The story appears on

Page A12

November 13, 2016

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Sunday » Book

Opium War through Indian eyes

THE First Opium War (1839–42), also known as the Anglo-Chinese War, was fought between the United Kingdom and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) over their conflicting viewpoints on diplomatic relations, trade, and the administration of justice for foreign nationals in China.

However, Indian author Amitav Ghash who came to Shanghai for the release of the Chinese edition of his Ibis Trilogy told Shanghai Daily: “The First Opium War in China was actually an Indian undertaking. The putting together of the expeditionary force took place in India. The British naval ships for the expedition were accompanied by 50 supply ships, all provided for by Parsee merchants in Bombay (now Mumbai)...

“On the other hand, the soldiers from Bihar and Majha fought in the Opium Wars. The two provinces became desperately poor due to opium trade. Especially Bihar, it is to this day still the most under developed province in India. It is really one of the sad legacies of the war.”

Set in the late 1830s, in the lead up to the First Opium War, the Ibis Trilogy, which Ghosh referred to as the work of his life, extends from Ghazipur in the Gangetic plain (which, today, is the site of the largest opium factory in the world) to the island of Mauritius and Canton, now south China’s Guangdong Province.

The lead characters are different in each book of the trilogy.

The first book, “Sea of Poppies,” introduced a dozen people of various nationalities, but at its center is the story of the widowed upper-caste Deeti and her lover, the untouchable Kalua, who escape caste retribution by taking refuge on the ship Ibis, carrying Indian laborers to Mauritius.

The second, “River of Smoke,” revolves around Bahram Modi, a Parsi businessman who bets everything that he has — and much more — on one big opium shipment to Canton, just as Chinese authorities crack down on the trade.

In “Flood of Fire,” the final book in the trilogy, we see how the war began and ended through the experiences of Kesri Singh, a soldier in the East India Company’s army and Zachary Reid, the mulatto captain of the Ibis.

Ghosh’s capacity for research is awe-inspiring. From the intricacies of ship architecture and seafaring of that period, to the nuances of traditional Parsi cuisine, he has clearly done his homework.

Ghosh told Shanghai Daily, English soldiers at that time left dozens of diaries and documents. But as for the Indian soldiers, almost nothing is available in the historical record.

“The books are meant to create the Indian experience. What their life circumstances were, how they survived and what they did.” Ghosh said, “It’s not only difficult, it is also impossible. I mean, I can’t claim that my creation was right, or accurate. But it’s better than having nothing. Sometimes I do get things from the English experience… I tried to imagine from there.”

Language, in fact, is one of the most fascinating parts of the trilogy. From Bhojpuri to the heavily Hindustani-ized English spoken by British settlers in India, from Chinese idioms to the universal pidgin English used by the lascars and 19th century English slang, the trilogy is a linguistic tour-de-force.

The master of five languages himself, Ghosh said “In my head, when I was trying to think of a character, the world would come to be in one language, only in different ways. The language switches, which entraps me to think more carefully about the words.

“The Cantonese dialect is especially interesting, in which there is a lot of swearing. There are many Cantonese phrases in the book. Even my Chinese translators contacted me and they wanted to figure out the exact meaning of these phrases, formed after the long exchanges during that time,” Ghosh said.

Through the struggles, tribulations, triumphs and failures of his characters, Ghosh maps a lessor-known period in the history of globalization.

“I want people to understand this world existed — this was a very complicated world, where people were interacting with each other, Chinese, Indians and Africans, Malays, English people, and Europeans… so it was truly a cosmopolitan world. And we have completely forgotten about this world. I want people to know there was such a world… and it happened.”

Q: You spent nearly a decade on the Ibis Trilogy. When you finally finished, did you feel emotionally drained?

It’s fulfilling in some ways. By the end of it, I had a great sense of having set out to do what I wanted. I don’t feel I am out of my characters at all. I have lived with my characters for such a long time. I think they will stay with me forever. I think I haven’t stop writing about them and I will go back to it at some point. That has always been my intension, I mean, this project is over but I’m sure I will come back to them in some other form.

Q: Do you see any of your works being made into a movie? If yes, will you work on the script?

Actually, several people have spoken to me about making a film out of the Ibis Trilogy, including a Chinese producer some time ago. But it will be very expansive to make such a film, just to think of the background of the events, so I don’t think there will be a movie coming up quickly.

If yes, I don’t think I will do the script. As a writer, I feel if I have written a book, it’s a mistake to be too closely involved in the filming script. That should be the director’s vision.

Q: You started off as a journalist with an Indian newspaper. Does that affect your style of writing in any way?

My first job was as a journalist. I often wrote for The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Times in the past years. Journalism is a very large part of my life. It influences me in many ways. As a journalist, you have to listen very closely to people when they speak. So listening is very important to me when I do my writing.

Q: Your latest book “The Great Derangement” is on global warming and climate change. How do you get interested in this topic?

The last ten years, when I was writing the Ibis Trilogy, I actually didn’t allow myself to write about anything else. Because it is a project that requires very deep concentration. But when I was writing it, I was also thinking about other things. And these last ten years, it has become very clear that the climate change crisis is upon us, which literarily means disaster for many of us. It’s there, on our doorstep. Most of all, it is Asia that will be paying the price. So we have to be aware of what’s happening, be aware of what’s coming… I am a writer. I have the impulse to write about it.

About the Author

Amitav Ghosh was born in 1956 in Calcutta and grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He studied in Delhi, Oxford and Alexandria and is the author of ten novels. From the poignant “Shadow Lines” to the hallucinatory “Calcutta Chromosome” and the epic “Hungry Tide,” Ghosh consistently surprises and enchants the reader with his choice of subject, depth of research, lyrical yet exacting prose, and storytelling skill. His Ibis Trilogy is perhaps the most ambitious literary project yet undertaken by the Indian author.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend