Related Stories

I hate killing my characters: Amitav Ghosh

Published Aug 11, 2015, 7:15 am IST
Updated Mar 28, 2019, 6:07 am IST
Amitav Ghosh talks about the Ibis Trilogy, his characters, the importance of history, India’s contribution to the Raj and more...
Amitav Ghosh
 Amitav Ghosh
Amitav Ghosh talks about the Ibis Trilogy, his characters, the importance of history, India’s contribution to the Raj and more...
You have spent over a decade with the Ibis Trilogy how did you keep it all together — keep track of all the characters? 
I have a notebook in which I make notes. Beyond that it’s all in my head. I am a completely disorganised person in some ways and if you see my workspace you would think it’s a disaster because it’s just chaos all around me. It is a strange thing — as things get clearer in my mind, my immediate circumstances become more and more chaotic.
When I was a student in Oxford finishing my thesis, there was a lot of pressure — and my room became so chaotic that the cleaners refused to clean it. They said it was too dirty. That was a low point (laughs)
Does a writer play favourites with his characters?
It is not that I play favourites with my characters. It’s the characters who seduce the writer. That’s what really happens. With Shireen, for example, in River of Smoke when she first appears, I had no idea what type of character she would be It is not a conscious thing.
Did it affect you when you had to write in the death of a character in the Ibis Trilogy, considering some of them had been with you for so long?
Yes, it’s unbelievably painful to write the death of a character. It is really, really terrible. A kind of a horrifying thing because we live with these people for so long. I never want to kill characters. I never do unless it has to be the case. I hate it.
Your text, through the trilogy, is full of Hindustani-derived terms like Bee Bee (bibi), Mystery (mistri, carpenter), tuncaw (tankah, salary). What’s the origin of these unusual spellings?
The word “mistri” is such a common word that we use. It is actually a Portuguese word. If you look at the longer Oxford dictionary, the word “mistri” figures in it. The word “mystery” is also one of the variant spellings. If you look in the dictionary, you will actually find it. The word actually comes from the same route as the word “master”. But that route is very interesting because it also leads to words like “minister” and not just in the sense of a government official, but also in the sense of ministering. There is a whole set of very interesting connections that these words, routes have. I love words, the etymologies of words. When I saw the variants spelling of mistri I thought I must have it. You do see the word spelled that way in 19th century English. Coming to “tuncaw”, that word exists. It was very commonly used by the British people. It just meant salary and they spelled it like that.
The British India that you portray in Flood of Fire and the trilogy overall was intensely engaged with the world outside, trading in goods, fighting wars, sending out labour where manpower or skills were needed. Are there other lessons from our history that we could learn as we seek to “Act East” and engage more with the rest of the world?
You know, it is a very paradoxical thing. India has always been engaged with the world outside. It is so interesting to think, here we are in Hyderabad, which has a large settlement of Turkish people, going back to the time of the Nizam. This was and still is such a cosmopolitan city.
I think it is in some ways very important to remember that India has historically had these very long connections with places around the world. So when we think of India as being completely shut off or self-contained, that is a mistake. We have to remember that India is a country that is very intensely engaged with many other parts of the world.
Today one of the unfortunate things that has happened is that India’s engagement is completely with the West. For ordinary Indians, when they think of abroad, they think of the US, Europe We had such close connections with China, South East Asia, across this entire region, with Africa, especially East Africa, West Asia.
Flood of fire by Amitav Ghosh, Penguin
The British successes in the Opium Wars in China, the capture of Hong Kong and other military feats of the colonial power outside India would not have been possible without the immense contribution of Indian soldiers. Does that, in your view, strengthen Shashi Tharoor’s argument that Britain should pay reparations for colonial rule in India?
I think Shashi is right. We certainly have a case for reparations, but I will always remember what Gandhiji said, it is one of his most moving quotes. He said, “Our struggle is not for reparations, our struggle is to remember what happened so that it never happens again”. The wrongs of history can never be righted. They have occurred, we should move on. 
What would you say is the modern equivalent of colonialism?
It is an interesting question. I think in many ways India is more colonised today than it has ever been in the past We are sort of uncritically accepting of every idea that comes from the West, whether it is these new, liberal economic ideas, in politics, entertainment or visual landscapes in terms of advertisements. We have just become a dumping ground of the worst aspects of Western commerce, Western ideas. That is really sad. 
You have talked about the treasure trove of material relating to the history of the 19th and early 20th century in and around China that you traced. Any interesting nugget that you discovered during your research that you would like to share?
There was so much. For example, the one thing that I used in passing in the Flood of Fire is how Tipu Sultan used rockets. Between Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, they pioneered rocket technology. Indians were very inventive. Inventing new weaponry, new tactics... It is important to remember those aspects of our past.
The impression that some of your Chinese characters convey is that they regarded Indians of that period, specially the ones who lived and worked there, as stooges or slaves of Europeans... Do you think some of these attitudes still linger, vis a vis India and the West?
They certainly do and it is not just China, it is also Malaysia, Indonesia, East Africa. Indian soldiers were used to keep these places in suppression. Indians were really the agents of the Raj, the Empire. That historical memory is something we have chosen to forget, but the world around us has not forgotten it at all. 
Your comments about our country and free speech. You have been outspoken in your criticism of the Modi government and the way it has been banning NGOs.
The whole premise of democratic government is that there has to be freely voiced criticism of what goes on. If you don’t have that, then what is the difference between a democracy or a totalitarian government or for that matter a monarchy? Because we know in the Indian past our kings heard what their courtiers told them, they lived in this echo chamber where they listened to a group of people who would always say, “This is the best You are the greatest.” That is why that system did not survive. 
Any system of modern governance is based upon information. If the correct information does not come back to you, it becomes like a system where the king hears only what he wants to hear. That system will simply grind to a halt. Any kind of responsive or agile government puts in channels of feedback. 
Here what we increasingly seem to be doing is shutting them down. And it is not just the Modi government, the Congress was doing this. They started acting against NGOs, especially environmental NGOs.
And finally... Who are, according to you, some of the upcoming writers in this country?
There are so many. Sonia Faleiro, Rahul Bhattacharya, Raghu Karnad, Kanishk Tharoor. We are very lucky, in the entire sub-continent, there is an upwelling of wonderful writing.