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'A ship is a wonderful thing to write about'

Ships. Opium chests. Choppy waters. Warring continents. Flood of Fire, the much-awaited finale to the Ibis Trilogy is packed with all of the above, and much more. Recently, Amitav Ghosh gave Mumbai fans a taste of this heady adventure. Fiona Fernandez met with him to get the back-story of his epic work of historic fiction

George Wittet's Gateway of India has a grey hue to it. After all, it's pouring outside. The monsoon is here, we're told. Call it timing or otherwise; we couldn't help but imagine similar brushstrokes paint a vivid picture from 1839-40, in the torrential waters around south China — the area where Amitav Ghosh's Flood of Fire ends in fine form.

Amitav Ghosh was in the city to launch the last book of his trilogy titled Flood of Fire. Pics/Bipin Kokate
Amitav Ghosh was in the city to launch the last book of his trilogy titled Flood of Fire. Pics/Bipin Kokate 

"Yes, River of Smoke was launched around this time, too," smiles Ghosh when we remind him of the monsoon connect. Our introductions revisited, we are ready to set sail. Pun intended. "I love being on water," when we prod early on, about why a ship forms such an integral part to the trilogy. "It's such a wonderful thing to write about. It provides you with classical elements like time, place and action. So much can happen in a concentration of space.

No wonder Agatha Christie wrote several titles centred on ships," he says, with a twinkle in his eye. Despite a packed, superhit launch (Aamir Khan was in the audience) the previous (Friday) evening, there's no trace of fatigue. This, even if we were to factor in an engaging one-hour interaction (Meeting Amitav Ghosh) with nine mid-day readers, barely an hour earlier.

Easing into the conversation, he's happy with the way the Ibis Trilogy turned out. "As I came to the end, it felt satisfying. I am glad with the way it worked itself out. I felt as if I was taking dictation from the book! It was on its own track," he quips, to which I ask, "…like a boatman?" Ghosh agrees, and we can gauge sea connect.

Celebrity Shobhaa De was in conversation with Amitav Ghosh, author of the Ibis Trilogy who wowed Mumbai fans at the launch of the final book in the trilogy, Flood of Fire (Penguin Random House)
Celebrity Shobhaa De was in conversation with Amitav Ghosh, author of the Ibis Trilogy who wowed Mumbai fans at the launch of the final book in the trilogy, Flood of Fire (Penguin Random House) 

Little wonder then, that when we speak a few moments later about the wondrous mix of languages and dialects in the trilogy, he shares about how nautical language was easy to incorporate — "I grew up in Sri Lanka, where it's spoken freely.

Sri Lanka (Ceylon) was an important stop for wayfarers and traders. Interestingly, I came across similar phraseology in Mauritius as well," he elaborates, helping me join the dots. By now, we're soaked in a socio-cultural lesson. The interview must make a re-entry, we realise, before our scheduled time slot runs out.

Of characters and challenges
So, we ask Ghosh to pick favourites from the trilogy. With a bunch of eclectic, insightful characters, each with their set of quirks, "It's tough for me," he grins. "They've all been difficult to create. A short pause later, he reveals, "Bahram Modi was a great challenge. He was a businessman from Bombay who was dealing with opium. I had to enter a world that I was not accustomed to.

It was a rewarding experience, especially from a sympathetic standpoint. In fact, he was the second character (Deeti was the first) that I thought of, when I began work on the trilogy. He has a very vivid presence, and is one of the most interesting characters in my entire writing life."

Held at at the National Gallery of Modern Art on Friday evening, the packed hall saw the likes of Chetan Bhagat and Aamir Khan in the audience
Held at at the National Gallery of Modern Art on Friday evening, the packed hall saw the likes of Chetan Bhagat and Aamir Khan in the audience

When we nudge a bit, on whether he missed Bahram in the final book, he adds, "He was there in spirit. But his wife Shireen was an interesting character as well. It's easy to relate to her, isn't it?" As we carry on our discussion of the book's central characters — Mr and Mrs Burnham, Zachary Reid, Havildar Kesri and Neel, it's insightful to listen to (and read, earlier) the wizardry with which the reader goes on a seamless ride that pans continents and cultures, separated by water.

"How do you manage to balance the pace of one story such that it doesn't outdo the other?" we quiz the Kolkata-born author. "Well, I wish I had the answer!" he shrugs, sharing a grin. "At some basic level, it's about instinct. Besides, while working on such a long book, one cannot merely depend on the flow."

Anybody who has read the trilogy will vouch for the imagery that takes over almost immediately. Like it did in our case. So when talk veers to these intrinsic elements to his craft, he replies, "I think in a visual way. To be able to write a scene, I need to see it. It's the best compliment if my reader can also do this, while reading it."

This, we were able to — from the moment we walked into our interview, forty minutes earlier, when dark clouds gathered over the Arabian Sea, in the picture postcard-like view from the hotel window.

Just as Ghosh had imagined, possibly, when Bahram, and later, Shireen had set sail, as they stood on the threshold of rewriting their destinies.

Quick bites

On sailing the seas: I love to head out on sail ships. Most recently, my wife and I did this wonderful trip on an Indonesian cruise called Bugis Schooners. These cruise boats were originally made by a seafaring community called the Bugis. I found it was fascinating to experience Indonesia via water, what with thousands of islands that one encounters along the way. This included a visit to the Komodo Islands too, where we were greeted by many Komodo Dragons!

On mastering languages: (laughs) I'm familiar with English, Bengali and Hindi, of course. Then, there's Arabic, and also Bhojpuri, which I learnt from my father who lived in those parts. This helped while writing Kesri's story. As for the language of the boat people, I researched from the archives in China.

What's next? There are two non-fiction works. One of these is based on the research that emerged from the trilogy. The second will be based on a series of lectures that I conducted back in the United States.

Climate change matters: What I would like to see is large-scale renewable energy sources that are easily possible and available in India. Instead of subsidising gas and power, why not offer subsidies for solar panels? After all, India is blessed with adequate sunlight. This strikes me most viscerally. Even in my home in Goa, I've tried to install solar panels, but have been plagued by so many obstacles. (Amitav Ghosh is a leading world voice who speaks on environmental issues and impact of climate change)

Will there be a TV or film series based on the ibis trilogy? Yes, people have approached me in the past. But I don't think about it (smiles).


Meeting Amitav Ghosh

Malabi Das, one of the nine mid-day readers who participated in a Meet the Author contest held by the newspaper, won her a chance to interact with Amitav Ghosh yesterday. She narrates the experience

The Ibis trilogy is complete; the Flood of Fire is on the stands; and, I am going to meet Amitav Ghosh! I could hardly believe it. And, there I was shaking hands with him; sharing a table with a bunch of very informed fans of the celebrated author.

Readers listen to Amitav Ghosh with rapt attention as he answers their questions
Readers listen to Amitav Ghosh with rapt attention as he answers their questions  

I went to the reader's session with Amitav without any expectation, but I came out smiling like a cat who got the cream. Did you know that Amitav Ghosh writes his first draft with a pencil on a sketch pad and the second draft with pen on ruled paper? And that he probably writes 30-40 drafts by the time his novel was done?

In the warm, friendly atmosphere of the Business Centre at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Ghosh let us peep into his world — the world of Zachary Reid, Havildar Kesari, Shireen Modi, and Neel. So, how did he go about completing this colossal project — how did he handle the enormous historical data and weave it into these amazing works of fiction?

"Writing is like mediation. Every morning I sit on my writing desk and let my mind calm down, till it is like still water, and then I start to write," explains Amitav.

Now that the Ibis trilogy is complete what can we expect from Amitav's desk next? It may not be another work of fiction for some time, but we can look forward to some non-fiction that he is currently working on. I must admit, I like his non-fiction as much as I enjoy his works of fiction.

Thank you, mid-day! Signing off to return to my autographed copy of Flood of Fire (I am abandoning my copy on Kindle in favour of the hardbound courtesy, mid-day and Penguin Random House.)

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