Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel, River of Smoke, the second in his Ibis trilogy, follows a motley crew of storm-tossed characters to their destinations. While in the first book, Sea of Poppies, the voyage was the story, with most of the action taking place on board the Ibis, here his characters are on solid ground, placed on a global canvas that stretches from the plantations of Mauritius to the crowded harbours of China.
In doing so, Ghosh expands his cultural detailing, from clothing to cuisine. But most of all, it is the realistic linguistic registers of his dozen or so major characters that make his novel throb with life. There’s Bhojpuri, Bengali, Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese and Laskari, to name only a few.
Ghosh trained as an anthropologist. “And what else does anthropology do than train you to observe, and to listen to the ways in which people speak?” he says. River of Smoke weaves in historical events and figures such as Napoleon into a thoughtfully woven tapestry of fiction. But it is the language of his characters, speckled with words such as the Bhojpuri girmitya (an ingenious term for indentured labour: a corruption of the English word “agreement”) and the Mauritian Creole gidigidi, that gives the tapestry a most unique texture.
When Poppies released, the critical discourse centred around Ghosh’s subversive retelling of colonial history and the Opium Wars. In River of Smoke, Ghosh uses language and etymology almost politically; as evidence to prove the intermingling of races, languages, words (even botanical species) in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Ahead of the launch of his book in India, we spoke to the author about the Ibis trilogy, his interest in Arabic and Bengali fiction and why V.S. Naipaul should be read, not heard. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Did you intend for ‘River of Smoke’ to take off from where ‘Poppies’ ended?
I didn’t think of the trilogy as a linear progression. River of Smoke doesn’t take off where Poppies ends. It moves backwards and forwards in time and heads off in a completely different direction. My idea was that the books would have a tangential relationship to each other that would allow me to explore new characters and forms.
How did the idea of embarking on a trilogy come about?
It was actually a selfish thing. As a writer, the most difficult part of the writing life is when you finish a book and have to let go of all these characters you’ve lived with for so long. I decided I wanted to live with these characters, their children and their grandchildren.
You’ve said before that your two years as an anthropologist in Egypt shaped the way you write fiction. When did your almost scholarly interest in language start to take shape and how does that define your writing?
My time in Egypt has a lot to do with that. Anthropology trains you to observe, and to listen to the ways in which people speak. In many ways, Arabic is a sort of link between Indian and European languages. Learning Arabic had a huge impact on me. I’d say I’m one of the few non-Arab writers who’s read a lot of Arab literature and it reflects in my work. River of Smoke is heavily inspired by a famous Egyptian novel, Zayni Barakat by Gamal al-Ghitani.
In what ways is it influenced by it?
It’s a book set in the 18th century. What’s compelling about it is that the writer uses a lot of proclamations, judgements and letters of that time and puts them together in an intriguing way. It made me understand why official language has such power. I used the official language of China and of English merchants in my book.
Your trilogy comes with its own chrestomathy! I’m curious about whether it functioned as a self-compiled reference dictionary while you were writing the ‘Ibis’ books or whether it was something you created later?
I wrote the chrestomathy after I finished Poppies. More than for readers, it was for myself: It was something I enjoyed doing. Words are real to me. I love words and that’s what brought me into writing in the first place. So it became like another chapter of the book. Me playing with words and creating a word universe.
It has everything from Bhojpuri to Portuguese words. What sources did you use?
I used a wide variety of research material, including a book written by S.N. Gajendragadkar, a linguist from Mumbai who’s written a splendid book on Parsi Gujarati.
From your very first book, ‘The Circle of Reason’ in 1986, your characters travel a lot; the readers travel with them. In the ‘Ibis’ books, you take travel to another degree altogether...
Look, in some sense it is a reflection of my own life. My life has been enmeshed with journeys and departures. When I started writing 30 years ago, it was thought to be a peculiar thing…my first book was about Indians working in the Gulf. Now, years later, it seems that I was ahead of the curve. I was writing of the reality of the world which is coming to being: Cultures and languages are mixing up. But these sort of new connections in the world are actually not new and I’ve been interested in them throughout my life.
The writer as a wordsmith: River of Smokeis 55-year-old Ghosh’s eighth novel. Javed Shah/Mint
Your father was a bureaucrat and worked for the external affairs ministry for a while. Where all have you lived as a child?
I moved with them until I was 11 and after that I was in boarding school in north India (Doon School). But that in itself entailed the business of travelling—going home for the summer to wherever my parents were. I lived in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Iran.
Who were you reading as a young writer, or before you became a writer for that matter?
I’ve been a voracious reader—and I’ve been greatly influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Boswell and so many others—but it’s interesting you ask what I was reading in my 20s. For one, Lawrence Durrell who wrote The Alexandria Quartet. I love those books. And now that I think of it, this trilogy reflects my reading of him. Each book is a different book, yet they play off each other.
Your writing is weighted on observation. It’s about the real, concrete world and its people. How is it that you count Marquez among your big literary influences?
Marquez’ journalistic books are fantastic and they’re some of his best works. He’s a great observer in the sense that his books are grounded in time and space. Even though he’s always identified with what they call “magical realism”…look at how Marquez makes his scenarios so believable, so persuasive.
It’s somewhat of a contradiction that you don’t like writing non-fiction any more.
Non-fiction has sort of faded for me. In any case, whenever I’ve done non-fiction in the past it’s because the subject has really provoked me. If such an occasion arises, I’ll do it again. I was a journalist for a year and a half too and I continue to write essays for The New Yorker, Granta, Hindu…
You’re in touch with contemporary writing in Bengali and have a lot of Bengali writers as friends. Did you read in multiple languages while growing up? How do those different writing styles work into the way you write?
I did read a lot of Bengali fiction growing up: Satyajit Ray and his father Sukumar Ray. There was also this wonderful writer called Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay who lived all his life in Pune and wrote a series of historical novels about a young boy who joined Shivaji’s army. Bengali writing has such a warm and inviting storytelling voice.
What is this warm and inviting voice?
The storytelling voice of Bengali fiction is distinctive. Writers such as Bandyopadhyay write in a way that invites the readers—draws them—into the narrative. That’s what I mean.
You’re celebratory of regional language books being translated into English. But the general rhetoric has been that regional writers are not getting their due; that they’re only there for tokenism at the Jaipur Literature Festival, for instance.
That’s rubbish, there are regional writers from India at every literary festival I go to and they’re feted. I was at a festival in Montreal a couple of months ago and I met a Tamil and Malayalam writer. I don’t think it’s as dark a situation as it’s made out to be. One of the great things happening in Indian publishing is that many publishers have launched translating programmes and more and more creative regional writing is receiving attention.
Your books seem difficult to translate. What happens to all your wordplay in translation?
Poppies has been translated to 25 languages. I’m not particular about supervising the translation but I do work closely with the translators. They mail me all the time for help with certain parts of the texts and I do what I can to help. My Russian translator sends me pages and pages of queries! In fact, the book has done quite well in Hindi. It’s called Afeem Sagar.
You’ve been compared to Naipaul because you both attempt to subvert history as it has been written. What do you think of his recent misogynist comments about how “no woman writer can ever be his equal”?
It’s utterly absurd. Naipaul says these absurd things to provoke people and in that he certainly succeeds. There were meetings in England, television programmes debating it, now you are asking me. I admire Naipaul’s earlier works such as Miguel Street, A House for Mr Biswas. One has to remind oneself that Naipaul cannot be reduced to the absurd things he says.
Do tell us about the next and last ‘Ibis’ book. Is it a work in progress?
Not at all, in fact. I just finished River of Smoke so it will be a while before I start the third. My writer friends in Goa joke that after Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, the title of my next book should be Lagoons of Goa.
Our picks from Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Ibis’ chrestomathy
The Ibis trilogy comes with its own 24-page chrestomathy—a compilation of several delightful words of Ghosh’s multi-ethnic characters that have a claim to naturalization in the English language. As Neel Ratan Haldar, the Ibis character who has supposedly authored the dictionary, says, “it is devoted to a select number among the many migrants who have sailed from eastern waters towards the chilly shores of the English language”.
While Ghosh tells us that he has a special reserve of love for budmash and budzat, two Perso-Arabic words of abuse, here are a few of our favourites:
Bobbery: This word for ‘commotion’, used extensively in Southern China, is nothing but an adaptation of the Hindi-Bhojpuri-Bengali exclamation, baap-re! or baba-re! which means ‘Oh father!’.
Chikan/chicken: The embroidery of Oudh, from which comes the expression ‘chicken-worked’ used to describe those who were forced to work under tyrannical (chikan-clad) Madam Sahibs.
Chopstick: Comes from ‘chop-chop’, which in turn is a translation of the Cantonese k’wai-k’wai which means quickly-quickly.
Dadu: This English gypsy word for father, is the same as the Bengali word for grandfather. Strange too, that the English gypsy word for mother, dai, is the common Hindi word for midwife.
Faltu: From the Laskari nautical term faltu-dol or ‘jury-mast’, understood to refer to an unreliable increase of the mast.
Rankin/rinkin: English gypsy slang from the Hindi word rangeen or colourful.
Shrob/shrab/shrub/sorbet/sorbetto/sherbet/syrup/sirop/xarave/sharaab: All words derived from the Arabic root for ‘drink’ sh-r-b.
River of Smoke launches in Kolkata today.