Gruelling research is just preparation for that moment when the story comes to possess him, says Amitav Ghosh
It is close to noon on a Sunday at Aman Hotel in New Delhi, and Amitav Ghosh’s voice—as quiet, gracious, and as given to solicitous explication as his authorial one—just about rises above a host of gentle intrusions. The wind whipping up the hot dust just outside the hotel’s imperious stone façade, the muzak, rinsing over the conversation in gushy sentiment, with the perpetually releasing shutters of photographers providing an out-of-time percussive beat.
Ghosh completed River of Smoke, the second installment of his Ibis trilogy on the opium trade in the 1830s, earlier this year, three years after the spectacularly successful Sea of Poppies came out. “That day in February, I remember thinking: ‘I just can’t do that, can’t go out there and talk to people’,” says Ghosh, in between sips of Earl Grey tea—the hotel not having this self-confessed tea fetishist’s favourite Darjeeling muscatel. “But then, you sort of, well, have to,” he says, with a half-apologetic, half-rueful laugh. “I do this kind of round when my book comes out; I want it to have a proper chance in the world…”
While the first part of the narrative unfolded along the banks of the Ganges and Calcutta, where opium was grown and processed, and aboard the Ibis, a schooner refitted for opium export, River of Smoke floats along to Canton, China, where the opium is sold, and the Chinese authorities are struggling to curb the illegal imports keeling over the populace while enriching avaricious traders. Research has been peripatetic, as befits the narrative. He’s pored over documents in museums across several continents: the archives in the Mauritius library, the Greenwich Maritime Museum on the outskirts of London, and museums dedicated to the Opium wars in Guangdong province.
Quite the method-researcher, Ghosh’s previous forms of research have been rather adventurous—from accompanying fishermen on three-day trips in the Sunderbans for The Hungry Tide to spending time with Burmese insurgents for The Glass Palace and even being shot at by the Khmer Rouge during the war in Cambodia (“That was really something”). For the Ibis series, “research” also entailed learning to sail, which, he says, was “scary, but wonderful”.
While Sea of Poppies was animated by the merry din of “small Englishes” which proliferated in the high noon of imperial trade, Ghosh aimed towards a similar verisimilitude of dialogue and a vivid sense of place and time in this one by teaching himself Cantonese over the past four years. “If you’re writing about a character who is in a place, you have to be able to imagine what that place is like, what the sounds of that place are, the kinds of conversations he’s likely to be in,” says Ghosh. The venture is somewhat less easy than it sounds, though. “I was aiming for a passive knowledge of it,” he says, “but it’s very difficult phonetically though it’s syntactically very simple. Some people say, in Cantonese, there are 27 different tones!”
He has also been dipping into the “inexhaustible” troves of Chinese literature, including Six Records of a Floating Life, a travelogue of Canton by 18th century writer Shen Fu, “one of the most marvelous travelogues I’ve ever read”. He adds, “Canton was also where the great Chinese epic Travels to the West [of Qiu Chang Chun] was written. You know, by ‘west’, they meant India.”
Much like his historical novels, Ghosh’s writing life takes place over a geographical sprawl. While his base with his wife, fellow-author Deborah Baker, is in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a tome’s throw away from the residences of the Pulitzer-winning author Jennifer Egan and Jhumpa Lahiri, he also toils over writing desks in Kolkata and North Goa, the latter in one of those crumbling old villas that successful authors tend to “lovingly restore”. He might have three desks, but just has one way of working: single-mindedly, constantly, and with frequent, salubrious libations of pu-erh tea.
“You must understand,” he says, “I do nothing else. So how would I get through my day otherwise? I get out of bed, have breakfast, and go to my desk. At a certain point, I thought, well, I’ll just work for half the day, but then I got so bored for the rest of the day… Writing is my life, literally.” And write, he does, in longhand, on paper, with a fountain pen. Word processors make him “freeze up when trying to compose”. “Computers came when I was in my early 20s,” he explains. “Writing by hand feels more natural.”
With three desks in two continents, though, he’s come a long way from the circumstances in which he wrote his first book in his early 20s, in 1986. “When I first started writing,” he recalls, “my energy and concentration levels were much higher. It was possible to write in fits and starts. Today, it amazes me to think about how I wrote my first book. I was living on the roof, in the servants’ quarters in Delhi, it was unbearably hot, and I used to sit there in my little lungi, just pounding away at my typewriter; in between I was teaching, as a research associate in DU, in the Delhi School of Economics, where I was paid Rs 600 a month. The rent was Rs 300. I don’t know how I managed.”
One sort of discomfort he’s never had to deal with, as a writer of such assured industriousness, is the pitiless blank page of writer’s block. This could explain why, while he professes to “love” his main editor, Roland Philipps at John Murray, and says Philipps gives him “the right kind of support and encouragement”, he thinks the business of editing is “fetishised” in America. “See, no one is going to change their mind about your work over one word or line out of place. The really inexpressible thing about a book is if a book doesn’t have life, you can’t read it, even if it’s perfectly written.”
That “life-giving thing”, that “intangible mystery”—inspiration—is at the centre of a writer’s allure. Ghosh is familiar with it, and the “tayyari” that prepares him; laying the ground for his literary possession. “There are moments I can remember,” he says, “when in an unexpected circumstance, suddenly your story just opens up before you, and you see horizon after horizon after horizon. The sensation is like, you’re in a long corridor, and there are these doors, just flying apart—and you can see and see and see. When that happens, you feel such relief. The last time that happened, I remember thinking: ‘For the next two years, I’m settled.’”