An 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
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
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
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.