Amitav Ghosh’s latest book, Flood of Fire, tells the story of the First Opium War between Imperial Britain and China in 1839, which affected and altered India and South Asia. The book is the third and final instalment of the Ibis Trilogy.
In this interview, Ghosh talks about the book and the worlds it touches upon, and also the issues that it deals with, which resonate even today. Watch the video. The transcript of the interview is below.
The Quint: Amitav, thanks very much for speaking to us on The Quint.
Amitav Ghosh: Thank you Venkatesh, it’s a great pleasure.
Q: Firstly, congratulations. 10 years, three books, it must be a satisfying feeling, are you happy with the outcome?
Amitav: Yes I am, I must say. It has been 10 years dedicated to, in a sense, a single project. And at the end of it, I really did feel a sense of incredible fulfilment. I’d set out on this long and very difficult path and I got to the end of it.
Q: I guess we can only imagine how difficult it must have been for you. In what way has the trilogy changed you. We understand you had to pick up a few skills, a few arts, a few languages even.
Amitav: Yes, I had to learn a lot of things. I tried to learn how to sail, for example, and that was a really exciting thing. I think most of all I would say, before I wrote the trilogy, I had never been to China, I had never seen China, I had never really been much interested in going to China…
Q: As I introduce you just now, I introduced you as a writer, but is that the only one appellation that will describe what you do? I’ve heard you describe yourself for instance as an entrepreneur, a researcher, a historian.
Amitav: Look, the point I was trying to make is that if you’re a writer who makes their living from writing, it is in a way like a small-scale entrepreneur. Because you just have to constantly be inventive. You have to love risk, because it’s all about risk and uncertainty. I think that is really the central thing. You know, it’s not the writing on the page but that the writer’s life instead is one of risk and uncertainty.
Q: Amitav, your books, they deal with so many aspects of life, it’s difficult to focus on any single aspect but for me it’s about the hidden worlds that they unveil. And the trilogy has so many hidden worlds and worlds within worlds. My question is, while writing this trilogy, you’re concentrating in 1839 and the Opium wars between British India and China. Were there any parallels between contemporary India and the contemporary world that you think this trilogy might address?
Amitav: Oh yes, absolutely. And it wasn’t a pre-judged idea that I went in with. But certainly at the end of it, it’s perfectly clear to me, you know that the Opium War inaugurated a phase in world history that we might call Free Trade Imperialism, you know. There are such distinct parallels between the First Opium War and the Iraq War, for example. The rhetoric surrounding both these wars is eerily similar.
Q: Would you say that the current administration, Prime Minister Modi but not necessarily just the NDA government, even the previous Congress government... Do you think they’re able to handle the big challenges that India faces?
Amitav: India faces challenges that are…scalar. You know, because we’re such a big country. It’s hard to see how a political system can address them or adapt to them.
For example, the issue of climate change. India has not significantly addressed the issues arising out of climate change, but you can say the same of America or of Australia, or whatever. But in our case, we are extraordinarily vulnerable. We have a great degree of vulnerability to climate change impacts, and this is going to become increasingly a critical issues, yes.
Q: Just to focus on the book itself, the three books. A lot of action takes place on board the Ibis [ship], and the Ibis is used to transport opium, but also people. And I read somewhere that if the 17th and 18th centuries were about slavery and Africa, the 19th century was sort of slavery for Indians or indentured labour?
Amitav: I wouldn’t say that it was the same things as slavery. But certainly I think it could be very clearly said that what Africa was to the 17th and 18th centuries, India was to the 19th. That is, it was a source of captive labour you know. But that being said, it should be noted that there are many important differences between slavery and indentured labour. Even though the conditions of work, and conditions of transportation were very similar but in fact there were significant differences between them.
Q: Amitav, [in your] books, there are so many different languages, words from different languages, Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Bengali, Cantonese, Creole, Pidgin. Do you think this sort of richness has been completely lost to contemporary times? Now when people speak, it seems [they do so] in a very monolingual way.
Amitav: English, you mean?
Q: Yes, English.
Amitav: Yes it’s true. It’s one of the paradoxes of English in the 20th century, that as English became more and more hegemonic, it became also narrower and narrower. 19th century is filled with so many diverse influences, so many different kinds of streams, I really wanted to deploy that in the book to give a sense of this incredibly rich and heterogenous world.
Q: Your books are immensely detailed. They’re captivating. There’s a lot of nuance. The characters are instantly relatable, and I for one believe that they read a bit like thrillers do. So in that sense is there any way in which you distinguish between genre fiction and literary fiction?
Amitav: You know, I’ve never wanted to be in the business of what to label my books, or anyone else’s books, so I leave that to wiser minds like yourself (laughs).
Q: On that note, thanks very much! We wish you the very best.
Amitav: Thank you.