He has been winning awards practically since he began to write. His debut novel The Circle of Reason was given the Prix Medicis Etrangere, and his The Shadow Lines received the prestigious Sahitya Akademi's Annual Award.
Having won the Israeli Dan David Prize in 2010 and Canadian Blue Metropolis Grand Prix for Lifetime Achievement in 2011, Amitav Ghosh is busy sailing the high seas with his Ibis Trilogy, which follows the fates of the passengers of a cargo ship, The Ibis, all of whose lives have been changed by the opium trade.
River of Smoke, the just-released sequel to the 2009 Booker-shortlisted Sea of Poppies, focuses on the lives of a fugitive, exiled zamindar, Neel Rattan Halder, a young botanist Paulette Lambert and a Parsi businessman Bahramji Modi.
In the middle of a whirlwind promotional tour, and recovering from a throat infection, the author sits down to an exclusive chat with Nandini Krishnan, who discovers how he got started on the series, what he thinks about Maoists, why he writes about imperialism, where he met a snake, and why he tends to answer pseudo intellectual questions with witty one-liners and a chuckle.
Now that you've written two-thirds of the Ibis Trilogy, what is the most abiding image of the Ibis, to you?
I think it would have to be when Deeti first sees it, has a vision of it. The first line of Sea of Poppies.
Sea of Poppies has so much a larger canvas than River of Smoke that it's hard to believe the second was actually longer. But did you deliberately choose to focus on a limited geographical and social milieu?
Well, you know, it's just the book that it is. I never intended for these to be continuations - even in structure, or anything. You know, I was really thinking more along the lines of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, where the books have a tangential relationship with each other, and so each of them will have its own form, its own characters, its own logic, and I think you can start anywhere.
When they're all done, each of them will be a book in its own right, and they can be picked up and read, and then you could go back to the other books.
And do you think you can actually tie all the loose ends in a single book?
It's impossible for me to say. I don't feel that I have to write a book just tying up the ends. That will not be a very interesting thing to do. (Laughs) So, I feel like I'm free to go in whatever direction I like.
Was 'Buddha Jumps over the Wall' really the name of a dish that was popular in China in the nineteenth century? It sounds like a cocktail!
Yes, yes, it's still popular now, but it started being popular back then. I didn't make that up. (Laughs) The Chinese have wonderfully imaginative names for things!
Are you working on the third part now, or do you plan to take a break between this and the next one?
You know, right now, I'm doing this - launches, and interviews. I just finished writing River of Smoke a few months ago. So, I haven't really had the time to think about the next. I have absolutely no idea where it's going to go.
Your acceptance of the Dan David Prize became controversial in some circles, because of Israel’s role in the Gaza strip. Having lived abroad, where one tends to dissociate nationality from the politics of a nation, did the outrage over your acceptance of the award surprise you?
I don't think there was much outrage. I mean, I got lots of letters of support. And it was basically just one small group of academics who got worked up. There wasn't a single writer or artist in India who signed the thing. It was just academics from one or two universities, and most of them were CPM types. (Laughs)
In the Ibis Trilogy, you've looked at slightly different aspects of colonisation - indentured labour, the "free trade" involving opium which would eventually lead to the ‘Cutting of the Chinese melon’. Do you think these are issues that are still, in some ways, unresolved? There is a huge Indian Diaspora because of indentured labour, and one country controlling another through trade, or sanctions, is not uncommon.
You know, just writing about it, you can't escape the echoes today. You know, I opened the paper this morning, and it's kind of interesting, you have Jagdish Bhagwati defending free trade - economists love their models, and to them, those models make sense.
At the same time, on the same page, you see these riots in four different countries. In England, you have massive strikes. In Greece, you have a general strike leading to this huge outburst of violence. You have massive demonstrations in Egypt right now.
You have things going on in Spain, and all of it, is in some sense directed against the enormous wave of liberalisation that happened in the last ten years. So, you know, on the one hand, you have the economists with their ideas. And on the other hand, you have ordinary people, who are not so happy about those ideas.
Image: The cover of the UK edition of Amitav Ghosh’s latest book, River of Smoke. The just-released book is a sequel to his 2009 Booker-shortlisted Sea of Poppies.
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