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Amitav Ghosh: Sea of PoppiesAn interview with Amitav Ghosh

History of the Present: Do you find a tension between the critical historical work involved in Sea of Poppies and the writing of fiction? How does one feed into the other?

Amitav Ghosh: I have the greatest respect for the work that historians do and I read their books and monographs with avid interest. But I don't really see a conflict or tension between my own work and theirs because even when we use the same materials, our points of entry are very far apart.

At the risk of making too sweeping a claim, I would say that the principal reason why storytellers turn to the past is because history is replete with compelling human predicaments. Take William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: what transpired in ancient Rome is no more the central concern of the play than is Caesar himself. Shakespeare's interest is focused rather on the predicament of Brutus, on the one hand, and Mark Anthony on the other. It is through their predicaments that he explores the themes of friendship, loyalty, duty, and political justice. This is what drives the play; the predicaments are the vehicles that carry us into the past.

This is where my own interest in history begins. I am drawn to the past because it provides instances of predicaments that are unique and unrepeatable. They say more about the human condition than anything I could make up out of whole cloth.

I will cite two examples. The first is that of a character called Arjun in my novel The Glass Palace. Arjun is a carefree young man who joins the British Indian Army shortly before the outbreak of World War II. His main interests are women and cars; he has no time for politics. After the start of the war he is sent to Singapore with his battalion. There he slowly comes to realize that his position in relation to the army is not quite what he had imagined. The fact that he is an "Asiatic" is thrust upon him when he goes to certain clubs and parks: when he jumps into a swimming pool all the Europeans leave. Then he is sent to Malaya where he takes part in the battle of Jitra, where the British forces suffer a devastating defeat. In the aftermath of the battle he suddenly finds himself confronting issues that he had never thought about before: Who am I? What brought me here? What is my place in the world?

Bahram Mody, the protagonist of River of Smoke, is my second example. Bahram finds himself in Canton in December 1838, participating in the events that led to the outbreak of the First Opium War. Now, it is a fact that merchants from the Bombay Presidency were an important presence in Canton in those months; the more prominent among them played important roles in those events--we know this from signed documents and other materials. Most of these men were Zoroastrians, which is a religion with a very rigorous ethical code. What does it mean for a man like Bahram to sign on to a war for the sake of profit? How exactly does he arrive at that position?

The circumstances in which these predicaments arise are particular to those places and those moments: that is what gives them their resonance. The predicament thus becomes the hearth that makes it possible to inhabit this moment, this history. It shapes the narrative and determines the design and the content of the book.

For me this serves also as a principle of economy. Everything that goes into the book must pertain to our understanding of the characters' predicaments--world trade, imperial politics, and the development of weaponry do not figure as if by right. Nor do we need to know what Arjun studied in school or where he had his first sexual experience. But we do need to know that debates about Indian independence and the war were raging around him when he was growing up. Similarly the details of the ways in which Bahram relates to the English, to the Chinese, and to his own community are crucial to our understanding of his predicament: his relationship with his friends in Bombay (for example) is secondary and unimportant--not for Bahram himself, but for the writer and reader.

HOP: What kind of historical research went into the writing of Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke?

AG: For me writing and research cannot be separated from each other. Until I start writing about a character, I don't know where to look. It's only after I start writing that I discover this, and this is what drives the research. Periods in which I do only research are fairly limited. It sometimes happens that I will go to a library or an archive and spend a few weeks there--I did this at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for example, and also the National Archives in Mauritius. But most of the time it's the writing that drives the research. For example, suppose I'm writing a scene in which a character has to take a carriage to get from one place to another. Now, it's impossible for me to write a scene convincingly if I cannot see it in my head. To do that I need to know what the carriage looked like, what the characters were wearing. So that gives me something to look into and it tells me what I should be looking at the next time I happen to be in a library. And so on, and so on.

But archival work is only one part of my research. Travel is another very important part of it. In the course of writing Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke I spent several weeks in Mauritius and Guangzhou. I also spent some time learning to sail. Then there is the aspect of language, which is also very complicated.

HOP: Since our journal is concerned with critical history in its many dimensions, we wonder how you think about the Ibis trilogy in terms of history?

AG: Approaching history through characters makes the novelist's relationship to the past substantially different from the historian's. In most respects the novelist's understanding of the subject is far less complete, far less rigorous than that of the historian--this goes without saying. But there are also some respects in which seeing the past through the prism of a character's experience allows for a kind of wholeness that is unavailable to the historian. This may seem like a tall claim so I think I had better illustrate it with an example: this instance is taken from my last book, River of Smoke, which is set mainly in Canton (Guangzhou).

There exists a fair amount of historical research on the foreign enclave in Canton in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; there are many detailed studies of trade, politics, imperialism, botany, and art. But the foreign enclave in Canton was a tiny place, a quarter of a mile in length and half that in width. Everybody knew everyone else, at least by sight; the traders danced with each other at social occasions and they spent a lot of time together. The same merchants who were making fortunes in trade were also patronizing the arts and collecting botanical and zoological specimens.

It becomes very easy to lose sight of this when one reads historical monographs on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Canton. This is because the protocols of historical research impose certain constraints. In the same way that a novel is shaped by its protagonists, a historical monograph is shaped by its subject and the questions it asks. The trade historian sees a busy port; the historian of science sees a city with innumerable nurseries; the art historian sees a gathering of studios. This limitation is also a strength in that it provides a focus of inquiry and delimits the range of materials that allows the professional historian the right to assert claims to truth (or at least verifiability).

A novel, on the other hand, in rendering a setting through the eyes of its protagonists, is able to set itself the task of recreating the wholeness of the experience. This project would not, of course, be conceivable if historians had not laid the foundations. Yet I think I can honestly say that after reading many historical monographs and studies of Canton I had very little understanding of what interested me most, which is: what was it like to actually be there? It is in this sense that I use the word "inhabit." The questions I put to myself are: what was it like to be present in that place, in that week, on that day? And to piece this together I depend mainly on memoirs, newspapers, diaries, letters, and other primary sources.

The questions that are relevant to me when I am trying to inhabit a setting are rarely answered by historical accounts: for example what was Napoleon wearing when he went to the Nilometer, in Cairo, to preside over the ceremony of the annual flooding of Nile? What was the time of day? What was the weather like? As I said, generally speaking, such questions are not of great import to historians. But there is one branch of history that does look at moments in the past in much the same way. This is military history, particularly where it provides accounts of battles. The overlap here is quite striking. The questions asked and the details provided are very similar: the weather, the terrain, the clothing, the equipment, states of mind and body--this is all of as much interest to the military historian as to the novelist. Nor is this the only commonality: it extends also to the treatment of time. Military historians deal, at least in part, with critical instants and decisive events. A battle is perhaps the perfect example of a climactic event; it is the opposite of a routine or representative moment. Novels too are generally built on unusual and extraordinary moments; the routine hours of the characters' lives don't get the same treatment. In other words, both the novelist and the military historian deal with the jagged edges of the temporal continuum. Most historians, on the other hand, deal with what we might call "smooth" time--in which the peaks and valleys of time line are either flattened or ignored. It is this axis of time that makes generalizations and summations possible. The unusual and extraordinary are exactly that. They are not well suited to inference.

There is another important respect in which the novelist's relation to the past is radically different from that of the historian's. The historian's work could not begin without an idea of a recoverable past. The historian necessarily has a sense of responsibility to this past, and this contributes in no small measure to the vital importance of what historians do.

But I, as a novelist, see this past through the eyes of my characters; my responsibility is to them; my task is to try to recreate their experience as faithfully as possible. This means that I have the latitude to ignore certain kinds of material. I do not, for example have to pay much attention to secular trends in cotton prices over a one hundred year period. I do, however, have to pay close attention to sudden fluctuations in price, and I have to try to figure out how the characters I am writing about would have responded to them. In this sense the historian's past has a wholeness of sweep that the novelist's doesn't. The difference is between observing the flow of a river from the shore and from within the waters: the direction of the current is the same in both cases, but a swimmer, or a fish, has, at every moment a million different choices.

To inhabit a place is to be able to see it, to experience it through one's senses, to eat its foods, breathe its smells, rest one's eyes on its sights. Here again the capaciousness of the novel, as a form, is a marvelous resource. In a study of trade there is no place for banquets and gardens. The novelist faces no such restrictions. If trade, banquets, and gardens are aspects of his characters' experience then they all belong legitimately within the book. But of course, any scene, whether in the past or the present, consists of an infinite variety of details. What is to be included and what is to be left out?

The material world of the Ibis Trilogy is utterly unfamiliar to most of us. This is particularly true of the foreign enclave in Canton, which was visually and otherwise an admixture of an extraordinary range of influences, styles and tastes. Even experienced travelers were astonished by its uniqueness, its unfamiliarity. But the foreign enclave was destroyed in 1856; it was never rebuilt. Instead a new foreign concession was created, on a reclaimed mud bank. This new settlement was built under completely different circumstances, after European domination had been clearly established. The former enclave had been founded under a different dispensation and prevailing ethos was markedly different.

The old foreign enclave is thus a lost world. In order to make it habitable, I had first to inhabit it myself, and this I did by recreating it, as it were, brick-by-brick, room-by-room, factory-by- factory. Fortunately the Chinese and British artists who worked there have left behind a remarkably detailed visual record of the foreign enclave. The record is indeed so detailed as to constantly pose the question of what should be included and what should be left out. In deciding this I follow a simple rule: I include everything that is of interest to me and leave out everything that is not. Many would--and have--said that there is too much detail in my books: in my own defense I can say only that a place cannot be inhabited if the brick, the mortar, and the furnishings do not exist. I do not want to serve up a blandly denatured sketch of historical moments that are unique and utterly distinctive.

HOP: One of the roundtable participants takes up the question of affect. In that regard, how do you think about the relation between the affective bonds you cultivate for your characters (bonds that often cross religious/social divisions) and those the novels cultivate with readers?

AG: Historians like Natalie Zemon Davis and Jonathan Spence have written very powerfully about emotions. But their work is exceptional in this regard. Generally speaking I'd say affect is another aspect of the past that is perhaps more accessible to the novelist than to the historian. It's often difficult, I think, for the professional historian to make allowance for the feelings, emotions, and intimate interpersonal relationships that sometimes drive historical events. I think most historians would acknowledge this: it is perhaps the reason why they read historical fiction, if they do.

What part should emotion and affect play in our an understanding of the past? Well I am sure we all differ in the weight we assign to it. It is probably true that in the longue durée emotions have little effect on history. But it is also true that they sometimes play a critical role in events--so much so that certain very important events become incomprehensible if they are excluded. Take the First Opium War, an event with momentous consequences for the world. The war was in one respect a product of a "deep" history, brought on by seismic shifts in the relations between landmasses and continental systems. Yet, as with many seismic events, the tremors that set the eruption in motion originated in a place that was very small--the foreign enclave in Canton. In reading the standard historical accounts of the war it became clear to me that these events were actually set in motion by a small number of players, in the space of a few months. Yet from the secondary accounts it was impossible to make sense of what exactly had transpired. The picture seemed contradictory and incoherent. It was when I began to reconstruct what the actors were doing and saying from day to day and hour to hour, that a picture began to emerge of a group of people who were lying, bullying, wooing, hectoring, and jockeying for advantage in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who has ever served in a committee. In a sense the characters invented themselves: I only had to connect the dots.

HOP: Do you consider it "history from below" as one of the commentators characterized it?

AG: To me "history from below" is a somewhat limiting idea. The trilogy includes many characters who cannot be easily assimilated to the notion of the "below"–for example Bahram Mody and his wife's family in Bombay. Similarly Neel, Baboo Nob Kissin, Paulette, the Burnhams, and many others. Yet in a broader sense it is certainly true that I am writing about people who do not generally figure in history books.

HOP: How does the desire to appeal to a popular audience affect the construction of the books? Does it involve what some might consider "compromises" with critique or does it further critique? In what ways?

AG: To be honest, this isn't an issue that has any bearing on my work. For a novelist there is no such thing as a "specialist" audience, so by the same token there is no "popular" audience either. Or, to put the matter in a slightly different way, if you are looking at a set of circumstances through the eyes of your characters, the question of compromise isn't really relevant to what you are doing.

But I might add here that it is a mistake in my view to think that there is a great difference between "popular" and "specialist" writing (at least in the humanities). I have seen several manuscripts by academics who have hit upon the idea of reaching out to a "popular" audience. Almost without exception the results are terrible. This is because they tend to assume that they have to simplify their material in order to appeal to a wide audience. But the truth is that a reader who is looking for something "simple" will not pick up a book on say, Renaissance art or the Transcendentalists in the first place. Any reader with an interest in these subjects will certainly be sophisticated enough to know when they are being patronized. Nothing is more easily detectable than condescension and nothing is more likely to turn the reader against a book. Conversely, difficult and demanding books often become bestsellers, no matter whether they are novels or academic works. The world does not lack for readers who relish a challenge.

HOP: Some of us felt there was a clear postcolonial dimension to the books.

AG: I must admit that after years of being asked about "postcolonial writing" I'm still not sure what it means. I recently heard a critic say that it was just another term for the work of nonwhite writers who write in English. If that is so then there is certainly a postcolonial dimension to my books.

 
 
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History of the Present is a peer-reviewed interdisciplinary journal, with issues appearing in the fall and spring.
 
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