04 September 2008

The Tazurba of Amitav Ghosh

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.

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