Sea of thoughts
History and fiction coalesce in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. DIVYA KUMARchats with the author, who will formally launch his book in Hyderabad tomorrow
Photo: V. Sudershan
Author speak Amitav Ghosh’s new book is the first in his trilogy
Fields of poppies on either side of the Ganges, given over entirely to the production of opium. Nineteenth-Century British merchants who’ll stop at nothing to continue the hugely lucrative smuggling of the drug to China. Indentured labourers an
d convicts from India being transported in the most primitive conditions across the seas to Mauritius, a land they can barely fathom. The motley crew of Lascars or seamen from all across Asia who make their living aboard those same ships…
These are just some of the elements of Amitav Ghosh’s ambitious new novel, Sea of Poppies, the first book in an epic trilogy. The author, who splits his time between the U.S. and India, talked to us about the story he expects to spend the next couple of decades writing.
Where did the idea of basing the story around the opium trade come from?
I have long been interested in this whole business of migration out of India, and I wanted to examine the earliest period of that, in the 1830s. When I started looking into the historical background of that period, I found that basically, this is what was happening — growing poppies and smuggling opium into China.
Did you also write about it because you felt it was an ignored part of Indian history?
Well, I think one should have a realistic idea of what happened. It wasn’t that I was looking to teach a lesson. But when I embarked on the whole process, the first thing that people said to me was, ‘Oh, could this have really happened?’ Someone even wrote a letter to Outlook saying that the Ghazipur factory (featured in the book) didn’t produce opium at all. It’s absurd, really, the degree of denial that exists in India on this subject. I know a fair amount about Indian history, but to discover that the whole of our Nineteenth-Century past is based on this single commodity is astonishing.
Were there other things you came across during your research that surprised or shocked you?
Yes, the whole process of the removal of convicts by the British. They were the first to set up island prisons — for a period of 60, 70 years, one of their major industries was just transporting convicts. But what truly astonished me was that in the 1860s and 1870s, when they removed the convicts to the prisons, they would strip them naked and take humiliating pictures of them. It’s so eerily reminiscent of the situation in Guantanamo Bay today. Some of these pictures are now available and they’re absolutely horrifying and heartbreaking.
In spite of its dark backdrop this is still, in a sense, a joyous book about transformation and new beginnings.
Yes, and that’s the result of several things. For one, I knew that if I was going to be writing a story for 10-15 years, and it was all just sadness and disaster, I wouldn’t survive the process!
The second thing is there is a terrible sentimentality that assumes that people who are suffering do not laugh. It’s a ridiculous idea — to be human is to be able to laugh. The third thing is that when you read actual accounts of migrant ships, it’s constantly reported that these migrants were always singing. Music, song and legend were very deep in their lives and provided them with a cultural resource to draw upon.
And lastly, when I spent time in Mauritius, I found that despite all that they went through, the descendents of these indentured labourers have created a vibrant, thriving society. I came to admire what they’d achieved.
What sort of time frame will the sequels cover? Do you already know how it will all end?
I want to follow it as long as it takes. I thought I’d cover at least cover three or four years in this book; I covered eight months. (laughs) But I don’t mind, I’ll stick with it as long as it takes. I think I know where I want the last part of the three books to end, but I don’t think that will mean an end of the books — maybe it will, maybe it won’t. As they say in Brooklyn, ‘god willing and the Creek don’t rise’.
The Circle of Reason: 1986
The Shadow Lines: 1988
In an Antique Land: 1992
The Calcutta Chromosome: 1996
Dancing in Cambodia and Other Essays: 1998
The Glass Palace: 2000
The Imam and the Indian: 2002
The Hungry Tide: 2004
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