May 28 2015
Author completes ‘Ibis Trilogy’ and talks about how issues of the day connect to final novel in series, ‘Flood of Fire’…
CLIMATE change is such a massive and urgent issue, writer Amitav Ghosh (top right) is shocked it isn’t further up the political agenda.
Launching his latest novel “Flood of Fire” at a bookshop in London last night, he felt it was one of the issues that is prompting movements of people from one part of the world to the other.
His book, the final of a seafaring trilogy – based around the ship, Ibis – that opened with “Sea of Poppies” (nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2008), and continued with “River of Smoke”, now culminates in “Flood of Fire”, which takes the opium trade and war between British India and China as its central theme. Ghosh was nominated this year for the International Man Booker, which considers a writer’s body of work.
He said the trade and the war has shaped the world of Asia as we know it today, and was one of the most important chapters of world history.
His books also cover the migration of impoverished communities from the subcontinent to the farthest reaches of the Empire under indentured labour practices, widespread throughout the 19th century.
Asked by moderator, Bhavit Mehta (pictured top left), British Council literature programme manager, whether he saw parallels between this and what was happening now in the Mediterranean and Andaman Sea, Ghosh said: “Yes. It is climate change. It’s a serial trend. We know the problem in Syria began with drought and triggered a civil war.
“In Bangladesh, a metre of the country is going under the water every year and half the country will be under the sea and coming from Bengal, I know how it vulnerable it is.”
He said he had seen whole villages disappear as sea levels rose in an area around Bangladesh and India, known as the Sunderbans.
He was at a loss as to how to explain that the issue wasn’t taken more seriously even in Asia, where the consequences were more obvious and stark – adding that the “obliviousness” of people was baffling.
He added that it was also “inappropriate” for some countries to lecture others on how to handle the migrant issue when they clearly had the capacity to do more.
“Asia is overcrowded, but Australia is not so populated. All Asian countries have taken in enormous numbers of migrants,” he lamented.
Living in Egypt in 1980-81, he said he became aware of the problems with the distribution of water in the country and that the issue had become yet more acute but little remedial action seemed to be taking place.
“It was a country of 41/42 million, now there are 93 million people but nothing is being done to address the problem – it’s an innumerable catastrophe.”
A man of deep intellect and poise, Ghosh, who divides his time between Kolkata (his birthplace), Brooklyn in New York and Goa, said that he was most moved over the last year by travelling around the Java Sea in a traditional boat with a native seafaring people who had been doing the same for centuries.
He described visiting the Komodo Islands (in Indonesia), and seeing nature at a close hand on the sea.
“It was amazing – these group of nine foot Manta Rays made eye contact with us and were playing with us – you could see they had their own intelligence clearly and it was marvellous. I will never forget it.”
Mehta also asked him about signing a letter with other prominent writers such as Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, calling on the government of Bangladesh to protect freedom of expression in the wake of the murders of three ‘secular’ bloggers there.
Ghosh said to its credit, Bangladesh always had – and had managed to retain – a strong secular tradition and culture.
“It’s fiercely embattled and is under threat more from non-state actors, and religious fundamentalists,” he said talking more widely about the attacks on free expression globally.
He said there were threats from freedom of expression also from corporations and other established centres of power.
Asked about whether he felt sad about finishing the trilogy, and leaving behind the characters he had created, he said: “No. There was a sense of fulfilment. I thought I was crazy to take this (trilogy) on and that it could have all fallen down but no, I got it together – I have made it stand up.”
Earlier, he talked about revelling in language – his books contain dialects and peculiarities of expression that developed over time as different people mixed and mingled and tried to be understood by one another.
“Balti is a Portguese word – it means bucket and in the nautical sense,” Ghosh revealed.
In the wide ranging discussion, he also told the audience about growing his own spices in Goa, cooking for family and friends, and how easily distracted he was when he tried to sit down to write.
“A dog barking in the distance is enough,” he jested.
‘Flood of Fire’ by Amitav Ghosh, published by John Murray; for more information and to buy