“Now when I look back I marvel at myself for taking on a project that took 10 long years. It is so much the opposite of what the world is doing. The world is becoming increasingly distracted, and there I am down this rabbit hole thinking about one set of things for years and years. Sometimes I think I was mad to start.”
Amitav Ghosh, the acclaimed 58-year-old Indian novelist, is describing his extraordinary Ibis trilogy which has just concluded with the publication of the equally stupendous Flood of Fire. A decade in the writing, this exciting, passionate and scathing account of the First Opium War deserves to stand as one of the outstanding achievements of 21st-century literature.
Such an ambitious undertaking was necessarily filled with periods of uncertainty, wrong turns and artistic despair. “Now that the book is done – the way its shape and form has come together – it is incredibly gratifying. But I can tell you that for the last three years, I was just tearing my hair out wondering where this was going?”
I first interviewed Ghosh in 2008 for Sea of Poppies. His sixth novel, it kick-started the Ibis trilogy and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize later that year (Ghosh was also short-listed for this year's Man Booker International Prize, which went to László Krasznahorkai.) Ibis is the name of the fictional slave ship turned opium transport that housed Ghosh's motley crew of characters. An idealistic American prospector called Zachary Reid, the solitary French orphan Paulette Lambert, the divinely-inspired opium trader Mr Benjamin Burnham, the helpless addict Ah Fatt, and a boatload of lascars from all over Asia. Each individual would be changed, for good or bad, by the First Opium War between Great Britain and China in the middle of the 19th century.
In Ghosh’s telling, English merchants’ expansionist policy of selling opium, grown in India by near-slave labour, and sold in China where there was a vast illegal market, did not simply mark the foundations of the British Empire. It signalled a new form of global trade and politics, laying the foundations of outsourcing, migrant populations and truly international foreign relations – all driven by advances in military technology and realpolitik.
In this, Sea of Poppies and its two successors were entertainments but also wake-up calls.
“It’s strange that the world pays such little attention to the Opium Wars, but opium was perhaps the largest single trade of the 19th century. All the profits went to England. All the work was done by Indians. All the silver came from China which was consuming it. It was one of the most iniquitous things that has ever happened in the history of mankind.”
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Ghosh knew that such an epic narrative required the most epic of canvasses, not to mention supreme commitment. This story of home, travel, Empire and national identity embodied by the diaspora of the Ibis’ crew was also the story of himself and his family. “I am writing about my reality. I came from a family that was by no means well-off. To make your living you have to scatter.”
He cites his father who joined the army at 18. “That was his way out,” Ghosh notes. Having fought in Myanmar during the Second World War, he worked for the Indian government. Amitav himself was born in Calcutta in 1956. When his father began working for the government, his family became accustomed to constant re-locations – across India itself, but also to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Ghosh clearly caught the globetrotting bug, moving to England in the late 1970s to begin a doctorate in social anthropology at Oxford University.
His first-hand experience of racism made real an already uneasy relationship with India’s former colonial rulers. “At Oxford, every day, every week, there would be some horrible incident with people shouting at you, this or that. You may well look astonished, and people do look astonished. It was literally every day. Somebody would stop a car and yell. And it was not just townspeople. It was from within the student body as well. Another Indian student that I knew had their rooms trashed.”
Ghosh has continued to work across the world. His doctorate included a year’s field work in Alexandria. He now divides his time between India, where much of the Ibis trilogy was written, and New York. He is married to the writer and editor Deborah Baker, and has taught at various universities, including Columbia and Harvard.
Such worldliness, he argues, is a vital act of independence for Indians of his generation, one that is a direct result of the damage wrought on India by the Opium Wars. “It was important for us to travel and see the world, and it has been very important for me. As Indians, we can never forget what happened to us in the 18th and 19th-century. It came about for us, as it did for China, because of our ignorance of the world. That must never be allowed to repeat itself.”
Ghosh was writer-in-residence at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) when we talked next. Readings at the Sharjah International Book Fair and at NYUAD itself bisected the second Ibis instalment, Rivers of Smoke, and Flood of Fire. On that day, he was less in the mood to discuss his writing than the environmental issues affecting the Middle East.
Nevertheless, the trilogy was so all-encompassing that the Opium Wars was rarely far from his thoughts. For instance, as a way to understand what he called the current Anglo-American conception of economic development. “Britain saw these apparently empty continents and squeezed them of their resources, then presented this to the world as a desirable model of growth. Countries now can’t seize continents because there are no continents left – there are no resources left. That is the fundamental problem.”
Last week we completed our own trilogy by discussing Flood of Fire itself. Set on the eve of the Opium War proper, Sino-British tensions centre around the newly-formed trading post of Hong Kong. Only a few of Sea of Poppies' original cast has survived. Many, like the opium addict Ah Fatt, are changed beyond recognition (he now slinks under the pseudonym "Freddie Lee"). Others like Zachary Reid find themselves on the brink of profound transformation. Zachary is arguably the novel's defining consciousness, facing a choice between his ideals and the lure of becoming what he himself describes as "a man of the times … a man who wants more and more and more; a man who does not know the meaning of enough. Anyone who thwarts my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must be expected to be treated as such".
Having only finished Flood of Fire in December of last year, Ghosh is as eager to discuss Zachary's Faustian pact as any other reader. "Oh no, not at all," he says when I ask whether he planned the novel's sobering finale when he set out on Sea of Poppies 10 years earlier. "I had a sense of the horizon of the book, but I didn't really have a sense of how specifics would work out. If you had asked me this last year, I wouldn't have known how the book would end."
This hints at the instinctive nature of Ghosh’s creative process. He is a novelist who follows his imagination, even when it leads him down blind alleys. “I would say I blunder about until I find an open door. I knock on a lot of doors. I try to some batter some down, but they rarely yield. Then I find myself trying to find the open one.”
Ghosh's entryway into Flood of Fire was Adam Smith's conception of freemarket economics, which Britain realised by selling opium at vast profit to China in the late 18th century. The iniquity of the trade was highlighted in a famous diplomatic letter sent to Queen Victoria. High Commissioner Lin complained that in England the drug was prohibited with the utmost strictness and severity. While this is a slight exaggeration – opium use wouldn't begin to be legally restricted until later in the 19th century – it is the sort of ironic imbalance that Ghosh exploits. "I realised this was the inaugural moment in the wars of what you might call Free Trade Imperialism. These merchants were the first generation of people for whom Adam Smith's ideas were like a religion. They really thought they were laws of nature."
The effects wrought by Smith's seminal book, The Wealth of Nations, is embodied by the assaults on the Chinese mainland and the transformation of Zachary Reid, who shifts from disingenuous adventurer to calculating trader. "The profit motive has always existed, nowhere more so than in China and India, but Adam Smith created the idea that the economy is separate from human society and driven by its own internal forces. For the merchants, the market was not subject to any ethical constraints. Nobody in America [today] would suggest that Colombia has a right to push drugs in their country. But this was exactly what the Free Trade Fundamentalists were saying back then." In this, opium was uniquely suited to Smith's purposes. "The whole point about capitalism is to try to persuade people to buy things that they don't need," Ghosh argues. "It necessarily began with addictive substances. Tobacco, rum, tea, opium."
Nevertheless, the drug posed moral questions for all but the most sociopathic free marketeers. Ghosh cites Warren Delano, grandfather of future American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and, for seven years from 1823, an opium trader in Canton. In a letter, Delano accepted that he could not defend the China trade on moral grounds, but could do so in economic terms “as a merchant I insist it has been ... fair, honourable and legitimate”.
Ghosh views the market’s triumph over morality with unmistakable antipathy. “As we know, behind every great fortune lies a crime. That’s the remarkable thing about traders. When they eventually settle down they completely reinvent themselves as philanthropists or religious people. This is as true of the Indians as it is of the Americans and the Englishmen. Half the public institutions of Bombay were founded by people who made enormous sums of money in the China trade. If you look at the east coast of America, many of the universities and museums were really funded by opium.”
Tempering Ghosh’s disdain for such hypocrisy is awareness of his own complicity in the very systems he critiques. “Whether we like it or not, these ideas are very powerful. They shape the world as we know it. They are reality itself. That is the strange thing about writing a book. You have to place yourself in the shoes of people completely different from you.”
In fact, it doesn’t sound like he and Zachary are so very different. Both are restless, globetrotting and ambitious. Both are formed by competing cultural forces, and caught between principle and pragmatism. “In many ways I perfectly understand the appeal of what Zachary did. I strongly disapprove of arms manufacturers, but like almost anyone in the late bourgeois world, I have savings which could be in companies that invest in these things. We are all implicated in some way.”
One could argue that Ghosh’s decision to write in English suggests implication of a different sort, reflecting a complex cultural legacy comprising his native Bengali and leftovers from the British Empire.
I grew up for part of my childhood in Sri Lanka and the sort of English there was very much influenced by nautical dialect and pidgin, he says.
The resulting “productive tension” shaped a prose style far closer to 19th century’s English than today’s trans-global, business-facing version. “People think that English, as it is globalising, has become richer and more inflected. In fact it’s the other way around. As English has grown more dominant, it has actually grown poorer because it is less respectful of the streams of language that have come into it. English is a much poorer language today than in the 19th-century.”
Ghosh proposes his uneasy cultural inheritance as a template for the billions for whom English is a second language. “The whole world is confronting this. All of us are having to deal with many states of consciousness. [India] happens to have been at the cutting edge. The people who have really lost out are the English and the Americans. As the rest of the world has learned to cope with bilingualism, they have grown more monolingual. I say this to my children – that their world is so much more provincial than that of the Chinese or the Russians.”
This friction, Ghosh argues, enshrines the enduring allure of his fellow Indian novelists like Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, who taught him at school. Their decision to write in the language of their colonisers is both a grudging acceptance of English’s triumph and a form of defiance. “[We represent] one of the fundamental predicaments and anxieties of modern life. On one hand, English is this incredible globalising force. On the other, we offer resistance to it. We embody that – in ourselves and in our work.”
Flood of Fire is filled with many forms of opposition to imperial oppression. Jodu, one of the Ibis' surviving lascars from Sea of Poppies, is imprisoned in Guangdong where he becomes a committed Muslim. Ghosh says that embryonic versions of Al Qaeda and ISIL were born in this period. "One point of resistance to [European Imperialism] was an early form of Islamic fundamentalism. The flashpoint was the Sultanate of Arce in northern Sumatra. Arce fought the Dutch for a long time, attracting Muslim adventurers from around the Indian Ocean. Many were Yemeni, as was the family of Osama bin Laden. These roots go back a long way."
Indeed, like the best historical fiction, Flood of Fire shines a light not only on the past but also on contemporary events. In this instance, the conflicts in the Middle East that ran parallel to the composition of the Ibis trilogy itself. Ghosh mentions William Jardine, the 19th-century Scottish opium trader who founded the multinational conglomerate Jardine Matheson based in Hong Kong. When Lin Zexu effectively halted the opium trade in 1839, Jardine returned to England and persuaded the British foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, for a violent response.
“Jardine systematically bought up journalists and MPs. It is so eerily similar to the Iraq War. You can’t help but feeling deeply sceptical about a so-called free society conducting its affairs in this way.”
Ghosh compares Jardine’s success in uniting the political, economic and military interests to Dick Cheney, American vice president during 2003’s invasion of Iraq and chief executive of Halliburton at the time, which made vast profits as a result.
If Ghosh sounds weary, then the cause is physical as well as political. Although Flood of Fire's exhaustive notes hint at more instalments to come, its author says the Ibis trilogy is complete. "It is absolutely finished," he laughs. "Will I return to these characters in the future in a different way? That is certainly possible. I can't tell."
In the short term, he has already moved on to one of many projects put on hold during the last decade. Before he embarks on a new voyage, I ask what life is like without Zachary, the Burnhams, Paulette and the Opium Wars. Ghosh takes a moment before answering.
"I used to feel devastated when I finished a book. It was one of the reasons I decided to write a trilogy. I could stay with the characters for a long time. If I really did begin to grieve, I could just take up with them again. I have to say I didn't feel any of that when I got to the end of Flood of Fire. I felt an incredible sense of fulfilment. I set out on this path. I achieved what I wanted to do."
James Kidd is a freelance review based in London.