Confronting the past

Looking at a layered history: Amitav Ghosh.

Looking at a layered history: Amitav Ghosh.   | Photo Credit: Photo: K. Murali Kumar


Understanding history in all its layered complexity will enable us to deal better with contemporary realities, says Amitav Ghosh, whose much-awaited novel, Sea of Poppies, the first in a new trilogy, is being released today simultaneously in India and the U.K. Excerpts from an email interview...

It has been hailed as “the most eagerly awaited fiction title of the year”, an “epic work of exceptional beauty and power”. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, an ambitious work that spans three continents and two centuries, is not only about colonialism but also about how people lived, laughed and loved. Here, the winner of several awards, talks about some of the impulses behind the conception of the trilogy.

Given your historical subject matter, what does the novel enable you to do that non-fiction cannot?

For me, the novel is the most complete form of expressive utterance. Not only does it allow you to tell a story, but it also permits you to create the world within which that story is told. This means that a novel can create its own linguistic universe, and this was to me one of the most exciting things about writing Sea of Poppies.

Conrad and Melville have been cited as influences. Are there others? One thinks of works like Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger, set in the context of the slave trade.

Melville’s work has had a great influence on me, but I would not say the same of Conrad. I admire Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger very much; it is in many ways a magnificent novel. But perhaps the greatest tribute I could pay to it is to say that it has provoked me to think at length about why, in some respects, it falls short of achieving its promise. Some day I would like to write about this at length. For now suffice it to say that writing about indenture is a very different matter from writing about the slave trade. It is true that indenture was in some ways similar to slavery, and that the conditions were often just as bad. Yet, indenture was not the same thing as the industrial-scale slavery of the Americas. This needs to be acknowledged, at very least, in recognition of the courage and persistence of the abolitionists and other reformers who fought against slavery. No humane person would want to say that their efforts were wasted or deny the very possibility of human betterment. One of the ways in which indenture was different from slavery is that it usually involved some degree of volition (although there was undoubtedly a great deal of coercion, fraud and chicanery). For a writer, this element of volition, however small, is of crucial importance: for Unsworth, its absence meant that it was very difficult to provide the slave characters with any subjectivity, especially in the first part of the book.

You’ve spoken of The Glass Palace as a relatively ‘easy ride’ for colonialism. Sea of Poppies is more explicitly critical of imperialism. There are those who argue that discussions of Empire are anachronistic (‘Who cares?’)… Sea of Poppies is not about any one thing, any more than the past (or the present) are about one thing. There can be no doubt that colonialism was the dominant political reality of 19th century India. Yet, it is important to remember that it was just one aspect of that reality: people also lived and laughed and loved, as indeed people do everywhere no matter what their political circumstances. When I look back at the 19th century, what strikes me is the resilience, the resistance, the willingness to change and the determination to learn. The past cannot, and ought not to, be planed down to one dimension. As readers will see, there are so many different stories unfolding simultaneously on the Ibis that it is impossible to impose one over-riding narrative on the collective journey. But to acknowledge that the past is complicated, is not to say that we should turn our backs on it, either in shame, or because we just want to move on. One reason for this is that colonialism is not really in the past, even in the Indian subcontinent: Pakistan, for instance, is in a situation where re-colonisation is a real possibility. The present incarnation of Empire is in fact uncannily like the old one, with its island prisons, its vast network of jails, its “cantonments”, and most of all its tireless trumpeting of its good intentions. This is why we can’t turn away saying “who cares?” Because present-day colonialism derives its charter from the past: it wants us to give our assent to a certain view of history so that this history can be repeated (as it has been in Iraq). There is not much we can do about the past, but it is certainly within our power to withhold the assent it demands from us in the present day — not in order to seek retribution for what happened, but as Gandhi famously said, to make sure that it does not happen again.

Some argue that one of the benefits of Empire is that it brought peoples together. Given the ways in which historical dispersal and globalisation are major concerns for you in this and other works, what would you say of this claim? There’s a tendency to read such fiction in blandly ‘multicultural’ terms, as celebrating diversity.

Cosmopolitanism and cultural exchange existed long before the European expansion (I have written about this in my book In An Antique Land). When such exchanges happen in conditions of equality they are a wonderful thing — who could possibly doubt that? But when they happen in a situation of asymmetry, they often lead to subjection and contempt. In colonial situations, as Leela Gandhi beautifully demonstrates in her book Elective Affinities, people had to struggle against the grain of the prevalent hierarchies in order to maintain cross-cultural friendships (which sometimes lent them beautiful pathos). Even within the spectrum of empires, the British Empire was perhaps the least open to “diversity” because race was so central to its functioning. The Portuguese and the Dutch empires were no better in other respects, but they certainly allowed a far greater degree of contact and intermixing (Richard Burton, in his account of Goa, is filled with contempt for the Portuguese on this score). To my mind, The Hidden Force, by the Dutch writer Louis Couperus, is the finest of all colonial novels: it is about Java where Couperus was once a colonial official. Couperus was more or less a contemporary of E.M. Forster, but anyone who reads The Hidden Force along with A Passage to India will notice an enormous difference in the possibilities that were open to people in terms of how they could relate to each other.

Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge. Her book on the English novel in India is due out later this year.

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