June 19, 2011 By Kaushik Mitter
Tags: Amitav Ghosh
Smooth Sailing on creativity
Three years after Sea of Poppies in 2008, master storyteller Amitav Ghosh is back with River of Smoke, the second part of his epic Ibis trilogy, where we are reunited with many old faces and meet new ones as the action shifts from colonial Bengal and its calm Ganga waters to the stormy seas off China, to bustling Canton in the thick of the Opium Wars, where a wealthy Parsi businessman from Mumbai holds his own in cut-throat trade battles...
In a freewheeling conversation with Kaushik Mitter in New Delhi recently, Ghosh insisted he hasn’t even thought where he’ll take the story in the trilogy’s final part, or when. He talks of how writing The Glass Palace (on Burma’s last king, exiled to India) some years ago led him to think of Sea of Poppies, how he’s excited by the “incredible creative energy” in the Indian arts today, about his favourite contemporary writers, of experiences at Oxford and Harvard, and how he sees a changing India evolving.
Ghosh, who divides his time between New York, Goa and Kolkata, says he now does most of his writing in Goa, and when he’s not working he relaxes with his family and plays a round or two of badminton.
Excerpts from the interview:
Do you find India increasingly becoming an intolerant place, where the liberal space is shrinking?
A. That’s absolutely true. The other day we lost our great painter M.F. Husain — such a tragedy, the way he was hounded out... having to move to Qatar, then dying in London. You see that phenomenon replicating at every level — that space for freedom, so essential for writing or any kind of art, is shrinking constantly.
It’s not just in India... Through most of the 20th century we always thought creative freedom is essentially a problem in relation to the state... This has completely changed — it’s non-state actors who are the main threats to freedom... You have the political parties, various activists, fundamentalists of various kinds, and you have multinational corporations — also very heavily invested in controlling the outflow of information. In America various forms of expression are threatened. It actually happened, you know — various people had criticised McDonald’s hamburgers, and they were prosecuted... they were just ordinary, poor people.
Q. Do you feel the liberal consensus around which the Indian state was founded is breaking down?
A. Yes, the ground has certainly shifted... and quite dramatically. It’s also curious to see so many stories about Rising India, Shining India, Glittering India... because in every aspect of Indian life you see signs of extreme tension. Just one example: 10 years ago it was perfectly possible to drive across the interior of Orissa — I myself have driven through Koraput and Kalahandi in a car. Now it’s almost impossible to leave the coastal belt. Midnapore in Bengal — so much a part of mainland India — today it’s not really under government control. If you add up (such) districts around India, you’ll see almost a third of the country is not under state control... And more and more areas are passing out of state control every year.
Q. You’ve travelled and worked extensively in the Sunderbans. Where are we going wrong on development?
A. What’s happening is a resource takeover by the private sector... The government seems to feel it can just hand over these resources to profit-making companies — I think that it’s a disaster. Millions of people are being displaced, there’s massive violence, it’s visibly leading to the complete unravelling of the political balance.
Q. Can the lives of the poor be improved without development?
A. The problem, say, in the forest region is that because of British era forestry laws the people who lived there were deprived of all rights to that land. The state claims control of the forests, people there were not given any title to these lands, which was always their common land... The most important thing is for their title to these lands to be restored. Then it’s for them to decide... Let them strike a bargain with the companies if they want to sell it. The people now have no right to decide, that’s why they are protesting. They don’t think of themselves as poor, it’s a life they have been perfectly happy with. You are actually creating poverty in order to lift them out of poverty!
Q. You grew up in Kolkata, you’ve lived there at different times, before and during the Left period. What is your take on politics there?
A. Oh my goodness, you really want to get me into trouble (laughs)... I think in its early years the Left had some important ideas — land reforms have been important in Bengal, give them credit for that. But for the last 20 years they’ve been completely moribund — I say this not out of any sense of antipathy towards the Left, but they’ve been completely on the wrong track. Even when thinking of development and industrialisation, they’ve had no vision...
Kolkata has so many things going for it. In an era of water scarcity, it sits in the middle of a water-rich region, with easy access to both the Northeast and to Southeast Asia. It can very easily become a cultural, financial, retail hub — it has all this going for it. But when the Left finally begins to think of industrialisation, what do they think? Of all the dirty old industries. It’s so ridiculous...
Both London and New York have been through this process of de-industrialisation — and turned that into an enormous asset. They became financial hubs, cultural hubs — all those old buildings turned into galleries, art spaces... It would be so easy to do that in Kolkata if people had any kind of vision, they would have done that. But when they (Left) think of industry, they think of our grandfather’s time, not clean industries... It makes you feel so sad and so helpless. And the reason is they’re still only reading Das Kapital, they’re thinking of the 19th century.
Q. Your new book River of Smoke carries on from where Sea of Poppies left off — with many of the same characters. Have you thought about where the story moves in the third and last part of the Ibis trilogy?
A. I really haven’t. It’s strange to relate, but I’ve always conceived of this trilogy as books not connected in a linear sense, but which have a more glancing relationship with each other, like parts of a puzzle, if you like. So when I finished Sea of Poppies, I didn’t know where the next book would go. In that way it’s no different from writing a book that stands on its own.
My main concern — doing it as a trilogy — was to stay with the characters and their families... If necessary I can take up the story 20 years later, 30 years later, two generations later... and I still feel free to do that.
Q. Does the close India-China relationship that you depict in River of Smoke have any lessons for us in the 21st century?
A. People talk about this (India-China) relationship as though it was something that fell out of the sky in the last 10 years… A lot of Indians were trading in China in the 19th century, unfortunately they were trading in opium. But there is no doubt that a lot of the capital accumulation that happened in India in the 19th century came from the opium trade… This was responsible for the growth of many present-day Indian firms. So China has always been a vital aspect of our economic life. The curious thing is that there is an absolute ignorance of that in India… we never grew up with an awareness of this.
What do you think of the new English writing in India? Anything that stands out in the recent popular fiction, chick lit, etc?
A. I don’t read much chick lit (laughs), but one thing I really love is this genre of IIT novels... Chetan Bhagat and Amitabha Bagchi, both of them are extremely talented writers. It’s strange, you know, the world they are writing about is probably not of interest to anyone outside India, who haven’t been through our educational system or similar systems. To me, it was simply fascinating. Amitabha, in his first book (Above Average), what he did I think went far beyond the boundaries of any such genre — it’s really making the IITs a kind of metaphor for India...
Speaking of chick lit, at one point when I was teaching in Harvard, a Kaavya Viswanathan was my student. I never read her book, so I can’t say anything about it, except that clearly it had problems... But the work that she did for me was excellent. She was a very talented writer. (Her 2006 debut novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, written just after high school, was withdrawn after charges of plagiarism.)
I was at Harvard very briefly, and she came to some classes... I was very impressed... In that brief time that I was teaching there I had so many brilliant students from South Asia, some of whom have now published books... (such as) Ali Sethi, who’s Pakistani, a superb writer...
Q. The recent book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother created a lot of buzz in America and elsewhere. You’ve researched extensively on China — do you find parallels between the way the Chinese and Indians bring up kids, in their education systems.
A. That’s an interesting question. I can’t say I’ve read this book of Amy Chua... I’ve read about it, read excerpts from it... I’ve in fact read her earlier book World on Fire (whose subhead says it all: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability). I think she’s an exceptionally clever woman... It’s also very interesting that her children are incredibly successful, and they adore her, they’ve said so repeatedly.
I think what’s happened in America, the reason it made such an impact is that Americans have begun to realise now that there is something problematic about their system of education. For years they’ve been accustomed to thinking their education system is the best in the world; now they realise it has very deep problems. I’ve brought up two children there, they’ve been through the whole American educational system — and I’m happy to say that they’ve done very well in that system. But I certainly realise this system is riddled with terrible problems.
I also think the strengths of our system are never properly articulated. The whole world has become so battered and bullied by this constant talk about the excellence of American education by people who have no experience of it, who don’t know what it is to bring up children in different places... people automatically accept there is something magnificent in that system and that our system is horrible... And it’s really not true.
I’ve taught at Harvard and at all these places... One of the reasons I really feel relieved not to be teaching any more is that I don’t think in many significant respects that the American system works...
Q. You mean in the universities or in schools as well?
A. School education, college education... From top to bottom, it just doesn’t work. In some ways it’s become like entertainment... When as a college teacher in America you are offering a class, the children “shop” for classes. So which are the classes they’re going to take? The classes that are entertaining, the classes where they are marked very liberally. This is exactly what happens: they put their evaluations on their websites so that the students who are following know exactly who are the strict teachers, who are the not strict teachers, and they can game the system very, very well...
Education is not all fun. Education is difficult, but the idea that you have to make education fun at some point becomes self-defeating. You can’t make certain kinds of mathematics fun. You can’t make difficult things fun. And that’s not why you are doing education. Learning poetry by heart is not fun. But it’s very necessary to have that poetry in your head if you are studying English literature... I sometimes ask my children: Can you recite a poem? — and they’ve been to the top institutions in America — and no, they can’t.
They (Americans) think that rote learning is bad... But it is such an idiotic idea — what is learning but rote learning? How can you learn the multiplication tables as though it was fun? There’s nothing fun about multiplication tables... And learning is in fact 90 per cent rote learning. If you constantly attack this idea of rote learning, it’s ridiculous...
If you go to American universities now, why is it that all the departments of mathematics, engineering are filled with Asian students? They come from systems where the rigour is drilled into them from a very early age. If it hasn’t been drilled into you from an early age, you have to be truly exceptional. America is a country filled with very brilliant people, and many exceptional students. But the institutional structure doesn’t always support them.
Would you say the Indian educational system, with all its faults, still has a few lessons for America and others?
A. This is the point Amy Chua is making — in India and China and so on there is no strict dividing line between upbringing and education — it’s your family that is actually providing much of the education. And that you can’t reproduce elsewhere. For example, my niece in Kolkata, when she has to go through exams, the whole house shuts down. For two or three months no one will go out, (someone) will sit with her every evening, no one will turn on the TV, literally... the kind of things that every parent in India, every household in India does. Can you imagine this happening in America? It’s inconceivable.
Q. There are many in India who want changes in our education system, to bring in Western ideas, an American-style education...
A. That’s absolutely the wrong way to go. I’m not saying our system is without faults. There are many faults, many things wrong with it. But there’s a lot of stuff which I see constantly being said — from education ministry people and so on, most of whom have no connection with education. I look at it and just laugh to myself... These people have no conception of what they’re saying — they are going to destroy what’s good in our system and take everything that’s bad in that system and end up with the worst possible mess.
When I went from Delhi University to Oxford, I thought I was going into a place where there’s so much higher learning, so much a “life of the mind” and it was exactly the opposite... My education in Delhi had been much better than anything Oxford could have provided. I was far ahead of those other students; I’d read all the books already... I knew more than my teachers there, for heaven’s sake.
There were also wonderful things about Oxford. It let me explore avenues and byways I could not have done in Delhi, but that was possible because I’d been through this whole rigour... What really worries me is that they are in danger now of throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater!
One thing that is never factored into the debate here — do people even understand the level of cost involved... For each of my two children I’m paying over $50,000 a year for college education — each year for four years — so at the end on each child you spend something like a crore of rupees on their college education.
Our system is delivering an education which in many ways is competitive internationally — and at what cost? It’s less than one per cent of that cost. How will our society generate this kind of money for this (American) kind of education? It’s ridiculous. Even America can no longer sustain this. Everyone there is talking of the next big bubble being in American education, and I think they’re absolutely right...
Do you know what they have to do to put their children through college? People don’t realise this here — they take out these loans, and a staggering percentage of American children now come into life with a burden of loans which amount to $200,000-$300,000.
These loans have crippling rates of interest — they can never get rid of these loans, and they are specifically exempted even from bankruptcy claims... So if a person declares bankruptcy, even then they cannot get rid of these loans. For the first 20-30 years of their lives they are working to pay off these loans. Is such a system conceivable here? What impact will it have on the poor and all those who can’t afford it?