Amitav Ghosh looks back to weave new seafaring novel

NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - More than 20 years after writing his first novel, Indian writer Amitav Ghosh is still drawing on his favorite subjects of history and anthropology to weave his stories.

Indian author Amitav Ghosh speaks during an interview with Reuters at a hotel in New Delhi June 15, 2008. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

His latest work, “Sea of Poppies”, is set against the backdrop of the opium trade in eastern India and tells of sailors, convicts and indentured laborers on board the Ibis, a ship headed to Mauritius in 1838.

Ghosh, 52, said he took up sailing to better understand a life at sea. He spoke to Reuters in a New Delhi recently while in town to launch his new book.

Q: Your novel is about migrants from India in the 19th century. What made you choose this theme?

A: “There’s a certain number of novels written by people whose parents or grandparents were indentured. (V.S.) Naipaul himself, his family left India as indentured workers some generations ago.

To me, what was very poignant was what did it mean for these people to leave. Because India is one of those countries where for people to leave, historically, was not an easy thing. There was this fear of (crossing the) waters.

What did it mean for these people, farmers living in the deep interior of the country, who had never seen the sea. For them to get into a ship and cross the ocean, it’s a kind of heroism.”

Q: Why did you choose the opium trade as the backdrop? Was it meant to be a criticism of colonialism?

A: “I have read a lot of history and seen for myself some of the ravages colonialism has wrought upon the world. But there was something about the opium trade which was particularly heinous.

Most Indians have no awareness of the part the country played in this trade. What interests me was the way Indians collaborated with this. In the 19th century, any Indian trader who was rich almost certainly made most of their money from opium.”

Q: This novel comes more than four years after your previous book. Was researching “Sea of Poppies” a challenge?

A: “I did a lot of research in libraries and archives. A lot of the book is about sailing so learning to sail was an interesting part of it. I traveled on one for a week. If I had been much younger, I would have liked to be a crew member on a sailboat. I also read accounts by people who used opium.”

Q: Your characters, especially the lascars (a name for Indian Ocean seamen), speak a special language. Was that hard to write?

A: “Writing that was the most exciting part of the book. I was very fortunate that I found a lascar dictionary which explained the means and methods of communication.”

Q: Some of the English characters in the novel don’t seem very likeable.

A: “For me, they are very likeable. A sympathetic character does not necessarily have to be goody-goody. To me, the most interesting Englishmen I’ve known are kind of rascally characters. Those people interest me.”

Q: There is a sequence in which a prisoner is stripped naked, another where a convict urinates on one of the lead characters.

A: “It is a horrible scene. Abu Ghraib (U.S.-run jail in Iraq) is completely prefigured by the 19th century experience of prisons in the Indian Ocean.

For Indians, like for Iraqis, to be naked in front of the public is in itself such a terrible sort of destruction of the self and you can see that on the faces of these people.”

Q: Your interest in history is evident in your novels.

A: “I don’t think I’ll be a novelist if I wasn’t interested in history and anthropology. Those things inform the other aspects of (my) work. I think if I hadn’t had an interest in history, I wouldn’t be writing today.”

Q: “Sea of Poppies” is the first part of a trilogy of novels. How long do you think you’ll take to finish them?

A: “It might be more than a trilogy. These families, these characters and their children, grandchildren - I’ll be living with them for many many years to come.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy