Amitav Ghosh pursues adventure across the Indian Ocean in his 19th-century saga, Sea of Poppies
High-seas adventure, South Asian migrations and the 19th-century opium trade are the inspiration for Amitav Ghosh's epic Ibis trilogy. The well-travelled Indian writer's own experience has fueled an ongoing interest in the connections between peoples and cultures.
Born in Kolkata in 1956, Ghosh grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka due to his father's work as a diplomat. He's drawn on his family history in novels such as The Glass Palace, which takes place in Burma; and The Hungry Tide, set in the Sundarbans, the labyrinth of tiny islands on India's easternmost coast. His remarkable nonfiction book In an Antique Land — combining historical research with personal narrative — grew out of his cultural anthropology studies in Egypt.
Sea of Poppies, the first novel in Ghosh's Ibis trilogy, goes to the heart of the British Empire with a tale of intrigue and romance on the eve of the Opium Wars. Featuring a diverse cast of characters from across the Indian Ocean, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008.
Ghosh lives in Kolkata, Goa and New York. He spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 2008, on stage at the Toronto International Festival of Authors.
A concept of home
"Even though we were always travelling and going off to various places, Kolkata was home. We would spend a large part of the year there — somehow it was the fixed point in the compass of my travels. It's really remained that for the rest of my life.
"It was very complicated and very problematic because, in fact, we are from East Pakistan in some distant sense. But my ancestors, my father's forefathers, emigrated from East Bengal in 1856. They moved to Bihar, which is in northern India on the Ganga, or the Ganges. They moved to this very small town called Sopra, which actually figures in Sea of Poppies.
"They moved there in 1856. They were settled there for the next hundred years; we just sold our family house ten years ago. When I was growing up, my father and his siblings didn't speak Bengali to each other. They spoke Bhojpuri, which is the language of North Bihar. So I grew up with this language around me. In a sense, we had that strange sense of dislocation which multiple emigres have.
Even though we were always travelling and going off to various places, Kolkata was home.
"There was a sense in which we were from Kolkata, but not quite from Kolkata. There was a sense in which we were from Bihar, but not quite from Bihar.
"I think it's something which has stayed with me."
A sea of poppies
"My interest in Sea of Poppies was to write about the Indian migrants, especially the Indian migrants who were the earliest indentured migrants. The earliest years of the indenture were the 1830s. When I started looking into the background of these indentured workers, they were using Indians essentially as substitutes for African slaves.
"It's a very curious thing that the earliest indentured workers were all from two or three districts. And these are districts in North Bihar, the same districts in which my family eventually settled. And when I looked at the sort of background of it, it's often puzzled me because, if you have a sort of mass migration out of a country, you would think it's the coastal areas that would migrate first.
"But no, it's this area of northern Bihar, which is hundreds of miles from the sea. So it was a question to me. What was it? What was the sort of upheaval that made these people go?
My interest in Sea of Poppies was to write about the Indian migrants, especially the Indian migrants who were the earliest indentured migrants.
"And then I looked into the sort of economic background of it. Suddenly I discovered that this was the major poppy growing region of India and of the world at the time. In fact, the British started this intensive poppy cultivation from the late 18th century onwards, and they kept expanding it.
"In the period between, say, 1798 to 1810, the poppy acreage expanded tenfold in this region. Now, whether the two are actually connected, I don't know. Whether people left because of poppy cultivation, frankly, the research has not been done."
The Indian diaspora
"One of the things I have been very interested in is the ways in which Indians came to be dispersed — in other journeys they undertook, the ways that they travelled, and so on.
"And this, of course, is partly rooted in my own experience. I myself once got on a plane and went away to university. And at that time it seemed like a huge thing. It seems such a wrenching and big thing to do. But when I think of my uncle or when I think of the Indians who left in the early 19th century to travel by ship to Mauritius, to Trinidad, to Guyana, to Burma, to Malaysia, it was a different order of challenge.
One of the things I have been very interested in is the ways in which Indians came to be dispersed — in other journeys they undertook, the ways that they travelled, and so on.
"It was a much more difficult thing. So I became very interested in that. In a way, that's what The Glass Palace was about. It made me engage with this particular aspect of India's past."
Interrupted by colonialism
"What really has fascinated me, for such a long time, is the nature of India's forgotten relationships. The relationship with Egypt, for example. The relationship with Southeast Asia, the relationship with China.
"In a way, I suppose a part of this interest was generated by what was then known as the Non-Aligned Movement. That was the intellectual thrust of the Non-Aligned Movement, the sense of trying to rebuild the bridges between cultures which had been interrupted by colonialism.
What really has fascinated me, for such a long time, is the nature of India's forgotten relationships.
"Unfortunately that movement has really passed. When I look at all the good things that have happened in India in the last 10 or 15 years, this is one of the things that I think is such a tragedy.
"India is now completely Western-oriented. It has completely forgotten these old relationships."
Amitav Ghosh's comments have been edited for length and clarity.