Interviews

Archive: Interview with Amitav Ghosh

© Dayanita Singh

 

 

From Asia Literary Review No. 22, Winter 2011

Interview by Fionulla McHugh

 

 

LAST NOVEMBER, the Asia Society in New York held its inaugural Asian Arts and Ideas Forum. The theme, over three days, was ‘The Chindia Dialogues’ and the programme began with an evening of conversation between the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh and the China scholar and Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale, Jonathan Spence. ‘Two wonderful people to take us back to the beginning of this relationship between China and India’, as Orville Schell, director of Asia Society’s Center on US-China relations, put it in his introduction.

     Three days earlier, Ghosh’s most recent book, River of Smoke, had been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, which will be awarded on 15 March 2012. The book is the second in his Ibis trilogy, which began with Sea of Poppies(shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize) and which continues to follow the lives of characters variously connected to the nineteenth-century opium trade. Sea of Poppies begins in India; by the time River of Smoke moves into full flow, much of the action is taking place in the Chinese city of Canton (now Guangzhou).

     ‘The joy of reading Amitav’s work is the completely new way of reading about things I thought I knew,’ Spence enthused. ‘You completely changed my way of looking at the opium trade. The farmers come first and from that beginning, at family level, you take us into this chaotic global world.’

     ‘For me, as a writer of fiction, it’s the most amazing compliment to hear you say that,’ Ghosh responded. ‘For me, your work has been my introduction to China [which] was this vast area of darkness. I’m not an incurious person but it’s extraordinary to me how completely blind we were in India to this world, and your works – Gate of Heavenly Peace, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci – were a small window.’

     On this note of mutual admiration, the evening continued pleasantly, if a little predictably. Ghosh talked about his research into the involvement of Indian merchants in the opium trade, a connection which still goes unremarked in India: ‘And in a way, China does not recognize it; the Indians are completely effaced. How come some Chinese leader didn’t say, “You guys were the running dogs of imperialism?”’ He talked about his starting point for the trilogy: the way people leave India. ‘I started asking, how did they leave? What were the ships like? I started to look at the crew lists, and they were incredibly varied, while the actual officers were always European.’ He talked about one of the sources of what Spence called the ‘breathtaking cascade of language’ in the first two books: ‘I did a little sailing and sailing is very dependent on words. I thought there has to be a dictionary. I happened to be at Harvard but I found the Lascari dictionary in Michigan – published in 1812 in Calcutta by a Scottish linguist. I didn’t have to make anything up.’

     Despite, or possibly because of the men’s evident respect for one another, the event only truly came to life during the question-and-answer session. The first questioner, an American journalist called Christopher Lydon, said to Ghosh, ‘You haven’t touched on the other way to read this book,’ before pointing out that the lead character in River of Smoke is called Bahram (not a major phonetic leap from the first name of US President Barack Obama), and asking if it could be read as ‘coded commentary’ on more recent wars involving that other ‘Big O commodity’ – oil.

     Ghosh laughed. ‘I wouldn’t say that the book came out of my response to the Iraq war but I would say I was writing it at a time when the parallels were so obvious and so evident – even the language – that you couldn’t escape it. The British were saying things like “When our troops march into Canton, they’ll be cheering them in the streets” [and] many of those merchants were Scottish; they were the first generation fully exposed to Adam Smith and David Ricardo. To them, free trade was a kind of religion.’ 

     Then, with greater passion than he’d shown all evening, he suddenly leapt from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first: ‘Economics has managed to persuade us that free trade’s not an ideology – that it’s like a law of nature!’ The previous day, a group of Harvard students had walked out of the introductory economics class taught by Professor Greg Mankiw. Maybe, said Ghosh, this represented the beginning of a ‘sea change’ in contemporary attitudes towards free markets and free trade. ‘It’s extraordinary how they [the lecturers] get away with this stuff!’

 

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