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Set sail with Amitav

Amitav Ghosh talks to BAGESHREE S. about the motley crowd aboard Ibis in his latest novel Sea of Poppies

Photo:V. Sudershan

In the beginning Amitav Ghosh: ‘The British Raj was founded on opium trade’

To be the last interviewer in queue to meet a celebrity writer on a whirlwind book launch trip across the country isn’t such a good idea. More so if your slot is just before lunch time. An author who is bored stiff and very hungry cannot be a pleasant person to meet.

Unless, of course, the man in question is the ever-affable Amitav Ghosh.

He brushed asides questions on book launch-fatigue with a polite “Well…,” that trailed off and mustered up the enthusiasm to talk to Metroplus about the tumultuous voyage of indentured labourers, convicts, sailors, whites and half whites in an incredible juxtaposition in Sea of Poppies, the first of his trilogy set in the Indian Ocean around the time of the Opium War.

Excerpts from the interview:

Why do we read and write so little about the opium trade which was such a crucial aspect of our colonial history?

It is completely mysterious to me because it was a huge segment of our economy. The British Raj was founded on opium trade. Indeed it was the biggest drug trading operation in the history of the world. A completely immoral, criminal enterprise. The impact on China was particularly catastrophic. It goes to show that so much of our history is written within a certain framework.

We know as little about the lascars, the Indian sailors of 18th and 19th century, whose inventive use of language is particularly fascinating in “Sea of Poppies”.

Yes, they did so much pioneering work and so little attention is paid to them. Their language, Laskari, had an enormous impact on the India speech. So many of our common words come from there. Like ‘balti’ which comes from Portuguese ‘balde’ which originally meant ship’s bucket made of leather. Lascars introduced it to Indian languages. Again ‘kamra’ is a Portuguese word which comes from the same Latin root as of the word ‘camera’. It came from the Laskari use of it to mean cabin.

People from assorted social backgrounds are thrown together aboard Ibis. But do people shed their caste and class baggage as easily as the novel suggests?

I am not suggesting it is easy. It may sound amazing, but this is what a ship does. It puts people into very close physical contact. And these know that they will never be accepted back into their own castes. So they can’t take the whole baggage of caste as it exists at home. It is also true that in the present day in places where there are migrants, caste has not disappeared. Many of them even re-invent a new caste identity. It certainly becomes more fluid. It persists, but not in the same manner.

Willian Dalrymple in his review of your book says that it presents a “Bollywood binary” where all Indians are big-hearted and the English brutes.

It is such a stupid thing actually because every character in my book is deeply flawed. For example, Deeti is someone who has murdered her mother-in-law. What can I say about his comment? This is a book about drug runners and slave traders. It seems to me that he does not want to recognise what his countrymen once did. It is as if he thinks all Englishmen were school teachers. The British were the biggest slave traders in the world. You think these slave traders and drug lords were also nice people? It makes you think that his whole project is to sort of whitewash the past. He seems to be imposing a restriction on us that if we write about Englishmen, we have to make them look nice. How ridiculous is that!

Why is so much Indian writing in English transnational in its choice of theme? Are we losing out on the local in the process?

I don’t think one needs to exist at the cost of the other. Tagore and Sharat Chandra were both. My own book on the Sundarbans is very much about the local and the small scale. Also, just because something is local, it does not mean it is not international.

It was a Scotsman who really created the settlement of the Sundarbans. It is an area which people have been passing through for generations. We often assume that local is uncontaminated. But there is no such thing as an uncontaminated local. Our history is relentlessly plural and I celebrate that.

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