Amitav Ghosh Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh

An interview with Amitav Ghosh

In two separate interviews, Amitav Ghosh talks about how his background as an historian, journalist, and anthropologist informs his work; and about the challenges of writing Sea of Poppies, the first volume in a trilogy set aboard a ship in the Indian Ocean; its purpose, to fight in the vicious 19th century Opium Wars between Britain and China.

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 Poppies?

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 sail—that 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 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 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 with.

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 trilogy?

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 they're written.

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 another favorite.

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 rigidities.

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.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Gun Island jacket Flood of Fire jacket River of Smoke jacket Sea of Poppies jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Amitav Ghosh but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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    If you enjoyed:
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    Tahmima Anam

    Tahmima Anam is the recipient of a Commonwealth Writers Prize, an O. Henry Prize, and has been named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and was recently ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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