05 September 2008
Irreverent, hip, assured. Mohammed Hanif belongs to the new breed of Pakistani writers who herald the birth of a bold, new Pakistan -- only if, inshallah, the army and the mullahs will let it come into being. Hanif, the BBC Urdu Service head who was once a Pilot Officer in the Pakistani Air Force Academy, is the latest entrant in the fast-lengthening list of accomplished young Pakistani writers like Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam, and Mohsin Hamid, who display consummate skill combined with Sadat Hasan Manto’s hunger to break taboos. Hanif's first book, The Case of Exploding Mangoes, has attracted much attention for its brave, spirited, hilarious look at Pakistan's past. A review in The New York Times even compares it to Joseph Heller's black-humour classic Catch-22. Hemant Sareen, in an email exchange with Hanif, discovers that the suave, cool, wickedly funny voice of the narrator in the book wasn't a put-on act.
Hemant Sareen: How has your book been received in Pakistan?
Mohammed Hanif: Great so far. Brilliant reviews. Wall-to-wall coverage in print and electronic media. And some really sweet emails from random readers.
HS: You must have stumbled upon state secrets to absolve the Bhuttos, the CIA, the Israelis, the Soviets, and the Afghans, not to mention the Indians, all of whom wanted Zia dead?
MH: I didn’t notice that I had absolved anyone. That wasn’t the purpose. I was trying to write a murder mystery with some jokes.
HS: And you have implicated one General (Akhtar, Director ISI) and a Major (Kiyani) from the Army, and the ISI? The book is not just an entertaining historical thriller, it is naming names of real people?
MH: Again, I don’t think I have implicated anyone. You need names for your characters. And Kiyani is a very common last name in Punjab. And as a novelist I think I can name as many names as the plot demands.
HS: You actually suggest that the absolutely powerful, deeply hierarchical, totally unaccountable army-ISI complex was the main culprit.
MH: I do not suggest any such thing. There are some great books out there about the Pakistan army and I think anyone looking for an insight into this complex should read them. My novel will only misguide them.
HS: You were an insider; you were training to be a pilot in the Pakistan Air Force. Did you complete your training? When and why did you quit?
MH: Hardly an insider. I was in my late teens and one of thousands marching up and down the parade squares with an occasional flying lesson. I left because it was quite boring.
HS: What did you learn from that experience? When and how did the experience turn into political convictions, if at all it did?
MH: Sadly, I haven’t been able to turn any of those experiences into any political conviction. I learnt that one should wake up really early, go for long runs, keep one’s belt tight, shine one’s shoes properly, clean my cupboard every week etc. Good lessons all, but I am too lazy to make any use of them in my current life.
HS: You allude repeatedly to the Pakistani army’s self-delusional existence. Does it really believe it is being useful to the country, and that it is popular? One would have imagined over the years it might have been cured of the delusion?
MH: The Pakistan army is not the only army in the world guilty of this delusion. Ask any colonel from the US army or even your Indian army and you’ll find out what they think of civilians like me and you.
HS: Your Zia reads like a Hamlet who comes into knowledge, but late. Was it a literary requirement to humanise the “cruellest of modern tyrants” or do you really think, no harm done, maybe he would have listened to his Koran or the inner voice, and perhaps withdrawn, reformed?
MH: I think you are reading too much into a little plot twist. I don’t think he is redeemed as a character. And as we all know, dictators in our region don’t reform and never withdraw.
HS: Was he, maybe, as much a victim as he was an agency of evil? Was the Islamisation of the army and the society at large that he effected an act of piety and a foreign policy strategy -- and not a tactic to consolidate and retain power?
MH: I don’t think piety had anything to do with it. It was just old fashioned greed for power.
HS: Is there a new clarity in Pakistan about contemporary history? Have people become smart enough to not let another Zia happen?
MH: I hope they have. Millions have marched against Musharraf on the streets of Pakistan during the last one year. And they have forced Musharraf to hold half decent elections, to take off his uniform. I think civil society in Pakistan is definitely on the rise.
HS: Are the Police State elements too deeply entrenched to be uprooted completely?
MH: It’ll be a long struggle.
HS: One of the processes you show in your book is the brutalisation to which the elite of Pakistani society subject their young, hip, secular, modern offspring, which turns them into cynical hate-mongers who abuse religion and power to remain on top of the heap in society.
MH: The elite of Pakistan actually send their offspring to Ivy League colleges, where they get a very expensive education, learn new ways of making money, and make their families proud and richer in the process. Army careers, both in India and Pakistan, are for lower middle classes only, or the academically challenged.
HS: This also suggests that the coups and political upheavals in the country are a way to bring the balance of power back in favour of the elite, who are complicit in their orchestration. Which is why the coups in Pakistan tend to be bloodless -- the feudal elite have only subjects and no competitors?
MS: You are absolutely right but as I said earlier this seems to be changing now. We have a very thriving media, a very determined lawyers’ movement and lots of hardworking rights groups trying to change things.
HS: Is the book a vehicle of your political convictions or are you just trying to be an agent provocateur?
MH: I am a journalist who is dabbling into fiction and hoping to do more of this in future.
HS: What kind of research/investigation did you follow while writing, if you did, or is the book the sum total of impressions and hearsay?
MH: Mostly impressions, recycled rumours. My research involved watching reruns of MASH.
HS: Where were you when you heard about Zia's death? I remember, I was in my late teens and had a personal celebration being in a very apolitical place -- an ashram.
MH: I was also in a very apolitical place, an officers’ mess. We were drinking beer in our rooms. We were shocked and sad so we switched to whisky.
HS: Is Pakistan deciding that the kind of Islam that has gained currency since Zia is not its cup of tea after all? That it’s time to go back to the traditional South Asian Sufi-tinged, gentler, less dogmatic, suppler kind of Islam?
MH: I don’t think anybody is going back to traditional Sufism. There is a very vocal minority that is religious and they are joined by some new converts. Most people are struggling with rising food and fuel prices and really have no time to worry about religion.
HS: Has an increasingly liberal and permissive India (at least in the media and the films) denied Pakistan a familiar model worth emulating -- one that could balance tradition, religion and modernity? The example that comes to the mind is a group of middle-class Pakistani women visiting India, complaining that they find it harder and harder to relate Bollywood because of the western dresses actresses wear in the movies?
MH: Bollywood fashion trends? I think you haven’t been following Bollywood lately. A lot of Pakistani women wear western dresses, you can see them everywhere. Pakistan also has a very vibrant fashion industry. Bollywood is always trying to find new ways of introducing the skimpiest clothes for their women. I don’t think real life women in India and Pakistan have that approach. I was quite surprised about the furore over cheerleaders recently. Obviously people objecting to it have not been to a cinema lately.
HS: You have an MFA from the University of East Anglia. Who was your teacher? Who were your classmates? What makes a young man training to be fighter pilot land in a writing course?
MH: I have been a journalist for a decade and a half, and I wanted some time off to write. That’s how I ended up at UEA. I had some brilliant teachers there. Patricia Duncker, who is the author of Hallucinating Foccoult and many other brilliant novels. Then we had Andrew Cowan and Michel Roberts. Also Richard Holmes taught me a life writing course which was great. Had lots of people in my class: Ann, Vicky, Laura, Emily, Ralph. All great readers and good company at the college bar.
HS: What is your ideal of writing? Who is your favourite author?
MH: I think, trying to find out what you don’t know. You sit with a blank page and you have a very vague idea about what’s going to happen. That really is a delicious feeling when you find out what is going to happen next. My favourite author is Truman Capote. Current favourite author Mirza Athar Baig, who wrote Ghulam Bagh.
HS: A writing school degree on the back cover blurb usually means a serious, literary, personal, well-crafted book. You’ve come out with a lean but breezy historical thriller.
MH: Is that a compliment or a complaint?
HS: The book reads like a movie at times -- the plotting, the pacing, the cuts in and out, the dialogue, and the set pieces (eg Zia’s night out on his bicycle). Are you still into your other passion, cinema?
MH: I have written a movie and a half. Passion is a bit of an overstatement, though. Occasionally I get passionate about theatre. I have written two-and-a-half plays. It’s the best feeling; sitting in the audience, watching people react to your words. I am in the middle of writing a play called The Dictator’s Wife. I’ll be sitting in the audience.
HS: I thought the book, because it machetes away the complexities of the times and around the event, to be guilty of low ambition. Did you ever consider a more monumental, dense, complex, solid book? Or did you plan it that way, but then received a call from Islamabad to knock it off, so settled for a book that moves from one one-liner to the next?
MH: I have written a very monumental, very dense book, and I think the most complex book I have ever written. Sorry you don’t agree. Will try harder next time. I am also glad you recognise that I lack ambition. The only calls I get from Islamabad are from our BBC bureau and trust me they never say, ‘Finish that bloody novel!’
HS: While writing the book, you must have been thinking up Pakistani-flavoured witticisms all the time? You must have been some company to keep in a pub?
MH: Pubs are for writing. Only bores talk in pubs.
HS: What’s your view on how Pakistani writing is coming up and the direction it is taking?
MH: The best Pakistani writing I recently read was a novel called Ghulam Bagh. A philosophical, archaeological thriller. Everybody should read it. I think that’s the direction Pakistani writing should take.
HS: Does being a part of the BBC make you an agent of the West in Pakistan, like it made foreign journalists and their Indian colleagues suspect in Indira Gandhi’s time?
MH: I wasn’t there in Indira’s time. People are generally suspicious of journalists, local or foreign. And I think they should be.
HS: The BBC's maternalism looked a bit out of place in the free-market culture fast becoming the norm in the developing world. Now, what with global warming and food crises, it seems relevant again?
MH: BBC bosses would love this.
HS: Is Pakistani private, independent media an established fact now? Can this advance ever be reversed?
HS: Is there another book on the hard disk?
MH: Only on notebooks.
04 September 2008
Sea of Poppies
By Amitav Ghosh
Opium was once what oil is today: an addictive substance fueling personal and imperial fantasies. The first major enclaves of the British Empire in India, Bombay and Calcutta, were built on opium. The British Empire in India drew its power from the substance, much in demand then as an analgesic, a narcotic, and an addictive stimulant that produced countless junkies, but also some great poetry. The British held a monopoly over opium production in India. Vast swathes of fertile land along the Ganges were turned into seas of poppies. The farmers who cultivated poppy were no more than slaves forced to provide the cheap labour and land for poppy cultivation that fed the British opium factories in India. The British used this dope and the profits from it to cause mischief in China -- opium became the opiate of the Chinese masses.
It was a British policy, much like their divide-and-rule in India, to turn the Chinese into junkies -- in one stroke carve out a market and an empire. That was until the Chinese got wiser and put the spanner in the Limeys’ work. In the early 19th century, the trade almost ground to a halt as China embargoed the British opium. The worst affected were the opium farmers, already chronically indebted thanks to the unfair terms dealt to them by the British. Mouthing free trade pieties, the British declared the Chinese move an act of aggression. Soon the Opium Wars would begin and would end in the British biting a meaty morsel off China -- Hong Kong. But before that, the British, to cut their losses in China, took up trade in indentured labour -- the ‘girmitiyas’ (people who had signed an agreement) or Jahaj bhais, as the ragtag lot would later fondly call their fellow travellers and immigrants.
The first book of Amitav Ghosh’s proposed Ibis trilogy, Sea of Poppies, is set against this background: To be precise, in 1938, on the eve of the Opium Wars. The story is about how the Ibis, a refitted American schooner that arrives in Calcutta’s Hooghly with an American mulatto freedman, carpenter-turned-captain Zachary Reid at the helm, to be filled with its load of passengers before it can set sail across the dreaded kala pani to Mareech dweep, Mauritius. Each of its passengers is a creature of circumstances in which opium looms, large or small: A group of indentured labours headed for the sugarcane fields of Mareech, among them Deeti, the widow of an afeemkhor poppy farmer; her low-caste jora, Kalua; Paulette Lambert, the orphaned, spirited daughter of a French botanist; Jodu, her childhood playmate, son of her Bengali ayah; Raja Neel Rattan Halder, a disgraced, bankrupt zamindar; and the strange devious-benign Baboo Nob Kissin, agent-incharge of the illegal human cargo (slavery having been abolished by then) of the ersatz slave ship Ibis.
Ghosh, with his redoubtable ability to mix fact and fiction and churn out engaging narratives that can deal with knotty, urgent, civilisational themes without breaking a sweat, is in his element here, revelling in the opportunity the trilogy provides to mount his continuing project of retrieving marginal histories teetering on the edge of oblivion -- the subject also of his two most accomplished books, The Shadow Lines, and In An Antique Land -- on an epic scale, something already attempted in The Circle of Reason and The Hungry Tide, albeit on relatively smaller scales. He now turns the economy of opium production into a scathing allegory about how egregiously exploitative and oppressive the Empire was, and into a cracking page-turner.
Ghosh shows rather than tells the perverse nature of the social engineering the British were effecting with the opium, whose effects were so profound as cause tectonic shifts in a civilisation -- disarray across caste hierarchies, upheaval in the most entrenched of religious beliefs, en masse breaking of the strongest taboos. The world of Deeti and her fellow girmitiyas -- from their fields, the opium factory, their economic and social circumstances, to their Calcutta camps where they waited in fear and trembling to board the ships to the unknown -- is wonderfully textured, painstakingly reconstructed by the fine literary ethnographer Ghosh is.
Characters come alive -- after all, they have to keep us curious about their fates for two more books -- as Ghosh effortlessly, unselfconsciously constructs them partly from research, partly from his masterly ability to get under his characters’ skin. Ghosh successfully authenticates his characters through language. The reader is treated to Laskari, a ‘motley tongue’ that combined various Asian vernaculars to come up with translations of English maritime terms; the Hobson-Jobson patois of Mr Doughty, the river pilot; and the indentured labourers’ lilting Bhojpouri.
The resultant vivid evocation of the characters’ milieus and the pleasure of tad delayed recognition of vernacular words in strange spelling and strange script -- ‘dumbcow’ (‘dhamkana’), ‘carcanna’ (‘karkhana’) -- however, soon wears off when the scene shifts to the Babel-like, cosmopolitan Calcutta, and the English characters -- the voluble pilot, the grumpy first mate, the captain whose lip curls when approached by a native, and the viscerally racist owner of the Ibis -- begin to ‘speak’ to each other and their native interlocutors. The book’s tone suddenly becomes apparent: No more the studied-neutral with which the book began, it now sounds grotesque-comic. Characters start assuming their true colours -- black or white. The moral world becomes a contrasty dichromatic.
Ghosh seems to falter as he leaves the familiar territory where fact and fiction mitigate each other’s excesses and the realm of make-believe begins. The wonderfully delineated characters now must interact with each other. The book’s atmosphere becomes unreal; it reads increasingly artificial; the action is forced. The final part, titled ‘Sea’, suffers from an overdramatised denouement that is more Paul Scott than vintage Amitav Ghosh. It feels like a schoolboy playing with action figures carefully placed in a plastic ship resting on the floor of an air-conditioned room. The sea---and Ghosh's sea is like a cup of tea gone cold---sinks any traces of ambiguity left in the book. Good and evil are neatly separated, and efficiently and judiciously dealt with. The ending does more for the next book in the trilogy than for Poppies.
Despite some achievements, Sea of Poppies feels towards the end more like a product of a grand commercial venture than an outcome of a writer's reflection and deep-felt literary intent. Yet, this is a low-risk three-chance game. Ghosh has two more, and given his talent, he is likely to make good.
Photograph © Hemant Sareen
Amitav Ghosh, with his mop of since-ages white hair and a pleasingly contrasting dusky skin, stands welcoming you in his tenth floor suite in a five-star Delhi hotel looking like a weightier, intellectual, grown-up, oriental Tintin. There are signs of the whirl of book launch-related activity---boxes full of copies of his latest book, presumably meant to be given away to old friends from Ghosh’s long stay in Delhi, are strewn on the floor. You realise, here is a man who perfectly embodies the image the middle class India has of an Indian Writer in English---a material and creative success; someone with a universality that comes from being a perfect mix of Indian-ness and westernisation, a man as comforatble in a Harvard lecture room as he is in a boat afloat in the Sundarbans; and a nerd with a great presence, equally at home at his desk as he is at a book-launch party. As he engages the photographer in easy conversation about an old Stephanian connection they have both discovered, you feel the ice is broken. Nope. Almost rendered inarticulate by Ghosh’s combativeness, Hemant Sareen discovers that the author of nine books that have constantly countered the West-centric world view, Amitav Ghosh is not someone to whom one mentions ambivalence and the Empire in the same sentence.
Hemant Sareen: Sea of Poppies is an indictment of colonialism but it was surprising to find the heroes and the villains so neatly separated into good and bad guys. Also, the fact that all your British characters are shown as snarling rascals.
Amitav Ghosh: Are you sure you read my book? My book is about marginal people and all of them are deeply flawed. The central character Deeti has murdered her own mother in law. They are all either criminals or on some side of criminality. Another character is a forger. And the single most genuinely evil character in the book is Bhairon Singh. So what it really show when someone asks me that question is that they cannot believe that an Englishman can be bad. I should only bring out the badness in the Indians and no one else, is that what you are saying ? It wrong to bring out the badness of Englishman, is that what you are saying?
HS: Not really!
AG: But that seems to be the sound of it! It’s interesting to me that you are reading it [the book] that way because it seems you have an agenda!
HS: Having read your other books, especially the first two, The Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines, the Empire as something so unambiguously evil as it is portrayed in Sea of Poppies doesn’t cross the mind.
AG: The Shadow Lines is not about drug smugglers or slave traders. How many gentle Arab slave traders have you read about? And that is really a racist thing because many of them [the Arab slave traders] were really sweet people. Very kind, very gentle. Similarly, how many good-natured Colombian drug traders have you read about? And I am sure that’s a terrible distortion [about depicting Colombian drug lords as hardened trigger-happy criminals] because they have families, they are nice to their children.
HS: If the British were so plainly evil, you have not painted their victims in primary colours, they do not really act like victims. In fact they are shown as much victims as beneficiaries of the changes drug trade brought in the circumstances? Caste system is suddenly in flux, religious taboos are broken, societal oppression is replaced by indenture, but all in all the indentured labourers are looking forward to the journey across kala pani, there is even romance on the ship hardly out of Hooghly waters?
AG: It doesn’t interest me to write about the victims of the Empire. What interests me is people who make their way in a very difficult world. That’s what my Indian characters do [in Sea of Poppies], that’s what my French, American and English characters do. Some ways they are all participants in the evil of the circumstances they live in.
HS: You wrote in your essay The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi (1995): It is when we thin of the world the aesthetic of indifference might bring into being that we recognise the urgency of remembering the stories we have not written. What was the urgency you felt to write about the indentured labourers, the Jahaj-bhais and -baihans?
AG: When I started thinking about this book especially when I travelled to Mauritius and met people there, one of the things that really struck me was this aspect of their remembering -- their ancestors, relationships --as they crossed the waters and came together, and they often spoke of [these fellow travellers-indentured labourers] as Jahaj-bhais. That was a beautiful thing and I would think about it, and write about it.
HS: And, of course, the book continues with your abiding writerly concern of retrieving from extinction histories on the verge of being forgotten, especially the histories of marginal people?
AG: The thing about dealing with marginal people is that marginal people often have to do terrible things just to stay alive. And it’s never easy for them to survive in the circumstances and the world they live in. So many of the indentured labourers whose portraits are painted are painted in Sea of Poppies are people who in some ways emerging from poverty become warped by it.
I think the 19th century was incredibly hard, incredibly bitter, and it’s strange that people have such a toffee-coated notion of what life was like in the 19th century. It was an incredibly ferocious, violent life. In fact, if I were to reproduce the real violence of the slave ship and what slave, opium traders did, the actual reality of what they were doing , you’d probably not believe it because, of course, you actually think all Englishmen were nice, gentle school teachers. [Laughs]
HS: I am not going to ask you what the next book in the Ibis trilogy is going to end, but tell me why a trilogy?
AG: Hmm, because I want to have the time and space to explore this [the above] at some length.
HS: Is it a theme or the story that is driving the trilogy?
AG: What I am going to do is just follow the lives and destinies of these characters.
HS: The first book reads like ‘to be continued’, ‘part one’. Not so much a triptych as a book in three volumes this Ibis trilogy?
AG: It could be more, four, five, or, even more volumes. I don’t know. I’m thinking of three.
HS: You regard the novel as a national narrative. It seems now that you are trying to consolidate your oeuvre, project your pet writerly concerns on a larger scale.
AG: It is interesting what you said there. I don’t regard the novel as a national narrative at all. A large and a national narrative are different things. [The novel to me] is not national in the sense of relating to contemporary India. Sea of Poppies is a non-national narrative in the sense that it is about people who are leaving India behind.
HS: You have a problem with the concept of nation. You regard its artificiality as antithetical to identity’s organic-ness. Do you have an alternative to it in the Subcontinental context (something like a European Union)?
AG: My feelings about this are twofold. One is that we should be very keenly aware when you say artificial. One thing we do have to understand is that the nature of the relationships with our neighbours is civilisational, it is linguistic. These are deep and enduring relationships. And we have to remember that we can’t make them seem as though they were ancient because they are not. They are new.
At the same time you know the nation state as such, artificial or not, is a very important institution. It is an institution because it provides a forum in which people can negotiate their differences within which they can also implement policy. So, the nation state in my view serves a very important purpose and I don’t in any way discount or devalue the nation because I have actually seen what happens when a nation state is disappears. In fact, what you then get is warlordism. And the nation state is greatly preferable to that -- although within our nation sate we do have entire areas that are run by warlords. But even in this day and age, we have to consider ourselves very fortunate that we have a functioning nation state and it functions in a democratic way. These are great achievements and in no way to be discounted.
HS: The Novel or fiction, you have often said, is preferable to both history and anthropology, the subjects that you pursue in your academic life, because the novel can accommodate both these disciplines and much more?
AG: I do. I think other than history and ethnography, the novel can include a lot of other things that other genera cannot encompass, like food, climate, air. What is really exciting about the novel is its expansiveness. Its ability to take in the whole world and hold a mirror to the world.
HS: You told the BBC once that you feel uncomfortable writing in an adopted language. ‘I do battle with my self,’ you said. But reading something like The Shadow Lines, in which the language is supple, organic, and seems totally unforced, that you’d believe a native speaker was writing it. Even now the new experiment in language you try in Sea of Poppies, gives an impression of a writer fully at ease with the language. You have tried to present the times and the characters through language. There is the Anglo-Indian patois; there is Laskari, the language lascars, the Indian or South-East Asian sailors of the time spoke, usually translating the English Maritime jargon into vernacular; there is babu English, vernacular directly translated into English including the syntax. And then there is Bhojpuri.
AG: I love those interstitial languages. Just in general though, why do we think of any writer’s relationship with the language as something that’s comfortable? What’s good about being comfortable with the language? Any writer’s relationship with the language should be difficult, not comfortable. That is exactly from where writing emerges. You are pushing yourself against something. You are meeting resistance, and you meet the resistance within yourself. So, for me the fact of being in a difficult relationship with the language is much more interesting than being in an easy relationship with the language. Language isn’t like a hot water bath that you just to lie down in and forget about yourself. Language should be something to be struggling against. I think to have a counter-statutory, difficult relationship with the language has at least for me been a highly productive thing. It’s a very good thing. It’s what my writing comes from.
Also, my writing comes from a sense of multilinguality---from the multilinguality of India. An Englishman, an American, a Thai, a Frenchman---they don’t know lots of other languages because their reality can be lived in one language. Our Indian reality cannot be lived like that. It cannot be experienced like that. It follows that the books we write will reflect that. In my case, my father’s family settled in Chapra in 1856 --- 150 years ago. In my father’s family they always spoke in Bhojpuri to each other. And I so enjoyed listening to it. It is a very beautiful language. I remember most of my Bhojpuri through music---through kajris, hooris, dadra, and so on, such beautiful forms of music.
HS: Your idea of the novel is very historical in the sense that in early novel, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, travel provided the plot, the setting, character development. Why did travel become such an important motif in your works?
AG: As you say, Cervantes, but also because I travelled a lot. My family, as I told you, travelled from Bengal to Chapra and that was not a one-way journey---they had to go back to Bengal to get married---so it was a continuous [to and fro]. And I think this is an interesting thing about India, Indian migrants continuously travel [within India] and not just one way. Travel helps me organise a story. It helps me tell a story.
HS: You refused the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2001. Has anything in the world changed or your own views to reconsider your views of the Commonwealth?
AG: Absolutely not! I think, if anything, the world has gone in the wrong direction. When I rejected the prize, it was before the Iraq war and I think what you are really seeing is the return of colonialism. a kind of Anglo-American imperialism. And that is the whole problem with the Commonwealth. My rejection of it is based on the idea that the Commonwealth is a euphemism. It’s a whitewashing of the past. The Commonwealth historically meant white settler colonies. It was only after the 1940s that they began to include non-white colonies in it. Look at the Commonwealth’s history, it was a hideous thing.
HS: You have qualms about globalisation?
AG: I have qualms about the globalisation of Capital to the exclusion of the globalisation of Labour. That’s really the problem. What it all adds up to, what the contemporary globalisation has become is a way of always seeking cheaper and cheaper labour. Whereas the idea of globalisation to me is that of cultural contact, of cultural exchanges between people and civilisations. That to me is the most wonderful thing that can happen to human beings. And it has happened, there is nothing new about it. It goes back to millennia. So, that is something I completely embrace and celebrate that aspect of interchange. I wrote In An Antique Land which was about pre-colonial globalisation. Globalisation under the control of a few dominant nations is the globalisation of slavery and indenture. That’s not the globalisation I would want.
HS: Interconnected world easily lends itself to romanticism. Even in Sea of Poppies, you depict the 19th century globalisation as extremely unfair and exploitative, but you also show how it allowed Indians to cross the kala pani, break crippling religious taboos, shake up the age-old caste system a bit. Inequity is part of globalisation just as it is of real life. There is both good and bad to it.
AG: That you can say about anything. Even about Nadir Shah, presumably. [Laughs]. What can one say about that?
Before the Europeans entered the Indian Ocean, the sort of exchanges that happened between people were not necessarily iniquitous. There was a certain amount of inequity naturally as there always is in human society, but the bases of the terms of the trade were not iniquitous necessarily.
HS: You write in an essay about V.S. Naipaul’s role in turning you into a writer. There were other Indian writers around and there was Salman Rushdie. Was he an inspiration?
AG: Rushdie is a wonderful writer, but he wasn’t writing when I was in my formative years. When I was in school and college, it is very hard to explain to young Indians today that, there were so few people writing about experiences like ours. So we always sought them out. I read every word I could find of Naipaul. I hunted him out. And not just Naipaul, but also his brother Shiva Naipaul. Also, Sam Selvon who is another major Caribbean writers, and one of the great inspirations in my life, James Baldwin, the great Black American writer. But the writers who were available to us in those days like Nayantara Sehgal, Anita Desai (whose work was very important to us in those days, and it was quite different from what it is now), and others like Aubrey Menon, who are forgotten, I don’t know why. All these writers were great inspirations to us because there was nobody else. We had to read them.
Today, when I walk into my nieces’ or my nephews’ rooms, their bookshelves are filled with writers from the Subcontinent. I feel so happy for them because it’s a wonderful thing that they can see their experiences reflected in the works around them. I think this is one of the greatest things that has happened in these last many years. It just wasn’t there for us.
HS: The direct, sparse language of The Shadow Lines that sought a direct connection with the reader was surprising for the fact that the book was written when magical realism with its lingual frippery was in vogue--- you too had flirted with it in The Circle of Reason just two years before Shadow. Where did that confidence come to buck the trend?
AG: Style is an interesting issue because it pertains to each book. In the process of writing it the style, that is appropriate to the book, emerges. So, that was what happened with The Shadow Lines. It was different for The Calcutta Chromosomes.
It comes out with the process of writing. There is a very good word ‘tazurba’ which is both experiment and experience. In that sense this is what it is---from ‘tazurba’ of the writer the form emerges.