Author Amitav Ghosh’s ambitious Ibis trilogy has made landfall. The last of the novels, The Flood of Fire, speaks to the present like an oracle from the past — about empire, economics and the heroism of ordinary people. He talked to Amrita Dutta:
The First Opium War (1839-42) between Britain and China was fought in the name of “free trade”, but in a sense was about one country (Britain) forcing another to buy opium.
Absolutely. I don’t think there is any other way to put it. It was the war that really inaugurated the era of what you can call free-trade imperialism. And that era is not over. The baton has been handed over from England to the United States. And it is the same project. The rhetoric that accompanied the first Opium War was eerily reminiscent of that of the Iraq War: that this was a fight for freedom, that the Chinese would welcome the British with open arms when they overthrew the tyranny of the Manchu despots.
Your books seem to be a critique of the capitalist project that flowed from imperialism, about the idea of endless growth.
Clearly, that whole idea of that kind of capitalism is of wanting more and more. It is about creating this desire to grow. Within the world of capitalism, to stand still is to die. That is true micro-economically, in the case of companies, and macro-economically, of states. You could say this cycle of endless growth has worked for some countries. But it is increasingly clear that it is no longer a sustainable thing. There are limits and they are imposed by nature.
In India, there is a renewed emphasis on growth. But there is also the worry that environmental safeguards are not a priority. Do you share that concern?
I do, I think it will lead to catastrophe. India is incredibly vulnerable to climate change. As we speak, we are in the middle of an epic heat wave. This is just a small aspect of things that climate change will do. I am particularly aware of this because I come from Bengal, which is most vulnerable to climate change. I have spent a lot of time in the Sunderbans and I have seen with my own eyes: the saline incursions, the rise in sea levels.
More generally speaking, we are heading for a catastrophic water situation. Where was this growth ideology most significant? In California. Everyone must have 10 cars, a big house, green lawn. And now it has hit the limit. Their water is running out, they have started water rations. And that is absolutely the opposite of free market ideology. So in its natural home, it has hit the limit. And at a time when these limits are becoming apparent, we are hurtling towards the precipice. All the agriculture of north India is based upon withdrawing water from aquifers. When, and not if, the upper Ganga aquifer collapses, we are facing disaster. I just don’t know how you can repeat the mantra of growth, without recognising the nature of this problem hurtling towards us.
Did the war change India’s relationship with China?
We have forgotten the Opium Wars, if ever we remembered it. But China has not. They are a civilisation with great historical consciousness, it is something they pay great attention to. The war is extensively memorialised in China. And they are intensely aware that Indians participated in the war, and against them.
How different is a novelist’s approach from that of a historian? What kind of gaps in historical records did you find?
If a historian sits down to write about the Opium War, they’d take 100 years and say this is what happened, and that is what happened.. But a novelist is not writing about one thing, you are trying to create an entire world. I am not just interested in opium, you know, I am interested in the clothes people wore, their food, what sorts of entertainments they went to, the songs they sang.
In the case of the Opium War, there hasn’t been any detailed military history of the war, and I had to reconstruct that on my own. That was quite an undertaking.
One of the great gaps in Indian military history, especially the 18th and 19th centuries, is that everything we know is refracted through the official lens, through English sources. I was desperate to find an Indian voice speaking about his experience. Between 1760 and 1900, literally millions of Indians fought in the British colonial armies. You know how many accounts we possess? One. Even that is apocryphal. It was published in English. An English army officer claimed to have recorded the memoirs of a subedar. It is called the Memoir of Sitaram Subedar. So, I found myself being pushed forward in time, into the memoirs of the 20th century. One and a half million Indians fought in WWI. But the number of firsthand accounts can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Of these memoirs, two were in Bengali, written by two medical personnel. The accounts were self-published and so they never had any kind of readership in Bengal. One of them, written by Shishir Sarbadhikari, is one of the greatest memoirs of WWI.
The Indian sepoy in a war not of his choosing is a theme that runs through this book, and your earlier work.
See, long before the Sepoy Mutiny, the sepoys were constantly mutineering. I refer to one of them, the Barrackpore Mutiny, in The Flood of Fire. Often, when they were asked to go abroad, they would refuse. On the one hand, they fought the colonial wars, and on the other, they were in near-constant mutiny. Similarly in WWII, they formed an army of their own, the Indian National Army, which I wrote about in The Glass Palace. So this sort of divided consciousnesses of the sepoy is very interesting to me.
This is a novel about war, but not of heroism. In your view of history, do individuals matter?
Leo Tolstoy famously took this position that history is never about heroic individuals but larger forces. But Tolstoy also insisted that he was a historian and not a novelist. It is actually a fact that his vision of Russian history reigned in academic circles until very recently. So it is not as if novelists don’t play a part in the writing of history. They do, they always did. But I believe sometimes individuals significantly alter things. In the early period of British expansion in India, it is a matter of coincidence that a military genius was present here, Sir Arthur Wellesley. If not for him, the British would have lost many battles. As for the book, many of my characters are heroes because they are making the best of incredibly difficult circumstances.
The Ibis, you write, is a vehicle of transformations. Has it transformed you as a writer?
It’s a progression of my earlier concerns. I started writing the books when I was just short of 50. Soon I will be 60. My children were teenagers then, now they have jobs. The writing and publishing of these books has been a life cycle event. I knew I was setting out to do something very ambitious. But
I had no idea how ambitious it was. There were many times that I thought I was crazy to take this on. But if you didn’t set yourself that challenge, why would you push yourself?
I had endless fun writing it, of course. I have spent days laughing my head off while writing some bits. Writing is a heightened form of life, and that is what is special about it, about the lives one lives as a writer.
How do you live with this multitude of characters inside your head?
I lead a very quiet life. I am not sociable even. I go through months and months even when I don’t see anyone other than my family. I really don’t feel the need because of these characters chattering away (in my head).
Have they ceased chattering now?
No, I don’t think they have gone. All my books take about 3-4 years, but because it’s been 10 years, the characters of the Ibis trilogy have become permanent fixtures. I might return to them later, but in another form. This artifact is now complete.
Do you remember what impelled you to write?
There was a time, when I realised that a moment had come when if I didn’t write, I never would. It was 1982, and I had come back from Oxford. Writing is not something that happens accidentally. When I was working at Indian Express, I can’t tell you how many journalists had a novel or a short story locked away in their drawers. And I didn’t want to be like that. If I had to write, I would have to give my all.
I became a writer because I was a reader first. I constantly try to remind young writers who come to me for advice is that the impulse to write comes from reading. I get the feeling that some of the people start writing because it is glamorous, or that you can be seen at festivals. But that is not the life of a writer; a life of a writer is these long stretches of solitude.