Haze over history

HEMA VIJAY | Updated on March 12, 2018

Amitav Ghosh. Photo: Hema Vijay

On the trail of a profiteering colonial trade in opium.

His love for history dates back to his college days. “Literature, I found boring. So I switched over to studying history for my degree,” says Amitav Ghosh. So, naturally, many of his magnificent novels are deeply anchored in historical events. In the River of Smoke, the recently launched second part of his Ibis trilogy, Ghosh delves deep into the opium trade that linked India, Mauritius, China and, of course, Britain, which engineered the whole trade.

Ghosh contends that “The opium trade was a crucial factor which shaped Indian history, though it has been ignored by historians”. It was while researching on migrants for his book Sea of Poppies that he first came upon the opium trade. This painstaking research spans decades and continents, even as it zooms in on nondescript villages and specific historical events. In fact, all the political events in the novels are factual. Denying that the research was tedious work, he says, “The research is not separate from writing.” In fact, he says, he finds the storyline so entrancing that he may well go on to write a fourth and fifth sequel in this series.

Right now, however, he is busy travelling from city to city, reading from his book and taking questions on the River of Smoke.

One criticism that the book has drawn is that the dialect-heavy dialogues mouthed by its characters make the book a tedious read, at least until you get the hang of it. “Well, this was never meant as a book for everybody,” he responds. As for him, personally, “I like so many different kinds of writing”, he says.

The Kolkata-born, 54-year-old author, who had his education in Delhi, Oxford and Alexandria, still retains his Bengali influences. It surfaces in his works, he says. Now of course, he divides his time between Goa and New York, where he lives with his wife, Deborah Baker, also a writer, and their daughter Lila, 20, and son, Nayan, 18. “Both of them are good writers, but I don't know what that will lead to,” he says, adding, “I don't even know if they have read my books”.

Ghosh had begun his career as a journalist with Indian Express. “I loved journalism. I enjoyed my city beat reporting days,” he recalls. He quit his job after he got a scholarship to study abroad. He however continued to write for magazines such as Granta and gradually turned into a full-fledged writer, with many of his books going on to win awards — Circle of Reason (France's Prix Médicis in 1990); The Hungry Tide (Crossword Book Prize in 2005). His Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. In 2007, he was awarded the Padma Shri, while in 2010 he and Margaret Atwood became the joint winners of the Israeli Dan David Award. He received a lot of flak for accepting the Israeli award, but he reasons it thus: “I see literature as a means to building bridges, not breaking them.”

River of Smoke, a massive (558-page) novel, narrates how a ship transporting convicts and indentured labourers from Calcutta to Mauritius is caught in a storm. The travails of the five men who escape under cover of the storm are described in detail. Characters such as Bahram Modi, a wealthy Parsi opium merchant from Mumbai, his Armenian friend Zadig and estranged half-Chinese son Ah Fatt, Robin Chinnery, an illegitimate, mixed-race painter, and Paulette, a botanist, are brought to life in vivid detail. Deeti, who assumed such a big role in Sea of Poppies, becomes conspicuously absent here after welcoming us into the story at the start. The setting is predominantly in the Chinese city of Canton, upon which Ghosh throws a romantic gaze.

He takes the reader closer to the personal conflicts raging in people's mind, even as colonial authorities and mercantile interests clash to seize control of the opium trade. Britain agreed to halt opium trade only in 1910-11, after over 150 years of profit-making; in fact, the opium trade was the financial basis for the Empire, Ghosh concludes.

The strength of Ghosh's narrative lies in his vivid descriptions, as also his perceptive insights into the minds of the characters he has created. On the flipside, the liberal dose of local dialects slows your reading. So, how did the book's title come about? “There is a lot of smoke in the story. The smoke of cooking fires, the smoke of opium…” he trails off.

Published on July 28, 2011

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