the U.S., while Rajkumar, who
is born poor, winds up stunningly rich. Would this sort of fluidity have been
possible? How fluid were these boundaries in turn of the century British Asia?
To take Uma first-- class was often the key to mobility in the British
Empire. Uma was of the class of people who were able to travel relatively easily
and her husband's death left her with the financial means to explore the world.
In the late 19th century there were many Indian women who went abroad to study,
in much the same way that Uma did (the first Indian woman doctor graduated from
a British university in the 1880s). The experience of journeying abroad
frequently served to radicalize Indians, men and women alike (this is true to
this day). Among the Indian women radicals abroad, perhaps the best known is the
Parsee nationalist, Mme Bhikaiji Cama (who becomes Uma's mentor in The Glass
Palace). Uma's career, as described in The Glass Palace is thus
founded on many well-known historical precedents. The same is true of Rajkumar.
Rags to riches stories were very common among Indians in Burma. Many of the
Indian business magnates of pre-war Rangoon had arrived in that city with little
more than a tin suitcase and a few annas in their pockets. Indeed, Burma
held a great attraction for ambitious young Indians (and Chinese) precisely
because it offered more opportunities than the sub-continent with all its social
In The Glass Palace, the intimate family histories of the characters
are inextricably linked to larger events in world history. Do you think events
in world history usually have such profound effects on personal histories? How
does your own personal family history inform this novel?
It is often war that creates a collision between history and
individual lives. In circumstances of war, as in such situations as revolution,
mass evacuations, forced population movements and so on, nobody has the choice
of stepping away from history. The 20th century visited many such calamities on
Asia and The Glass Palace attempts to chronicle the impact that these
events had on families and individuals. My family's history has undoubtedly
played a large part in opening my eyes to these events for my family was divided
not only by the Partition of India and Pakistan, but also by the Japanese
conquest of Burma in 1942.
How does your background as an historian, journalist, and anthropologist
inform your work? Is this entirely a work of fiction?
For me, the value of the novel, as a form, is that it is able to
incorporate elements of every aspect of life - history, natural history,
rhetoric, politics, beliefs, religion, family, love, sexuality. As I see it the
novel is a meta-form that transcends the boundaries that circumscribe other
kinds of writing, rendering meaningless the usual workaday distinctions between
historian, journalist, anthropologist etc.
How does photography function in your work? Why is photography such an
appropriate symbol with which to discuss colonialism?
My interest in photography goes back a long way. The part that it
plays in The Glass Palace is probably attributable to the influence of
the late Raghubir Singh who was a very dear friend. He opened my eyes to many of
the less obvious aspects of photography.
In The Hindu, Meenakshi Mukherjee calls the novel "the most
scathing critique of British colonialism I have ever come across in
fiction." Can you comment on this?
If this is true, then it would have to be said, surely, that
colonialism has had a pretty easy ride.
© Michelle Caswell, Asia Source. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.