‘The most exciting part was sailing’
, Whose Flood of Fire is Shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2015, Chats About the Ibis trilogy, its Characters and How it Would be Impossible to Get That Grade of Opium Anymore
Amitav Ghosh is very busy and preparing to travel when I get in touch with him, but he says that we can have a brief chat about his latest book. I clear my throat and decide to start at the start:
What’s your first memory of writing?
I remember that I was first taught to write on a slate; it’s a very vivid memory.
What excites you the most when you work on a book?
The beginning is always the most exciting but also the most difficult.
For the Ibis trilogy, where all did your research journeys take you? Was most of it done in archives or out in the field?
A lot of it was done in archives: I travelled to Mauritius to look at their National Archives and some other libraries; I spent some time in Greenwich, England, looking at the magnificent collection of the National Maritime Museum. But a lot of it was just travelling — visiting the places associated with the book. The most exciting part was sailing.
Any particularly memorable moment of discovery?
There were many moments of discovery: stumbling upon the story of opium production in India; narratives of the indenture; the whole history of India’s involvement in the Opium War.
So as you started on the trilogy, did you begin with a master plan for the three books or did you allow the characters to grow through the novels?
There was no master plan. I just stumbled along as best I could. At many points the characters took over, which was a big help.
What kind of sources did you consult while creating characters such as the linguistically inclined Rajah Neel Rattan Halder, who goes to Canton and learns Chinese, or say the Parsi widow Shireen Modi who decides to travel alone from Mumbai to find her husbands husband’s grave in Hong Kong?
Neel Rattan Halder’s story was inspired by the true-life case of a 19th century Bengali zamindar who was convicted of forgery and sentenced to transportation. There was no such source for Shireen Modi’s story.
What challenges did you face while writing such an epic novel — taken together the three books total some 1650 pages?
It was no easy matter to keep track of all the interweaving lines of narrative. But in a way it made the writing more exciting because there were so many changes of point of view.
How did you even keep track of all the details; the books are so full of wonderful nuggets of information?
I had lots of notebooks…
Do you use a Moleskine?
I use notebooks all the time, but never Moleskine. I like old-fashioned hardbound notebooks.
Did you sample all the food described or mentioned in the novels?
I sampled many of them but by no means all. Some of the items described in the banquet sequences are very difficult to find today.
Did you smoke opium for scientific purposes?
No. I don’t think it’s even possible any more. The grade of opium that was used for smoking is probably not manufactured any more.
I love the language, the humour in the dialogues and also just the descriptions of everyday objects in those times. Would you say something about the whole process of creating the specific language for this trilogy?
A ship manned by lascars must have been a kind of floating Babel. Sailors from all around the Indian Ocean went by the name ‘lascar’ — East Africans, South Asians, Filipinos, Chinese, Malays. When you look at one of those old crew lists, you can’t help wonder how things got done on a ship with such a cosmopolitan crew. It must have been an especially pressing issue on a sailing vessel, for it’s impossible to work a sail ship without clear commands — that’s why there’s such extensive nautical jargon in English. So how did lascars communicate with their officers, who were usually European, and with each other? These questions puzzled me for a long time and then one day, while looking through a library catalogue, I came upon a 19th century dictionary of the ‘Laskari’ language. I’d never seen any references to this dictionary anywhere, so it was a really exciting discovery. And the language proved to be a wonderful nautical jargon that mixed bits of Hindi, Urdu, English, Portuguese, Bengali, Arabic, Malay and many other languages. It was fascinating for me personally because it incorporated elements of many of the languages I grew up with.
Given the humour in your writing, did you ever worry that people might mistake it for a period comedy rather than a very serious scholarly project?
The novels are about very dark subjects and I knew I would not be able to live with them for 10 years if there were not some lightness in the books.
What’s next? Some of us are hoping for a non-fiction book, a travelogue or perhaps something describing the work behind the Ibis trilogy?
I am writing a couple of short non-fiction books and one of them is indeed about the research for the trilogy.
Zac O’Yeah is the author of popular comic thrillers. His published works range from bestselling detective fiction to history and travelogue, and he has also translated Indian literature into Swedish
Credit: The Hindu