By Preetha Nair
Amitav Ghosh is back with his much-awaited ‘Flood of Fire’, the last in the Ibis trilogy, where history and fiction interweave and span the years leading to the first Opium War between Britain and China.
In writing the book, he says he feels like he has climbed a great mountain.
Hailed as one of the most accomplished Indian writers, Ghosh was recently nominated for the Man Booker International Prize. A Padma Shri awardee, he has also been elected a fellow of The Royal Society of Literature
The first book of the trilogy, ‘Sea of Poppies’ (2008) is all about the life and travails of a motley crowd of indentured labourers and convicts in Ibis, a former American slave ship from Baltimore.
The second, ‘River of Smoke’ follows opium’s journey to Canton where Chinese officials capture the shipments and confine the foreigners. The landscape of the final one ‘Flood of Fire’ is set in the first Anglo-Chinese Opium War (1839-42) and the British takeover of Hong Kong in 1841.
On the eve of the book’s release on Wednesday by Penguin, Ghosh spoke to IANS about the task that spanned a decade, climate change and his love for food. He even shared a recipe.
Excerpts from the interview:
Now that you have finished the final book of your trilogy, what are your feelings?
It is incredibly fulfilling to have brought the trilogy to an end. It took almost a decade of my life. It was a very ambitious project. I felt like I set myself a task of climbing a great mountain and now I feel as a mountaineer who got to the summit. I would say that among the three books, ‘Flood of Fire’ was the most difficult one. It is about a complex war. It is intricate with large number of characters. So it took longer to finish. It’s also the closest to me as I finished it recently.
Give us a glimpse of what you attempted in ‘Flood of Fire’.
The landscape of ‘Flood of Fire’ is set in the first Anglo-Chinese Opium War (1839-42). You will see more of the characters like Deedi, Paulette and Neera from the first one, ‘Sea of Poppies’. However, Deedi’s brother Kesri Singh is the central character. In ‘River of Smoke’, you didn’t see many of them because it happened in a different place and circumstances. Many of the characters came back in the third book.
Give us a sense of what led to writing the trilogy and the opium war?
It happened during the writing of my book ‘Glass Palace’, which was set in Burma (Myanmar). One of the main characters in the book is someone who brings indentured workers to Burma. I began to pursue the history of the workers, and how they left India. Then I conceived the character Deedi. I started looking into the background of the movement of migration. That is where the whole history of poppy and its cultivation emerged. It was from those roots that I came to the trilogy. Opium wars had a great impact in Indian history. Economically, opium was a very important commodity for India in the 19th century.
From intensehistorical research and period details, the trilogy is a fictional fare for the reader. How much work went into it?
There were many challenges. Recreating history of the battle was one of the complex tasks. Though there were records of military history of the war, it wasn’t put together and there was no book written on it. So, I had to work on it a lot. Learning Cantonese was another daunting task. I called it the Ibis trilogy because it was a ship’s name. It begins with the ship and ends with it. You can call it a metaphor. It is also a real vehicle in which people cross the seas.
Your book is widely reviewed as critical exploration of colonialism. Do you agree?
My book is about the Indian past. If you write about 19th century India, you have to write about colonialism. There is no escaping. It is not really only about history, it’s about characters too. History is only an aspect of the book,among many.
Is it then end of a story which lived with you for a decade?
I don’t feel that the characters have left me. They have become very much a part of me, that’s what happens when you spend ten years of life with them. You can’t imagine them anywhere else.
Your characters speak Bhojpuri, Bengali, Cantonese, and the pidgin English of the Chinese variety – What is the idea behind the use of multiple languages?
The English language itself has many words from other language like Malayalam, Gujarati, Tamil, Bengali and Arabic. It was interesting to see how many other languages have fed into the English language. I wanted to explore how they come together and form a shape.
Journalist, anthropologist and historian, you wear many hats. How did it influence your writing?
Journalism had a great impact on my writing. My first job was as a journalist and it played an important part in my life. I have also spent some time as an anthropologist. However, one cannot separate one experience from the other. It is impossible to explain each one’s role in my writing. It is all mixed and it’s there.
You shuttle between Brooklyn and Goa. Also you lived in countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. How much has that influenced your characters and writings?
The countries I lived in influenced me a lot. One of the central characters is an American. Sometimes you meet people and you never pick up from real life. It doesn’t happen that way. You see something in them and you connect. There are many different ways it works.
Your books ‘Shadow Lines’ and ‘Hungry Tide’ seems to be the most popular books in India.
I will start with the first book ‘Circle of Reason’. I wrote it when I was working in Kerala which has a lot of mention in the novel. ‘Shadow Lines’ remains a popular book in India. It’s taught in schools and colleges. I have met people with intense connection with the book. It is an important book for me. ‘Hungry Tide’ is about the Sunderbans. I have a long connection with the Sunderbans as one of my uncles used to work there. I was finding a return to my childhood. It was powerful experience. It was in the Sunderbans, that I experienced the direct impact of climate change. Since then, I am vocal about environmental issues.
Which writers (and books) have you been most influenced by?
So many books have influenced my writing. Moby Dick inspires me a lot. So does Rabindranath Tagore and the Mahabharata. While Moby Dick is about ships, Mahabharata is all about wars.
You are a foodie, so can you share some thought for food.
I love appam and idiyappam, which are Kerala dishes. Since I stay more in Goa now, I get to eat them a lot. My favorite Bengali dish is potatoes skin. The good thing about Bengali food is that nothing is wasted. It’s easy to prepare too. You heat some oil, throw in some poppy seeds, potato skin, some salt, and there you go. it’s a completely delicious food. I love it because it has poppy seeds.
What is your next project?
I am currently writing a non-fiction.