Novelist Amitav Ghosh on Opium, India and Free Trade
Published: Thursday, September 13, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
Technical problems plagued Higley Auditorium last Wednesday, but Amitav Ghosh took it all in stride.
Ghosh is a celebrated Kolkata-born author of dozens of award-winning essays, non-fiction books and historical fiction novels. His most recent novel, River of Smoke, is the sequel to Sea of Poppies and the second in the Ibis trilogy, an ongoing series of historical fiction set against the backdrop of 19th-century Indian Ocean trade.
His talk, like the book, concerned the extensive yet unrecognized involvement of India in the Opium Wars as both a manufacturer of opium and a supplier of foot soldiers in the British Empire’s trade war with China. The scope of Ghosh’s work is global and his travel experience considerable, but to see the unassuming, bespectacled man patiently waiting for the projector to warm up again, you’d never know it. The Collegian spoke with Ghosh about his experience as an author and his recent interest in Sino-Indian relations.
The Kenyon Collegian (TKC): Your talk at Kenyon dealt with the global occlusion of India’s involvement in the Opium War. The Ibis trilogy deals with that topic and that period. Do you see yourself writing a kind of historical exposé through these novels?
Amitav Ghosh (AG): It didn’t begin like that. In a way, I stumbled into the whole opium narrative when I started writing Sea of Poppies. But certainly, now, I do feel that it’s very important for me to bring this into the light. Because when people talk about free trade, when they talk about all the wonders of capitalism, this part of it is completely erased. When we talk about, say, Communism, we always talk about the terrible deaths that accompanied it. But, in fact, free trade has probably taken an even greater toll of human life than some other terrible sorts of ideologies. I do think it’s very important that we remember these histories.
TKC: How do you guard yourself against, or do you not guard yourself against, putting contemporary bias in your historical fiction? Is there a political or cultural point to any of the fiction you write?
AG: Of course, it’s impossible not to address. However much you may try to be part of the past, the past is irretrievably the past. Every moment that’s passed is the past. It’s not possible to imagine you can read the past without any kind of relationship with the present. What’s so very interesting about the Opium War period is that it was so much like today — the rhetoric, the language. I often think that in the future, when history is periodized, the Opium War and the Iraq War will be two bookends to one period. The rhetoric of [the two periods] were so eerily similar.
One of the things I do really try to do is try to use the words of the people who were there. Much of [my work] relies very much on words that were actually said, by those people, in that place.
TKC: As an author of historical fiction, there doesn’t seem to be much personal experience involved in your writing. What draws you to the multicultural, transnational aspect of your work?
AG: I am not a very autobiographical writer. But I think my experience has had a lot to do with my writing. As a kid I grew up in a lot of different places.
Then, I left India and went to study abroad. So, I wanted to be truthful to my own experience — to address this whole experience of being in many different places and being connected to many different cultures, and at the point when I was doing it, it was considered very odd. People liked you to write about where you were from. So, what I was doing was considered very peculiar.
But now, everyone recognizes that our lives are transcultural. They are transnational. Just think about America. People write about America as if it’s a completely rooted place. And yet, you look around, and this college is named after someone in England. This town is named after someone else in England. Everyone has roots here, there, and everywhere. That sort of dispersal is constantly with us.