It’s not every day that the small landlocked state of Manipur plays host to international celebrities- let alone an international best selling author like Amitav Ghosh. So when Ghosh chose Imphal city for the “first ever reading’’ of the third part of the Ibis trilogy- Flood of fire- it took many by surprise.
But the choice was rather a natural one, says Ghosh. Flood of Fire is to be launched in May this year in London and in New York in August.
“I had already been invited to deliver the MK Binodini Devi lecture at Imphal so I thought why not do my first reading here as well. So much in India is centered around metros – there is such an emphasis laid on mainstream culture which is so overwhelming in its presence in our lives- and I’ve always liked keeping a distance from this in any case. Besides Manipur seemed appropriate- the Manipuri cultural and literary traditions had a huge impact on Bengal.
Tagore himself felt a powerful cultural connection with Manipur was influenced by Manipuri dance and drama. I have therefore always been very curious about Manipur and have always wanted to come here. It’s a small state with a small population but one which has produced extraordinary excellence – I’ve always wondered how such a small state could produce so much excellence. Besides you can actually get green tea here,’’he laughs.
Ghosh has apersonal connection to Manipur as well. His father, who retired as a Lt Colonel in the Indian Army, had fought in the Battle of Imphal as a Major in the British Indian Army against the attempted Japanese invasion.
“He was a part of the Burma campaign and would tell us so many stories about it. I think that is one of the reasons why I wanted to go to Myanmar and write about it – that is probably why The Glass Palace happened,’’he says. He has visited some of the World War II sites while in Imphal.
Ghosh is on his way on a surprise visit to Manipur University’s English Literature department. He holds a white handkerchief across his nose. His sinus has acted up, he says with the pollution and dust in the city. “The day I arrived however there was a bandh and there were no cars on the road. The air was so clean- I felt so healthy!’’ he says.
In the car he talks of his days at The Indian Express where he started his career as an intern. “It was during the emergency and there were police raids in the office practically every day. I used to cover the University beat and would interview Arun Jaitely or Shashi Tharoor who were student leaders,’’he recounts.
“The new book the flood of fire and the third book in the Ibis trilogy ia a lot about the opium trade which was a very important part of the Indian economy in the 18th and 19th centuries- trade in tead with china which they would pay with bullion but they soon ran out of bullion so they decided to trade in opium.
People talk of Burma or Afghanistan but one thing no one ever tells you is that it was British India which was the first narco state. The opium was grown in Bihar and around Benares. I’ve always thought of the trilogy as books about departures- how the people left…in the first book the characters leave for Mauritius, in the second one for China.
Large companies such as the Tatas wadias etc acquired their wealth from the opium trading. The third book is about the opium war. Between 1790 and 1838 Indian exports of opium to China went up by 15 times. China was being hit by a tsunami of opium coming from India. The Chinese experienced mass addiction and problems in terms of health finances and public morality and were battling the criminality that often accompanies the drug trade.
The Chinese approached the issue in a much studied way and eventually banned opium. The British decided to attack China and force them into accepting opium. The war was largely fought by Indian soldiers from Madras and Bihar and Bengal. The first opium war in some sense created modern Asia, radical changes took place in China which eventually led to the cultural revolution,’’ he says.
At the University the classroom is unusually packed. In a state where no secret can ever hold, word that Amitav Ghosh is coming has gotten out. A DSP with the Manipur Police has snuck into the class. At his elbow a constable stands alert, carrying copies of Ghosh’s different works that the DSP owns, ready to be autographed by the author. As the interaction begins the attending English professor scolds the awestruck shy students.
“This is a unique opportunity you have here of meeting an author with international renown you must not waste this opportunity. Please ask him questions,’’he says turning to Ghosh, “One of our students who had specialized in your work has gone on to become an English professor.”
“My God – I always feel disturbed when I hear things like this- that someone is doing a Phd on my work or is studying it. I feel like an insect under a microscope. Especially since when we were young we used to study authors who were dead- so it’s most disturbing,’’ says Ghosh to delighted peals of laughter from the students.
A teacher himself (Ghosh has taught at many universities in India and the US including Delhi University, Columbia, Queens College and Harvard) warms the crowd, “Sometimes when students do their Phds on my work it can be unnerving- I get mails from them on my website when they need to write their papers asking me what the meaning behind this or that is,’’ he laughs.
A student pipes up finally, “Did you always plan this as a trilogy?’’
“Well I started writing the sea of poppies and six months into it realized that it cant be done in one book. It has to be something longer. I also didn’t want to lose the characters so soon- they had become like friends. I wanted to live with these characters. For a long time these characters were a part of my life and my world- as real as you, maybe even more so.’’
“With every book you write, does the writing get any easier?’’asks another student.
“It never gets easier. To be a craftsman in language is incredibly difficult. When something starts getting into shape, little bits and pieces start slipping out. You pat it back in and it slips out again.There is never a perfect way to say anything. I don’t think any sentence I have ever written has ever come into print the way I had written it first.
I would revise it 30 times at least. For any art form such as music you have to practice every single day. Practise and practice and practice. It’s much the same with writing as well. If you don’t do it the notes will be out of tune,’’answers the author.
The professor asks for some questions from the backseats, “If they wanted to ask questions they wouldn’t be backbenchers,’’laughs Ghosh
Some one pipies up,”Since you rewrite so many times do you ever feel after reading your own published work that it could have been better?’’
“Absolutely! When I read my own books I think Oh My God that sentence could’ve been much better. To be a good writer you need to read a lot. It takes a lot of hard work to make even one sentence sound right,’’ he says.
Ghosh encourages a young aspiring writer in the audience, “This is a very exciting time in the Indian writing world. India is a place of millions of stories and so few have been told so far. There has been very little narrated about the diverse ways of life here so you must write- write about Manipur.
There is a huge reading population right now which is very encouraging for us writers. There has been a huge explosion in the media, nevertheless writers and artists find it difficult to establish themselves. It was the same with me too. You just have to be patient. Fundamentally it is about the work, if it is good it will be noticed.
If you are enjoying the writing then you must do it- don’t focus on becoming rich and famous. In writing the chances of success are slim but it is possible. For me it’s the only thing I know how to do and it gives me pleasure,’’ he says.
“How do you chose a title for your books,’’ another student asks?
“There is a certain mystery about it which I yet to unravel. For some books its very easy, for others very difficult. For the Calcutta Chromosome, I had been thinking about a title. Then one night I just awoke at two in the morning and the title was just there.’’
“I didn’t know much about you before. Then in Delhi University I read The Shadow Lines and I thought to myself – this is a really serious kinda guy,’’ says a student to a laughing Ghosh before the interaction is wrapped up.
And then a pandemonium of autographs and selfies with the author before he is whisked away for the debut reading of his book for the MK Binodini Memorial lecture attended by Imphal’s academics, journalists, officers, intellectuals and even Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh.
“So far India has been looking westward and its policy has been focused on Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the revitalization of Myanmar will re-orient India as well as the North East.
Burma is actually booming and with the transnational highways coming up and so many projects of connectivity the country will now focus on this region and on Manipur. On my own visits to Myanmar I was told of large populations of Manipuris in Mandalay – unfortunately I was unable to meet them,’’ he says addressing the audience before beginning his reading.
After the reading Ghosh leaves early wanting to see the bright and jostling Ima Keithel or the mothers market. He picks up disks of salt unique to Manipur and a bunch of startlingly colourful Naga shawls. “The turmeric looked really fresh but you see I grow my own turmeric now,’’ he points out. Ghosh admits to being an avid gardener in his home in Goa where he spends half the year, the other half in Brooklyn. This is where he most of his creative work is done.
“It’s a wonderful place to write. I live in a village so it’s very peaceful, surrounded by rice fields and coconut trees. Most of the trilogy I wrote here. It was an arduously long project and took me ten years. I am relieved that it’s over,’’he says.
Ghosh’s first visit to China was in 2004 when he was starting The Sea of Poppies. He went to Guangzhou in southern China and has been back since many times, he says. To get the nuances of the Ibis trilogy right Ghosh taught himself Cantonese from audio tapes – and while not fluent he has picked up a fair bit. He spends his last evening in Imphal amongst friends – listening to the band members of Imphal Talkies (a local band) around a camp fire.