[Long, freewheeling interview with Amitav Ghosh, which I’m posting here pretty much as I transcribed it from the tape recorder, along with some commentary. Apologies for lack of structure, etc, but I’ve done this on limited time alongside writing a feature-style version for official publication (which I might put up later, at risk of repetition). Most of this conversation has to do with Ghosh’s new novel Sea of Poppies, which I wrote about in this post.
Ghosh’s reputation for being serious and scholarly precedes him, so I was relieved to find that he’s very relaxed, very easy to talk with. As readers of his work would know, his fiction combines the novelist’s imagination with the anthropologist’s meticulous attention to detail and curiosity about people and places. During our conversation it became quickly obvious that he’s interested in a wide range of subjects and willing to hold forth – often very enthusiastically – on them. He was most animated when discussing language, as you can see much further down in the discussion.]
Like much of your fiction, Sea of Poppies uses imagined characters and plots to illustrate a historical period. Do you find this easier to do than writing non-fiction?
First and foremost, I’m a novelist, which means that my basic interest is in stories and in different characters. The rest of it is almost accidental. You start with the characters and the story, and the historical part of it is sometimes a setting or a backdrop. In The Hungry Tide it was different, perhaps, because in a way the environment was itself a character, a protagonist within the story – the Sunderbans is such a powerful and elemental kind of landscape. But in Sea of Poppies, it’s about the characters; the characters realise themselves through their unique predicaments.
Characters like Deeti and Zachary in this book, or Rajkumar and Dolly in The Glass Palace, aren’t used to embellish the setting – it’s really the other way around. Within any sort of background there are so many destinies that are possible, and for me, that’s the most interesting possible thing. It’s not that I’m mounting the character in order to illustrate the history – that’s not it at all. My primary interest is in the lives and fortunes of these people.
When it was announced that you were working on a trilogy, I was surprised – because as a writer you’re interested in so many different subjects and settings; you’ve written books about Burma, the Sunderbans, Egypt. What was it about this subject that compelled you enough to commit to a three-book project, which would take up so much of your time?
As I said, a book always starts with characters and when I thought of Deeti, Paulette, Zachary, they became so compelling to me that I knew I wanted to write not only about them but about their families, their children – I wanted to see them growing old, I wanted to explore the relationships between their children and grandchildren. And I realised I couldn’t do that in one book.
I was about a year into writing Sea of Poppies when I realised that it would take me a long, long time, and I wanted to devote that time to it. As for diverting me from other things, there’s nothing else I want to write. I don’t feel afraid of the commitment at all, I feel a great reassurance that I’ll be working on this for years.
So writing a trilogy wasn’t part of the original plan?
No, not at all. It only happened as the book progressed. And well, I’m calling it a trilogy now, but who knows, it might turn out to be two trilogies. Also, I don’t think it does commit me to the same setting anyway – these characters are people who are going to be traveling a great deal, who knows where they’ll go!
I feel, at my age, that I have a depth of experience that I’ll be able to pour into this book. It’s an exciting thing to be able to do that. Like Herman Melville said, unless you have a very broad vessel, you can’t really pour yourself into it.
One of the outstanding scenes in Sea of Poppies is a long, richly descriptive passage where a village-woman named Deeti enters the cavernous opium factory in Ghazipur, where her husband works. The scene, which adeptly merges fiction with research and scholarship, made me think of a similar tradition in American fiction, going back to the early masters and often continuing to this day (a contemporary example being the detailed scene in a glove-manufacturing factory in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral).
I read something you wrote where you mentioned your love for Melville’s Moby Dick – a behemoth of a book where so many chapters are about aspects of whaling or life on the sea, rather than about carrying the plot forward. Were you strongly influenced by the early American novelists?
It’s interesting that you’ve read Melville in detail, very few people do. He’s been a huge influence in my work, going back a long way. One of the reasons is that for him the novel is not a small thing. He has a wonderful quote, give me a second, I have it here with me (goes to his desk and brings back his notebook), it goes: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea.” It’s from Moby Dick, in fact.
Melville was quite inspirational for me, because of the breadth of his view of the novel. But actually, if you look at it, there are many other novelists, especially in the 19th century – George Eliot for one – who also took a very expansive view of the novel. And Dickens – so much observation and detail, about factories, about London street life! And I think in a way, historically, one of the great things about the novel is that it’s reported on real life. This is also what I enjoy doing. I began my career as a reporter and I like to be there with a notebook, to examine something, to figure out how things work. It’s pleasurable to write this way.
So the fiction writer in you isn’t locked in a painful struggle with the historian/scholar, during the writing process?
No, not at all, they are completely complementary. I never have a situation of conflict between one and the other. For me the research part is fun and easy, because I enjoy looking at documents and things.
For all the information that I try to set down in my novels, I’m happy with them being classified as fiction. It IS fiction – I made up the characters and all that stuff. I try to be faithful to the historical setting, but I never for a moment would confuse what I do with what historians do – I’m not making the truth-claims that historians make. It’s important to acknowledge that.
I mean, if you went away from here and made up everything I said, I wouldn’t like that one bit! (laughs)
Incidentally, another Melville quote which I think applies a lot to your work is “It isn’t set down on any map; true places never are.”
I didn’t at all plan it this way, but there are so many parallels between my work and Melville’s. You know I wrote that book about the Sunderbans – well, Melville has a wonderful book about ecology, it’s about the Galapagos Islands, a very short but marvelous book, and he wrote it before Darwin went to Galapagos. And in that book you really see the sense of what he says in the quote you just mentioned, because the Galapagos becomes for him a sort of dreamscape – not so much a place with a fixed geography but an idea.
Also, so much of his work is founded on historical research. There’s a short story, “Benito Cereno”, a very evocative story about a slave revolt. It was founded on a travel narrative written by a famous sea captain, Andrew Delano – who incidentally was an ancestor of [the US President] Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And (chuckles heartily) Delano was also an opium trader, as it happens, on his way back from China!
You certainly do enjoy pointing out how much of what we call civilisation has been founded on the opium trade!
Yes, people are very uncomfortable bringing up the role of opium in India’s past. But you really can’t escape it, it was so central, it was the export commodity that led India in the 19th century. There’s a prominent historian, Amar Farooqui, who teaches in Delhi University, who says that Bombay would not exist if it weren’t for opium – the British were about to close down Bombay when they started exporting opium from there (laughs).
What kind of research did you do for the opium factory scene in Sea of Poppies?
It was just pure luck – I was looking in the British Library one day, looking at their archives and collections, and suddenly I found this very rare book, published in the 1860s in Calcutta (though I’m sure it doesn’t exist in Calcutta anymore). It was called “Notes on an Opium Factory” and it was written by the superintendent of the Ghazipur Opium Factory. He wrote it as a kind of tourist guide – he wanted to attract British tourists to the place, and he described the place in great detail!
Nothing in that passage in my book is made up – nothing about the factory, that is; Deeti of course is a fictional character. You won’t believe how amazing it was to learn about how the opium was processed: the directors of the East India Company, sitting in London, would send directions about how every ball of opium had to have so many chittacks, how there had to be just so many leaves...it was a completely industrialised process. We talk about Henry Ford rationalising the industrial process, but these guys were doing it much earlier.
Something else that helped me was that in the 19th century, British artists would go to various spots of interest in the corners of the Empire and make etchings and lithographs. And one of them produced a series of etchings about an opium factory. So I didn’t have to try very hard to visualize these places. My description is based on the book and on these lithographs. These are huge lithographs, and in them the factory looks like the Temple of Konark with these huge columns and these places where they used to stack the opium...it was an incredible sight, an incredibly tall building – in those days it must have been six storeys high, with the godown inside, and racks along the wall, and these little boys climbing between the racks, throwing the balls of opium down.
It’s quite an imposing sight, you know – if you just look at that room and the balls of opium in it, it must have been millions and millions of rupees’ worth of trade.
GLOBALISATION IN THE EARLY 19TH CENTURY
Much of Ghosh’s work has dealt with amorphous boundaries and how people transcend these borders, in the process altering not just their personal histories but also, over a period of time, the history of the world; the title of one of his earliest and best-loved books The Shadow Lines (with its famous scene where the narrator places the point of a compass on an atlas to try and make sense of the historical and cultural links between different places) has almost come to symbolise his major themes. In Sea of Poppies, we meet the lascars, sailors who “came from places that were far apart and had nothing in common, except the Indian Ocean” – in other words, the sea is their only nation. Later, various characters are forced to let go of the strictures of caste/community/religion to become jahaz-bhais and jahaz-bahens. Unusual relationships are formed: the village widow Deeti is rescued by and then marries a lower-caste man, whom she would not even have been allowed to talk with in a more conventional setting; the deposed Raja Neel forms a friendship with a cellmate of Chinese origin; there’s a funny sub-plot about a pious gomusta finding his Lord Krishna in the unlikely personage of a half-black American sailor who blows a pipe-whistle/flute.
In the 1830s, the concept of globalisation didn’t exist in sense it does today. Yet your characters, especially the lascars, are pioneers in that direction.
It’s true that the concept didn’t exist as such, but the reality did exist. And especially in so far as it concerns lascars – they were absolute pioneers, in that they were the first Asians to work in a western industrial process. The sailing ship was an extremely complex machine, technically speaking, much more so than the fairly simple ships that we had in India. And nautical engineering was really the cutting-edge technology of the 19th century; it was like aerospace today. The lascars were the first Asians to work in a cutting-edge modern technology, the first to acquire a colloquial familiarity with European languages, the first to work with the European rhythms of time (the western-style ship was run on four-hour watches), and they were also the first Asians to set up settlements in London – Shoreditch, for example.
So in every sense, the lascars were the equivalent of today’s IT workers. They faced exactly the same issues too, there was a systematic attempt to keep them out of the labour market, keep them off ships – they were paid a fraction of what white sailors were paid, for the same work.
Incidentally, while I’m on this topic, it’s a shame we don’t realise that the Indian shipbuilding industry was absolutely on par with the western industry, right up to the 1820s. In that era, a very large number of the Royal Navy’s ships were built in Bombay and Calcutta. The Wadia shipyard in Bombay was one of the most advanced on the planet. Then the British, through a series of financial measures and laws, succeeded in destroying Indian shipbuilding.
One of the terrible things that has happened in India in the last 30-40 years is the way the Indian shipping industry has shrunk and been ignored. As late as the 1940s, it was possible to send something from Bombay to Madras through coastal shipping – it was easier and cheaper. Today you’d have to send it by rail or air.
One reason for this neglect is that Delhi is not on the sea – the people who make policy here have a landward orientation, they don’t understand the sea. In that sense they’ve inherited this Mughal tradition – Babar and others were never interested in the sea, which was their downfall eventually because the British came from the sea.
In today’s much smaller, more globalised world, how important is the concept of the nation-state?
I think that in some ideal world somewhere, we wouldn’t want nation-states. But I’ve been in places where the nation-state doesn’t exist – Burma, for instance – and unfortunately the alternative to the nation-state isn’t a state of freedom; what actually comes into being is warlordism. In the absence of the nation-state, what happens is worse.
When I was in Burma, traveling with some of these Burmese insurgents, it struck me that the alternative to a nation-state is really a failed state. And that leaves so much wreckage behind. For us in India, we don’t really understand what a disaster it is to live under warlords. Of course, in parts of India it does exist – the north-east, for example. But on the whole, in my view we are fortunate to be among the contemporary post-WWII states that have survived, because so many others, like Burma, are going down in flames, and others like Pakistan and Sri Lanka are facing crises; in fact, we are surrounded by a ring of crises.
[Around this time, lunch arrived and with cutlery occupying much of our attention it became necessary to engage in lighter talk]
You’re now working with a high-profile publishing house, Penguin Books India [Ghosh was with Ravi Dayal earlier]. Is it very different in terms of the demands made on you for publicity and marketing?
It IS very different, I must say. In today’s world, any writer has to do a certain amount of publicity. Ravi was very low-profile by comparison – but in a way I also feel proud that my books initially found their way in the world without the backing of a huge publicity machine.
I’ve done the publicity grind in other countries but never before in India, and now I can see how our publicity machine has come of age. The Indian publishing industry has definitely come of age – in fact it’s now on the cutting-edge, the fastest growing books market in the world. The functioning of Indian publishers is very impressive – even though Penguin India is such a big company, as a group of people they are a team, very comfortable to work with, whereas this isn’t always the case with big companies in the US. They tend to be much more distant.
The growth of Indian media has played a role too. Earlier there were youngsters juggling three or four beats at once, rushing out to interview authors they had never heard of, on tight deadlines. But now we have more specialised books journalism in both print and television.
Yes, that’s changing very fast as well. You know, if India had been like this when I was in college, my life would have taken a different turn – I would probably have ended up working in what you call the books beat. But back then, there was no option for a literary career of that sort. It worked out fine for me, of course, but I’m glad that things have changed. For a publishing industry to flourish, there have to be the journalists to enable it to grow.
A lot of your reading must be for research, but do you follow Indian fiction?
I do, though I’m not always very up-to-date with it. One of the pleasures of coming to India now is going into a bookstore and coming across this whole range of titles, which wasn’t the case earlier. I particularly enjoy this new genre, you might call it, of the IIT novels!
One of the better IIT writers, Amitabha Bagchi, referenced the compass scene from The Shadow Lines in his novel Above Average.
Yes, I read that book and it was so amazing to me when I came across that passage. I did a double-take – here’s someone who’s written about my book in his narrative!
But there’s also so much wonderful non-fiction now coming out of India – I was reading Mukul Kesavan’s recent collection The Ugliness of the Indian Male, and his essays are outstanding. Looking at the publishers’ catalogues, there seems such a variety of topics now.
Reading Sea of Poppies, I was particularly interested in the use of language – such as the incorporation of so many Indian words in the speech of Europeans.
You know, when we were in college, we used to talk in this Hindi-English jargon and at the time we thought we were doing something very bold and new. But it’s not new at all – people had been doing it for centuries. The words you’re talking about, 80 per cent of them are in the complete Oxford English Dictionary, they are English words.
But the spellings you use reflect the foreign accents rather than the way an Indian reader would recognize the words - “rootie”, for example.
Well, most of these words are spelt in multiple ways in the OED. “Rootie” is one of the alternatives for “roti”. The British probably took it not from Hindustani but from Bengali, and in Bengali it’s “rootie” – that’s one possibility. Believe it or not, the word “chawbuck” (horsewhip) has five different spellings in the OED, and “khidmatgar” (servant) has eight different spellings, including “kismatgar”, which can be translated as “one who follows his master’s kismat”. That led me to joke that maybe the right word should be “bud-kismatgar” (ill-fortuned)!
What about your decision to not italicize these words or provide a glossary?
When I see Indian writers italicizing words, I’m amazed, because there are actually very few ordinary Hindi or Urdu or Bengali words that are not in the OED. "Hamaz", "azan", "mandir" – these are all in the OED. If you’re going to italicize, you have to have some consistent policy, you know – how can you italicize words that are already in the dictionary? “Tumasher/tamasha” has been in the English language since the 17th century, so has “vakil”, and many others.
Even so, it’s a brave decision, in terms of not mollycoddling the reader. Even as an Indian reader who know most of these words, I had to consciously interpret some of the sentences.
But more than that, I’m sure many of these words have dropped out of Hindi altogether. Words like “silahdar” and “gomusta”, how often do you hear them today? And some other words have changed in meaning – for example, “jamadar”, which was a rank in the army originally, from “jama”, which means to gather. So in fact, if you have a glossary, there should be one for Hindi speakers too!
One thing we should be aware of: in this age of globalisation, there’s this idea that English is becoming more and more expansive. In fact, much the opposite is happening: in the 19th century, English was much wider, more accepting of other influences, especially Asian influences. Not just Hindustani but Chinese too. But what happened from the 20th century was that they started ridding English of Asian influences. English today is comparatively limited.
Which is why I feel that if me, and other Asian writers, if we are going to write in this language at all, then we must reclaim for it what it historically had. When an English newspaper says about our writing that these guys are bringing all these new words into the language, it’s nonsense – those words have been there for centuries!
Some colourful swear words were in the dictionary too. Let me tell you about something interesting I came across in the lascari dictionary written by Lt Thomas Roebuck, in 1812. When he lists the words of commands...have you ever heard the word “habes” (pronounced hab-iz)?
In lascari, when you wanted to tell a sailor to pull, or heave, the translation that Roebuck provides is “habes”. I’m not sure what the root is, but it was a very common command. So he provides this word and then adds in brackets, “Sometimes it may be necessary to include a few words of abuse, for example ‘bahenchod, habes!’ Or ‘saale, habes!’”
We have somehow become very embarrassed about these things today. I hope I’m not offending you, but the word “beti-chod” (daughter-fucker) has been used going back to the 17th century, in English as well.
This is all very interesting, because I was discussing the book with a friend and he thought that some of the speech seemed exaggerated and caricatured.
You know, the thing is that since our childhood we have always been told to “use the correct English word” and we have developed this anxiety about the language. But these things are completely grounded in the language. Take the word “bandana”, which I associate with cowboys and the wild west, but you know where it comes from? From “baandhna” (the Hindi for “tying”). Again, it has been part of English since the 17th century. And the word “turban” is from “sirband”.
If you take any interest in words as such, the most interesting thing about languages is that it’s impossible to separate them at a certain point – it’s impossible to do for Bengali, Hindi or English. I’m sure you know about how there’s been this process of “purification” in Hindi; well, the same thing has happened in English as well. And I think it should be combated.
It also struck me that the fluidity of language in your book helps illustrate your broader themes about people and the journeys they make. There’s a lot of rich comedy in some of the misuses and misunderstandings, but at the same time one gets a sense of how modern languages might have evolved and become more dynamic over time as they came into contact with other languages. And that’s true of people too.
Absolutely. I’m so glad you’ve mentioned this point. This is what I wanted, and this is what happened as I was writing the book – the language came to reflect the realities of the lives of these characters. When a language spreads, it creates these contact languages, which are basically pidgin languages. I’ve always had an interest in linguistics and particularly in pidgin languages – how people communicate without speaking the language as a first language.
But I also wanted to make another point in relation to what your friend was saying. I don’t know how much nautical fiction you’ve read, but even in Moby Dick for example, there’s a huge amount of terminology. You’ll often see commands like “fore-top sail!”. Hardly anyone knows exactly what these words mean, except for a very small section of people who know about sailing. It’s a very technical field. As a child I would read these books and feel annoyed because I didn’t understand exactly what these words meant – it was gobbledygook. Now I DO know what they mean, but I know that the reader doesn’t. So I simply used the lascari equivalents – after all, if you’re going to be puzzled by one word, why not be puzzled by another word?
I thought it was important to recognise that we in India and Asia had a very deep and important contribution to the technology and labour of the sailing ship. It’s important for us to try and reclaim the ways in which the lascars and Asians experienced the sailing ship, the reality of being out on the sea. And language is a huge part of that.
Was language always going to be a major part of the form of the book, or did you work that in gradually, as you stumbled upon old dictionaries during your research?
The dictionaries helped, of course, but they weren’t essential. Writing a book can be like a process of play, you toy with things, some days you come to work and something amuses you and you just want to put that in. I’ve spent a lot of time working with many languages – Arabic, French etc. And while anyone who reads this book can perfectly understand what it means, there are many internal puns too, on French and Arabic, which perhaps no one will understand – but it gives ME pleasure, so why shouldn’t I do it?
There are lots of hidden obscenities as well. One of the things that made me happy writing Sea of Poppies was that in a way this book was a return to my schooldays. I went to a boarding school and our language was incredibly obscene and filled with innuendoes, subtle wordplays, making connections between words.
You’ve explored so many places through your writing. As an anthropologist, what other areas on the map would you want to look at more closely?
Not many, really. I’m often told that I’m so widely traveled, but I’ve never been in south America or central America, or in whole parts of Africa. And I can see how those places are interesting, but somehow they’re not interesting to me. What really interests me is what the Russians call the “near abroad”, you know – in this case, the ring around India. Basically I’m interested in the Indian Ocean.
Besides, it’s going to take me a long time to complete the next two books, and I’m in no hurry. For me writing is not about the publishing – the publishing is the worst part! The best part is the pleasure of writing, turning things over in my head.
As I was leaving, a casual reference to food got us back on the subject of words and their provenance. Here are a few more musings by Ghosh:
I always see these restaurants write “dumpukht” on their menus, why not “dumbpoke”? That’s how it is in the dictionary – all it means is casserole.
Did you know that the word “banian” (vest) has been in the English language since the 16th century? It comes from “baniya”, which was how Arabs in the 12th and 13th century used to refer to all Indians. Even the “Banyan tree” simply used to mean “Indian tree”.
Anyway, the Victorian and Albert Museum has these long gowns on display, which are called “banians”. It’s thanks to lascars that we ended up with the modern usage of banian. At one point it meant “sailor’s shirt” – it was part of a western sailor’s outfit. It were the lascars who cut off the sleeve of the garment.
The influence they have had on our language is amazing, we don’t even know it. The word “baltee” (bucket) was Portuguese in its root, and its current meaning comes through the lascars. “Kamraa” (room) was also from a Portuguese root, and the lascars first used it to refer to a ship’s cabin; that’s how we get the common Hindi usage.
We think of “mistri” as a Hindi word, but it’s from the same Latin root that also gives us the French “maitre”, meaning master. The Portuguese used it in the sense of captain of a ship.
Think about all this and you realise that the whole idea of a fixity in language is so impossible and so unnecessary.
[For more on the languages used in Sea of Poppies, see Ghosh’s document The Ibis Chrestomathy. The PDF link is here. Fascinating stuff, though best read after you’ve read the book, or maybe alongside it.]
(Ghosh photos by Sanjay Sharma, copyright Business Standard)