From what one has read of his novels, one expects Amitav Ghosh to be a polite, reserved writer, most comfortable doing his research and frowning over notes at his desk—the kind who will tolerate scribes patiently, heave a sigh of relief when they’re gone, and whose daily parlance includes words like “Anglophone”, “subaltern”, “commodification” and “cultural appropriation’’.
One certainly does not expect the white-haired, kurta-clad author to chat affably about the pollution in Bangalore, and then burst out laughing when one asks whether his latest offering, The Ibis Trilogy is his magnum opus. The award-winning writer speaks about his transition from journalist to author, his take on colonialism, his opinion of labels, and the stories that have inspired him.
You started out as a journalist—a career where you knew your articles would be wrapped around channachur or peanuts the next day. Now, as an author, you have new editions of your earliest works. Did you ever feel this was surreal?
It’s completely surreal. It’s not just surreal, it’s amazing! It’s continuously amazing to me. You know, when I wrote journalism, it was one thing. I was doing what you do. (Laughs) But for so many years, I was publishing with the smallest publisher in India. I was an obscure writer, writing about obscure things. And it’s kind of amazing to me now that my books find such a large audience and so much interest. And I feel really, sort of, incredibly privileged.
Do you think your training as a journalist, and then as a student working towards a doctorate, disciplined the way you research the things you want to write about?
Absolutely. I think that’s a very good way to put it. I think, most of all, my habits as a journalist have really influenced me very much. Just the habit of keeping extensive notes, keeping journals, all those things…they’ve been really helpful to me. But “discipline” is a good word, I think. At some level, the disciplines of the mind do kick in!
Because, you know, in the eyes of many Indians, many people who live on the subcontinent, you and I are colonisers. We can never escape that. I mean, the people who live in the forests, how would they look at you and me? The people who live in…say Kashmir, the people who live in the Northeast. So, it’s just not that simple. This is what I mean to say
As a novelist, you’ve written about issues and incidents that journalists could not or would not have been able to write about at the time they occurred, such as the massacre at Morichjhãpi, which you describe in The Hungry Tide.
Well, two people did write about it, to their very great credit. One is Jyotirmoy Datta, who now lives in America. And the other is Sunil Gangopadhyay, who is now the Director of Sahitya Akademi. He did write about it—at great length, actually – and he did everything he could to bring it to public attention. He was already then a famous writer. But I guess people didn’t want to listen at that point.
Do you think literature can envision a solution that will be acceptable and even inspiring, in political situations such as this, where editorials and articles don’t work?
I think it’s impossible to look at literature instrumentally, and I think it’s a mistake even to try and think of it in that way. I mean, if and when I’ve felt that I must say something about some aspect of the social or political order, I write an essay or an article. But literature is its own space, and I think one has to respect the integrity of that space.
You know, I don’t think there should be some sort of strict line between literary fiction and all other kinds of fiction. Often, fiction which would appear to be genre fiction is actually very ambitious fiction.
I’m not saying you write with an agenda. But what you feel about a subject is bound to come through in your writing, isn’t it?
Yes, of course. And how could it not? But, at the same time, see, the importance of the novel, in my way of looking at things, is that often you can look at things from so many different sides. You know, when you write an article, you have this point of view, and you push it through. I think the reason I’m a novelist is that I can see so many different sides to everything. It’s just not that easy for me, very often.
You’re writing a lot more fiction based on history, than non-fiction these days. Is this a conscious decision, to allow the reader to judge rather than do the judging yourself?
Yeah. That’s very much the thing. I mean, even when I wrote my extended essays in non-fiction, they were never sort of, like, programmes, you know. (Laughs) They weren’t editorials, they were more attempts to try and understand the situations. And really, at this point in my life, I’m not physically capable of doing the kind of extensive reporting that it took.
Over the years, the complexity of the subjects you tackle, and the amount of research you put into each book, have grown exponentially. Do you ever wish you could have done this back when you first started writing?
I could never have done it back then. You know, that’s an interesting question, because people often say it’s when you’re young that your brain is at maximum capacity, and it can do all sorts of work. But I don’t find that to be the case at all. I think that’s the great difference between doing literary work, and doing science. I feel at this point in my life, I know more, I’ve seen more, I’ve experienced more, and all that comes into my work. The work I did when I was younger has other things, and what I did now has different things! (Laughs)
Most writers have an acknowledged masterpiece. Do you consider the Ibis Trilogy could be your magnum opus, or are you yet to write yours?
(Laughs) Of course! Absolutely. I mean, what’s yet to come?
Look, these categories and labels exist, and they’re all around you all the time. But you have to follow in your own vision. It doesn’t matter what people say, or where they place you or put you. I mean, writing is not like making a product where you have to consider the consumer
Out of all your books, do you have a pet favourite?
No, I don’t really. And I can tell you this: at every signing, one reader will come and say, ‘Oh, I loved your Shadow Lines, it meant so much to me!’ and then the next person will come and say ‘Oh, I loved The Hungry Tide!’ and the next person will say ‘Oh, why can’t you ever write another book like In an Antique Land, that was your best!’ and then another person will say ‘The Glass Palace was what really meant so much to me’ and so it will go on, na? And I’m perfectly happy with that! At the end of the day, it’s not like I say to myself ‘Okay, now I’ll go back and write The Hungry Tide, Part 2.’ I don’t even know if that’ll be possible. Those things just arise in moments in time, you know.
Given the intricacies of the subjects you tackle, it can’t be easy to distil events into a certain number of pages. Do you have trouble ending lives and resolving conflicts by the last page, though you know they will go on after?
Yeah, that’s a very difficult thing about writing novels, you know. I mean, a novel finds its end, and yet the lives go on, and you do feel tempted to take them through here and there. But, of course, a book has its logical end.
Is this why you chose to write a trilogy, so you could stay with them a little longer?
Over the years, you’ve often looked at how characters react to events. Is your focus shifting now to how events impact characters and push them around?
Characters are pushed around by events. I feel that about myself. You know, it’s a strange thing. By chance, I’ve often found myself in places where things have just blown up all around me. I was in New York on 9/11, walking my children to school. I was in Delhi in 1984. As a kid, I was in these terrible riots.
And so, you know, these realities are around us all the time. We adjust our lives to suit them. You know, especially with Bengal and that whole landscape of Bengal, I think so much of the destinies of people is decided by cataclysmic events, you know…like a river changes course. After a monsoon, it often happens that a river changes course—my father’s ancestral village was drowned by a river. And that was when they started moving. We now speak of ecological refugees. But I think in Bengal, that has been the case for a very long time.
For Indians who were born after Independence, who’ve lived abroad, have British friends whom they would not associate with an oppressor—now, they may never have experienced colonialism, but there is still a sense of anger, of frustration at a historical injustice. You’ve spoken in interviews of the importance of finding a voice that can break the paradigm of being colonised. But do you think that can ever happen?
I have no such plan, really. Because, you know, in the eyes of many Indians, many people who live on the subcontinent, you and I are colonisers. We can never escape that. I mean, the people who live in the forests, how would they look at you and me? The people who live in…say Kashmir, the people who live in the Northeast. So, it’s just not that simple. This is what I mean to say. When you’re writing as a novelist, it’s exactly that. I find it so hard to do a kind of direct finger-pointing ever, because one so often finds oneself in these various situations.
So, for me, for example, what was so interesting about writing River of Smoke was exactly that Bahram Modi, who is a sort of thoughtful, thinking person, an Indian, finds himself at the heart of this opium trade that’s ruining China.
I think you pick your battles. Surely, as a journalist, you know that there are certain paragraphs you’ll kill to keep, and there are some where you can…you know, bargain! But of course, at the heart of it, if it’s going to change what you intend to say then, of course you cannot allow it. I’d rather withhold the article
People often pigeonhole you, and say your writing is about postcolonial identity, or about coming to terms with one’s roots. Do you think that’s an academic compulsion of the West, where they need to slot someone into a category to understand and place them?
I never read the criticisms and the books and critiques, so I can’t say, really.
Do you think Indian writers have it easier than writers in the West, where there is such a clear distinction between pulp and literature, and people have to do certain things to make it intellectual? In recent years, there’s been Indian genre fiction in English which is actually classified as ‘Pulp Fiction’ or ‘Chick Lit’. But at one point, all writing on India, by Indians, was Indian Writing, and automatically qualified as literature.
You know, I don’t think there should be some sort of strict line between literary fiction and all other kinds of fiction. Often, fiction which would appear to be genre fiction is actually very ambitious fiction. Amitabha Bagchi wrote a book (Above Average) which seemed to be in the IIT kind of genre, which was in its own way, I felt, a very ambitious book.
So, certainly, I don’t think any serious writer takes those dividing lines very seriously. Look, these categories and labels exist, and they’re all around you all the time. But you have to follow in your own vision, really, and it doesn’t matter what people say, or where they place you or put you.
I mean, writing is not like making a product where you have to consider the consumer. It’s not like that at all.
Even so, it was the kind of thing which someone like R K Narayan spoke about often in interviews. Despite being nominated multiple times for the Nobel Prize, he probably didn’t win it because the people on the panel didn’t see his writing as the kind of fiction that deserved a Nobel. So, don’t you think those labels do affect the career of a writer?
How much do they affect the writer, though? R K Narayan will always be remembered and be loved, won’t he?
One question the first two books of the Ibis trilogy engage with is that of language. For one, there’s pidgin Hindoostani, and even a Frenchwoman who is fluent in Bengali is expected to speak this pidgin with the servants. And in River of Smoke, you have the “boat language” in Canton, used by Fanquis (foreign traders) and Chinese tradesmen so that neither party has the upper hand. You speak of English as being unparalleled for “turning lies into legalism”. What role does the politics of language play in the balance of power?
Oh, it plays an enormous role, a very, very important one. You know, one of the most interesting things I’ve read of is how, in the seventeenth century, when the Chinese empire was bordering up on the Russian empire, they held this series of negotiations. And the Chinese didn’t know Russian, the Russians didn’t know Chinese. But there were many Russians who knew Mongolian. And there were many Chinese who were Mongols. By that time, you had the Chin dynasty, and they were basically Manchus and knew Mongolian. So they could have negotiated in Mongolian. But, the Chinese had taken along these Jesuits from Europe, which they always did. So, these Jesuits made them negotiate in Latin! And it completely skewed the whole nature of these negotiations. This is just one very interesting case of how language affects the balance of power.
How did you come up with the idea of using quotation marks the way you do? Because it does cause a change in intonation, which makes the reader feel distanced, whereas at times, the inverted commas have been explicitly included (In the River of Smoke.)
Oh, the distinguishing thing is very simple. It’s only when they’re speaking English, or a variant thereof, that I use quotation marks.
In essays and interviews, you’ve mentioned location and language as key elements in being true or faithful to a place. You quoted an anecdote about a friend who said you can’t really relate to a place unless you go through the daily frustrations of, let’s say, a traffic jam. Is that why you root yourself mostly in history?
Umm, perhaps, because I don’t think I’d be very good at, let’s say, writing a Bangalore call centre novel, because I don’t know what that life is like. Nor does it particularly interest me! I do live a lot of the time in Goa, but such is my life that I don’t really experience traffic jams. I don’t need to. I sit at home, you know, writing!
What is your process in combining writing with research? Do you write as you research, or do a good bit of research and get the plot down?
No, I write as I research. The research doesn’t drive the writing. It’s the other way round.
Do you plan the novel, or the series, in advance, or let it go where it leads?
No, they’re not at all planned. They go where they go.
Who are the Bengali writers whose writing has been an influence on you?
Many. Tagore, whom I’ve translated. The story I translated (Kshudhita Pashan, The Hunger of Stones) has long been an influence on me. But also his other novels like Gora, and more generally speaking, his sensibility, have been very important for me. Satyajit Ray is another. There’s one Bengali writer whom I remember a lot nowadays, I don’t know why. Anyway, his name is Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, and he wrote these wonderful, sort of children’s historical novels. He was a historical novelist. But he wrote these particular books called The Stories of Sadashiv. And they’re about this boy called Sadashiv, who joins Shivaji’s army. They’re lovely stories, and I read them as a school boy, and I loved them!
You mentioned Ray. Would you have found it acceptable if Pather Panchali had the way the West Bengal government wanted him to, with the family settling down as part of a community development programme?
No! It would have been terrible. Terrible!
But that kind of imposition is something writers such as you yourself have faced, right? You’ve said in an interview that The New Yorker asked you to add a paragraph to your essay about the Iraq war. So in a case like that, do you decide to make a compromise to get most of what you want to say out to the people, or do you take the all-or-nothing route?
I think you pick your battles. Surely, as a journalist, you know that there are certain paragraphs you’ll kill to keep, and there are some where you can… you know, bargain! (Laughs) But of course, at the heart of it, if it’s going to change what you intend to say then, of course you cannot allow it. I’d rather withhold the article.
Given that your newfound writer’s retreat is Goa, and you’re spending more time here in India, what broad themes do you think you may explore in future?
I haven’t really thought about it.