Saturday, June 21, 2008

A conversation with Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies, the latest novel by Amitav Ghosh based on the cultivation of poppy along the Ganga in the Bhojpur region to feed East India Company's opium factories and sustain Britain's illicit opium trade with China that left the imperial coffers in London overflowing with wealth, has just been published. It is a fascinating story that unfolds in the 1830s, centred around Deeti, and reminds us of the journey undertaken by 'girmitiyas' — indentured workers who signed an agreement or 'girmit' — across the forbidden kala paani to foreign shores to work in sugar plantations. It is about disinherited nobility, disempowered peasantry, caste, community and kin — the many identities that make up the Indian identity at home and abroad. The following are excerpts from a conversation between Kanchan Gupta and the celebrated writer that took place on a rain-drenched afternoon in Delhi

Kanchan Gupta: I am sure it feels great to have your tenth book published. Sea of Poppies has made a big entry and been received with rave reviews. The British newspapers have lavished praise on the book, especially The Times. And this is only the first of a trilogy…

Amitav Ghosh: A trilogy, yes…

KG: So, how do you plan to carry forward the story of Sea of Poppies?

AG: You know, I think my approach to it is going to be like driving a car at night. You can't see very far ahead of what you can see in your headlight. You keep driving slowly down the road so someday you will get there. I don't think that one can have a sense of what it is going to be like at the end of it. The interest and pleasure of it will really lie in the writing.

KG: But surely there's a big picture… there could be various routes to reaching the final destination. Even if you are driving at night you do know where you want to go…

AG: Yes, there are various routes, various options. But you know, two or three years down the line I may decide to take a different route… It's impossible to talk about something that's not written yet.

KG: In a recent article you have mentioned how one of your ancestors travelled from East Bengal to Chapra and although there's no conclusive evidence, most probably he was involved in the opium trade… Is that what triggered your interest or is it that you wanted to build a story up to 1857 since it is very much there in our conscience now?

AG: No, it's nothing like that. You know my interest really began while I was writing the Glass Palace. I became very interested in the whole business of indentured workers. The process of indenture and how it happened.
It's a curious thing about indenture… the children of the indentured workers, I mean the great, great grand children, you know, there are some very great writers among them… VS Naipaul, Shiva Naipaul… some of our greatest contemporary writers… and they have given us a very vivid picture of what it was for the descendents of these people to grow up wherever they happened to be.
But from our end, from the Indian end, we really never had any sense of what happened. How those processes came into being, how the indentured labourers left, what was the mechanism by which they left. And for me this had a very personal connection simply because of my family having lived in the Bhojpur region for a long time.
I wanted to write about the early years, when indenture first started, which is actually in the 1830s. Once I started looking into it and researching it, it became pretty inescapable because, I mean, it's a strange thing that we have so completely forgotten it now, but this was the biggest opium-producing region the world has ever known.

KG: Michael Binyon, in his review of Sea of Poppies in The Times, begins his article with a very telling line, "The British version of history glosses over the time when this country was the world's biggest drug pusher." That was 200 years ago…

AG: Not even 200 years, until the 1920s it was the biggest drug pusher in the world.

KG: And now you have Afghanistan growing the poppies and feeding Europe's hunger for heroin!

AG: You know, we can take no pleasure in that, this is one of those stories. The whole business of drugs is quite an incredibly grim and hideous thing. I mean, I don't think it's a pleasurable irony in that sense. You don't want this scourge inflicted upon any nation. It's good to remind ourselves of this history. You know, really it was these drugs grown in India that brought about the downfall of China.

KG: Some Indian authors have written about indentured labour, or mentioned it in their novels. Sunil Gangopadhyay…

AG: Aachchha? I didn't know about this…

KG: Why did you choose poppy cultivation and the opium trade? It could have been indigo. After all, indigo cultivation and the entire process was equally dehumanising and fed imperial coffers, it was equally devastating.

AG: Indigo and opium are not quite similar, you know. Indigo was a plantation crop, opium was not a plantation crop. There was some idea of converting opium into a plantation crop. So, we must resist the temptation of assimilating them, although they were similar in the sense of imposing a monoculture. But the mechanism was quite different.
These (poppy cultivators) were peasant farmer who basically were given advances to work on the land and it was through this mechanism of credit that things intensified.

KG: How did you think up Deeti?

AG: You know, the difference between writing history and writing novels is that history scholars are there already while in novels sometimes you just have an idea or you have an image. All my novels have begun with certain images, certain pictorial or visual images. And that's how it happened with Deeti.
As much as Deeti sees Zachary (who steers Ibis, the ship carrying indentured labourers to Mauritius, in the book) while she is standing in the Ganga, I similarly had a sense of actually being able to see her. She became for me the centre of the book around whom the story unfolds or anchors itself.
It happens like that. You know, you can't plan a book the nuts and bolts way.

I knew Deeti would be an important character right from the start — all my characters are important — but I didn't really expect she would become the central figure the way she has. She did become for me, how shall I say, she became the mast...

KG: She carries the book forward, linking the various strands and layers or the story…

AG: That's right.

KG: And then you built the other characters keeping her in mind or they just happened?

AG: No, no. They are completely individual and separate characters.

KG: Kalua, the 'untouchable' bullock cart driver who rescues Deeti, for instance…

AG: Kalua, too. He is a completely individual and separate character. You know what happened with Kalua (laughs) was when I went to the Mahatma Gandhi Institute in Mauritius — which is a truly marvellous archive and they have preserved all the earliest papers of the indenture, including the immigration slips — I looked through the papers carefully and I came upon one which had this name Kalua!
It's a strange thing, a lot has been written about these indentured labourers and immigration certificates that they took, but I discovered something which I have never seen anyone comment upon. I will tell you what it is.
See the immigration slips are like this (draws a rectangle in the air) and they have a few printed lines for name, age, caste, appearance, weight. Later they began attaching photographs but on the earlier ones there were no photographs.
All of this is written in English. If you turn the thing over, in the corner it's written in Bangla, you know, little notations are written in Bangla. And that was what really caught my attention. The things that were noted on the back of the slips tell a peculiar history. Each of the notations ended with a Dafadar — for example, Ismail Dafadar, Rafiq Dafadar or Lallu Dafadar and so on.
That's one thing you would see on the back of the slips. And also in Bangla you would see a version of the name of the indentured labourer. So, clearly what happened is that these dafadars were the ones who recruited the indentured labourers and brought them to Kolkata. There he went to some gomusta or serishta, a Bengali babu, to whom he would hand over the slips and he would be told to bring his gang. The gomusta or serishta would
ask for the names of those seeking indenture, scribble them on the back of the slips and then put down the dafadar's name who would be paid per head. This would be the initial
The slips were then passed on to another gomusta or serishta, also a Bengali clerk, who would then translate the names into English. So, on the back of the slip in Bangla it is written 'Kalua', on the other side it is 'Colver'! When you see that piece of paper you already see such an enormous journey.

KG: In Trinidad I was told that the corruption of names took place when the indentured labourers got off their ships and English clerks entered their names in ledgers. So Basudev became Basdeo …

AG: This is the mythology. They had to have the migration certificates before they left. The corruption of names was done by Bengalis sitting in Kolkata! That was to me a real discovery.

KG: Why Mauritius and not Trinidad? After all, Trinidad symbolises everything about indentured labour.

AG: Well, the Trinidad indenture began much later. Mauritius indenture is the first. In proportion of numbers, it's the biggest. Also, it is the only place in the world where the descendents of indentured labourers are a numerically preponderant group.
So, in many ways the Mauritius indenture is the most interesting because it establishes the patterns for all the subsequent indentures. Among the girmitiya communities around the world, they look upon the Mauritians as the aristocrats!

KG: We have forgotten that Mauritius was also a penal colony where people were despatched as punishment. People only refer to Andaman islands…

AG: Yes, and prisoners would be stripped and photographed. In a way, the penal colony in Mauritius was the original Abu Ghraib. Photographing them naked was an assertion of control and served the purpose of humiliating the prisoners. It remains the metaphor of the imperial experience.

KG: You have used words that we don't come across every day… a language that was spoken during the East India Company days by the sahibs. The reviewer in The Times could not comprehend most of the stuff. He has written, "But the clothes — zerbaft brocade, shanbaff dhoti, alliballie kurta, jooties and nayansukh — or the ranks and offices — dasturi, sirdar, maharir, serishtas and burkundaz — are frankly incomprehensible. And that is Ghosh's trick: We clutch at what we can, but swaths of narrative wash over us, just as they did over those caught up in a colonial history they could neither control nor understand."

AG: It's all about assimilation of words. I have used words from the Oxford English Dictionary. Today we hear that English is more absorptive and assimilative, that it has become global. But in the 19th century the role played by Asian languages in English was much, much greater than today. In the 20th century what happened, without being stated, is a purification of English where Asian words were dropped or treated as marginal to English language.
When you read this book, you will find many words that have crept in so completely that they are not even recognised to be foreign. But there's a category of words that even though they are English, appear in the guise of something alien. If they go and look at the Oxford English Dictionary and find these words there, what is The Times going to say? Why are these words any more foreign to English than the other words they are accustomed to?
We are taught there's a standard English and these are the words that can be used. So, if it's a gun, you can't call it a bandook, although it is in the Oxford English Dictionary. Take for instance balti. If you look up the Oxford English Dictionary, balti is defined as north Indian style of cooking. But actually balti is a Portuguese word which was introduced to Indian languages by the laskars, it meant a ship's bucket. Which Indian will believe balti is not an Indian word?

Languages, for me, are like water, they flow into each other and cannot be distinguished from one another.

KG: You deserve to be complimented for the effortless ease with which you introduce entire phrases and sentences in Bangla and then continue in English. Do you do this because you just take it for granted that the readers will get the hang of it, even if they do not understand Bangla?

AG: Look, when we were kids, we were reading books in English, books which had things like 'potted meat'. I had no idea what potted meat meant, but that didn't stop me from reading the book! You can't expect to understand every word of a book, and why should you? In any book that you are reading there will be things that will elude you, that are going to be outside your comprehensive understanding.

KG: It was a pleasure speaking to you.

AG: We had a very interesting conversation.
("India was the biggest opium producing region in the world" -- The Pioneer, Opeditorial page, June 20, 2008. (c) CMYK Printech Ltd.)

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