Author Interview: The enchanting story of 'River Of Smoke' by Amitav Ghosh
Author Amitav Ghosh talks about his latest book "River Of Smoke"
River of Smoke, the magnificent new novel by Amitav Ghosh, the second book in the masterful Ibis Trilogy, has topped the fiction bestseller charts in India. Incidentally, Amitav Ghosh's previous book Sea of Poppies, the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel which constituted the first part of the Ibis Trilogy, was also a major bestseller in India and abroad. Amitav Ghosh who is currently on a nationwide tour promoting his new book was in Bangalore recently and shared his experiences with the audience. A few excerpts from the Q & A session:
Your books are extremely well-researched and you give a lot of importance to minute details, tell us a bit about your research process?
It’s kind of a symbiotic thing, it’s not like research drives the writing. I follow the characters; the characters always come first for me. If I’m following a character onto a ship, I’d want to know what kind of a ship it is, where they sleep and what is their life like. So it is in that sense that I start looking for concreteness. The difference between the sort of research I would do and the sort of research a historian does is completely different. They are focused on particular things and because I’m following my characters, I just try to recreate their world. So in a way it’s sort of a slapdash thing than what historians do. But I do try and bring together the reality of the lived experience. And in this book I had to recreate this whole foreign enclave in Canton, so it's a different way in which one approaches research.
All the characters in the book are fictional, except for Napoleon. What made you write about him?
Unlike Sea Of Poppies, many of the characters in this book are historical figures. One of the main characters in the book is the son of a very famous artist George Chinnery who was an eminent English painter who lived in Calcutta for many years before moving to Macau, China where he remained until his death in 1852. Also as a part of the research for the book, I went to the Greenwich Maritime Museum on the suburbs of London, where they have preserved enormous collections of handwritten journals, diaries of various famous people. I came across this amazing journal by a trader who was going from Canton to London. When he arrived in Cape Town, he heard that Napoleon was in St. Helena and he recorded his meeting with Napoleon. And his writings in the journal were so priceless that I couldn’t abstain from putting them in the book.
Your interest for China reflects in your books….
It's strange but I had no interest in China till I started work on Sea of Poppies. I spent a lot of time in Guangzhou and I became very fascinated with China. But this country, which is just across the border, is like another home to me now.
River of Smoke begins with you talking about Deeti; could you tell us a bit about her?
Deeti is an important character in my book. Characters often take on a life of their own when you’re writing. And at a certain point they just impose themselves. And that’s the case with Deeti; she became a compelling figure for me. Also wherever you go, you see these incredibly powerful matriarchal figures and somewhere along the way it leaves a mark on you. Deeti I must say is the captain of her own ship.
What is your inspiration behind this book?
Deeti was the first character I thought of when I was writing Sea Of Poppies, but Bahram Modi (a Parsi opium merchant out of Bombay) was a close second. There was no room for him in that book but he was a character who really interested me right from the start. So, I wanted to write about his experience and his life during the break of the opium war. Indians were a critical force during the opium war as it was mostly financed by the Bombay merchants. So I wanted to think through and bring to life what it felt like to experience something like that.
Is it easier to write about a controversial subject like Opium War when you write it in a fictional manner?
Many historians have written about Opium Wars, one of the most interesting records was by a Chinese-historian who taught at the university when I was a student. But I’m not an historian, for me I have to be able to imagine the human predicament. This is a monumental subject but what interests me is the predicament of people like Bahram Modi and other characters in the book and how they go about dealing with it. It’s a huge canvas and I’ve often quailed before the challenge thinking if I'll ever be able to finish what I started, but the habits of a lifetime kick in and you go on.
How do you stay in touch with characters, writing a trilogy is definitely no easy task?
The one good thing about trilogy is that it does wonders for your memory! I think trilogy is my defense against Alzheimer’s.
In all your books, there’s a recurring theme of water. Why are you drawn to this element?
I think it’s something to do with the fact that I’m a Bengali. Rivers play a powerful part on our imagination. It’s a common theme in most Bengali fiction.
Have you considered adapting your books to cinema?
Several major filmmakers have approached me to make Sea of Poppies but I haven't really finalized on anything.
What will your third book in the trilogy be called?
My friends in Goa say, it should be called Goons of Goa. (laughs) But I have no clue, only when I get around to writing it, I'll know.
Book: River Of Smoke
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Price: Rs. 699
Publisher: Penguin India