Beyond Words: How Amitav Ghosh's Works Redefine Storytelling

Beyond Words: How Amitav Ghosh's Works Redefine Storytelling

Amitav Ghosh's narratives, such as those found in his recent work, 'Smoke and Ashes,' transcend the boundaries of traditional storytelling, offering readers a profound exploration of our interconnected world

In literature, few authors have masterfully woven the threads of travel and storytelling quite like Amitav Ghosh. Known for his thought-provoking novels, such as "The Glass Palace," the "Ibis Trilogy," and the recent "Smoke and Ashes," Ghosh takes readers on epic journeys that traverse not only geographical landscapes but also the rich tapestry of cultures and histories. In this exclusive interview, we delve into Ghosh's unique approach to storytelling, his research process, and the profound influence of travel on his work.

How did the idea of intertwining travel and storytelling come about for "Smoke and Ashes?"

The themes of travel and storytelling have always been intertwined in my work. I have travelled extensively since my childhood, and I have witnessed how travel can open up new worlds and perspectives. I have always admired many writers whose work has been based on travel, such as Norman Lewis, Sayed Mujtaba Ali and Bruce Chatwin.

The theme of travel is perhaps most important in my book, "In An Antique Land," where I explore the story of an Indian slave called Bomma who was taken to Egypt in the 12th century. I wanted to know more about his journey, and I also wanted to explore how his story could be told. The best way to do this was to intertwine his story with my journey to Egypt.

How does "Smoke and Ashes" convey the complexity of the impact of the opium trade?

I tried to provide a multi-faceted view of the trade by combining elements of a travelogue, a memoir, and an exploration of history. Doing so enabled me to explore the trade from a historical perspective by examining its origins and impact on different countries. Moreover, I hoped to create a sense of immediacy and urgency. I wanted readers to feel like they were travelling with me and experiencing the trade firsthand. I also wanted them to understand the ongoing impact of the trade, even today.

The blend of genres also helped to create a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty. The opium trade is a complex and controversial topic, and I wanted to reflect that complexity in my writing.

Your exploration of the role of opium highlights the interplay between economic histories and cultural narratives. How do you navigate the intersection of these aspects to create a holistic understanding of the subject?

The opium trade's impacts were broad. On the one hand, the opium trade was a significant economic force. It generated vast profits for the British East India Company and the merchants who traded it. It also significantly impacted the economies of the countries involved in the trade.

On the other hand, the opium trade also had a profound cultural impact. It led to the spread of addiction and the destruction of traditional cultures. It also contributed to the rise of imperialism and colonialism. I felt it was necessary to examine how the opium trade has been portrayed in different cultures and at other times. This helps us understand how different people have perceived the trade and how it has been used to justify different political agendas.

A fisherman in Ratnagiri, where Ghosh's novel, 'The Glass Palace,' is set
A fisherman in Ratnagiri, where Ghosh's novel, 'The Glass Palace,' is setPhotograph: Shuterstock

As a writer who has often tackled complex themes, how do you approach the intricate and, sometimes, morally ambiguous aspects of the opium trade in a way that resonates with modern readers?

Interweaving personal stories with historical accounts of the opium trade helped me tackle the subject's complexities. They also helped to create a sense of immediacy and urgency and to provide a more comprehensive view of this history. I also felt that it was essential to connect the past to the present by showing how the opium trade continues to have a legacy today, both in terms of the drug trade and how we view addiction and colonialism.

How would you describe your writing process?

My writing process varies a lot. The most important part is imagining the characters. I usually start with a rough idea of the story I want to tell, but I allow the characters and the plot to develop as I write. In the case of the "Ibis Trilogy," I had a good idea of the main characters, and through them, I could explore the story's major events. However, I didn't know exactly how the story would unfold.

How do you approach researching and portraying different cultures authentically in your works?

For me, research is a vital part of writing. I read everything I can get my hands on, from scholarly texts to travelogues to novels. But I also know that no amount of research can ever fully capture the essence of a culture. That's why I also put myself in the shoes of the people I'm writing about and imagine how they would have seen the world.

In "The Glass Palace," I wanted to trace the history of the Indian diaspora in Southeast Asia. I consulted historical texts about the British Empire in Southeast Asia and talked to people from the region. One of the most exciting parts was researching the history of the Burmese royal family during their captivity in Ratnagiri. After reading the novel, many people have travelled to Ratnagiri.

Do your travel experiences influence the portrayal of the journeys undertaken by the characters in your novels?

My travel experiences have had a significant influence on my work. In "Sea of Poppies," I wanted to explore the journey of the Indian indentured labourers who went to work in the sugar plantations of Mauritius. I knew I could only fully understand this experience by travelling there.

I met with people whose ancestors were indentured labourers, and I visited the places where they had lived and worked. These travel experiences helped me understand indentured labourers' challenges and hardships. They also made me appreciate their resilience and strength.

These travel encounters enriched my narratives in a number of ways. First, they gave me a deep appreciation for the beauty and diversity of the region. Second, they helped me understand the complex history of the region, including the history of colonialism and indentured labour. Third, they gave me a sense of the human cost of globalisation.

Book Cover Courtesy: HarperCollins

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