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Was ‘Buddha Jumps over the Wall’ really the name of a dish that was popular in China in the nineteenth century? It sounds like a cocktail!
Yes, yes, it’s still popular now, but it started being popular back then. I didn’t make that up. (Laughs) The Chinese have wonderfully imaginative names for things!
Now that you’ve written two-thirds of the Ibis Trilogy, what is the most abiding image of the Ibis, to you?
I think it would have to be when Deeti first sees it, has a vision of it. The first line of Sea of Poppies.
Sea of Poppies has so much a larger canvas than River of Smoke that it’s hard to believe the second was actually longer. But did you deliberately choose to focus on a limited geographical and social milieu?
Well, you know, it’s just the book that it is. I never intended for these to be continuations – even in structure, or anything. You know, I was really thinking more along the lines of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, where the books have a tangential relationship with each other, and so each of them will have its own form, its own characters, its own logic, and I think you can start anywhere. When they’re all done, each of them will be a book in its own right, and they can be picked up and read, and then you could go back to the other books.
And do you think you can actually tie all the loose ends in a single book?
It’s impossible for me to say. I don’t feel that I have to write a book just tying up the ends. That will not be a very interesting thing to do. (Laughs) So, I feel like I’m free to go in whatever direction I like.
Are you working on the third part now, or do you plan to take a break between this and the next one?
You know, right now, I’m doing this – launches, and interviews. I just finished writing River of Smoke a few months ago. So, I haven’t really had the time to think about the next. I have absolutely no idea where it’s going to go.
Your acceptance of the Dan David Prize became controversial in some circles, because of Israel’s role in the Gaza strip. Having lived abroad, where one tends to dissociate nationality from the politics of a nation, did the outrage over your acceptance of the award surprise you?
I don’t think there was much outrage. I mean, I got lots of letters of support. And it was basically just one small group of academics who got worked up. There wasn’t a single writer or artist in India who signed the thing. It was just academics from one or two universities, and most of them were CPM types. (Laughs)
In the Ibis trilogy, you’ve looked at slightly different aspects of colonisation – indentured labour, the “free trade” involving opium which would eventually lead to the ‘Cutting of the Chinese melon’. Do you think these are issues that are still, in some ways, unresolved? There is a huge Indian Diaspora because of indentured labour, and one country controlling another through trade, or sanctions, is not uncommon.
You know, just writing about it, you can’t escape the echoes today. You know, I opened the paper this morning, and it’s kind of interesting, you have Jagdish Bhagwati defending free trade – economists love their models, and to them, those models make sense. At the same time, on the same page, you see these riots in four different countries. In England, you have massive strikes. In Greece, you have a general strike leading to this huge outburst of violence. You have massive demonstrations in Egypt right now. You have things going on in Spain, and all of it, is in some sense directed against the enormous wave of liberalisation that happened in the last ten years. So, you know, on the one hand, you have the economists with their ideas. And on the other hand, you have ordinary people, who are not so happy about those ideas.
There is so much description in River of Smoke – of the interiors, of courses served at dinners and even little mannerisms of the characters – so it reads almost like a screenplay. Is there a film offer in the pipeline for the series?
Well, for this one, not yet, since it’s just come out. But for Sea of Poppies, there have been many.
And do you plan to take up any of them?
Well, you know, they have to show us what they’re planning. Film stuff is taken care of by my agent, really. But I can tell you there has been a lot of interest, right from the start. If someone shows us an interesting plan, then, of course I’d be happy to see it go ahead. But I should say also that I’m in no hurry about films, you know. I think the film part can be my legacy to my children! (Laughs)
There are some moments in the Ibis series that stand out as powerful indicators of the time they are set in. For example, the treatments of the convicts on the ship – the way they’re made to work, while dragging around metal balls, how one of them is tempted with what he thinks is opium to turn against the other...
Oh, yes! That was kind of a horrible scene, wasn’t it? And yet, of course, much worse things than that happened. In general, I would say that I’ve really toned down the sort of violence and horror of what happened, because actually, the violence, horror and brutality of those times, and especially those ships, is beyond conceiving. People wouldn’t believe it if you wrote about it realistically.
Did you find it too unpalatable to write about?
It’s not even really a question of palatability. It’s just that people wouldn’t believe you. I mean, you’re writing in the twenty-first century about something that happened two centuries ago, and the conditions of life are so different. You were just asking me about films. One of the filmmakers who’s interested wrote to me and asked ‘How large was the Ibis?’ And I told him it’s a hundred and twenty feet, and I’d sort of enlarged it a little. Then, he did some mathematics, and got back to me, and said ‘You know, that’s just too small. That’s less than one square foot per person’. And I told him, ‘Yes, and I enlarged it to make it believable in our time. But in fact, such a ship would have been much smaller’. If you go on to one of the few preserved ships of the time that remain, you cannot believe the conditions, really.
There’s a tremendous amount of research that goes into each book you write, just to establish the social and temporal setting. Is it hard for you to decide what to leave out?
Yes, very difficult. But it’s not quite like that. I mean, if I follow a line of research, it’s because it interests me. And my line of inclusion and exclusion is quite simple. If it’s interesting to me, then I put it in. (Laughs) That’s just about all!
But there’s another consideration, right? Even if it’s interesting, it can interrupt the story. How do you strike a balance between informing the reader and telling the story? Do you ever feel ‘all right, this is too much detail’ and cut something out?
I cut things all the time. But, you know, I can’t say that it’s such a conscious thing. (Laughs)
Was it a conscious thing to model one of the rooms of the hotel in Canton on the one you yourself stayed in, in Egypt? Your book In an Antique Land mentions that your quarters were converted from a chicken coop, and so was the room in River of Smoke.
Ah! It’s interesting that you got that. Because, I sometimes – you know, I guess, having written so many books – I sometimes hide little things in there, which are, like, private jokes. I find it interesting when people get that! (Laughs)
Are your descriptions of this vibrant marketplace in Canton, where you have people selling crickets inside walnuts which have been carved into cages, and all these ‘hongs’ which have offices attached to living quarters, going deep inside from narrow entrances, imagined or real?
Actually, I described it as accurately as I could, because we have a very extensive visual record of the hongs, and the market, and Old China Street, and New China Street.
I don’t particularly like asking who your audience is, because you seem to write for everyone, and you’ve translated the Hindusthani and Bengali throughout. But in River of Smoke, you don’t translate the Chinese conversations. Is there any reason for this?
Well, because they’re all these gandi gandi gaaliyas.
Why did ‘Neel’ give up hopes of publishing his own Celestial Chrestomathy, even though he seems to have got pretty far along, and has an entire section on your website?
Because he came across the other Chrestomathy of the Pidgin Languages, already published by an Englishman. But, you know, he’s still struggling along. (Laughs)
Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke seem to be foils to each other. You parody the significance of omens through a gomustawho believes the Second Mate of the ship is an avatar of Lord Krishna in Sea of Poppies. But in River of Smoke, all the bad omens seem to have potency.
That’s an interesting idea! Hmm...I think you have to make of it what you will. In real life, if I look at the way people think, they often retrospectively imagine that they saw prefigurings of something. (Laughs)
Do you read the previous book or books thoroughly before you write?
Oh, no, good god, no!
But there are so many characters, with such complicated lives – isn’t it hard to remember who’s done what?
Well, I suppose since it all came out of my head, I have some grasp of it. (Laughs) I’ve written almost nothing between the two books – I’ve written maybe one essay. But, yeah, I had lost track of a couple of details and so on. Mind you, angry readers point them out to me all the time!
You seem to be writing a lot about your early influences in your later novels. You’ve spoken about how much you loved piratical fiction such as the Captain Blood series in your boyhood. And a lot of your later novels, including The Hungry Tide are based in and around your childhood home. Is it nostalgia, or have you been waiting to crystallise those memories?
Well, I’ve always been a voracious reader, and yeah, I think it’s true that all these things that are in my head, stuff that I’ve been reading since I was a kid, have kind of come together, making their presence felt. Early books, early stories...so, now, they all go into the books!
The Sunderbans seem to work their way into almost every novel of yours. How often have you been there?
Many, many times – since my childhood. That’s how I wrote The Hungry Tide. There have been so many memorable journeys. The Sunderbans are completely unforgettable. It’s an astonishing place.
Has there been any incident, or any journey, that you would call particularly memorable?
Umm, all these were way back in my childhood. My uncle was the manager of an estate in the Sunderbans. So that’s how I used to go there so often. An incident? Well, I don’t quite remember, but my mother talks about this all the time – we were sleeping with a mosquito net over the bed, and suddenly, a snake dropped on top of the net. And this was inside the house. It dropped from the roof!
You’re spending a lot more time in India these days. Do you plan to write about the political situation here?
No, not really. I mean, it’s not that I don’t have strong feelings about it. I do, just as, I’m sure, you do and everybody does. But a long time ago, I made a kind of pact with myself, that I would not become a talking head. Because I think that’s a very easy thing to do. I mean, people are constantly asking you to be on their TV shows. So...no! (Laughs)
While we’re on the subject of politics – in The Hungry Tide, you raised the issue of Morichjhanpi, where these migrants had settled down illegally in the Sunderbans, but had worked hard to tame the place and make it habitable. Then, there was the brutal crackdown by the CPM government. That incident has echoes today too, don’t you think?
Well, I wrote about Morichjhanpi in The Hungry Tide, which came out in 2004. And actually, you know, the incident of Morichjhanpi had completely faded from memory in Bengal. And it’s interesting that now, when I was in Bengal about ten days ago, everyone was telling me ‘you brought up this thing which was so similar to Singur and Nandigram’. And it’s true, the CPM’s tenure has been book-ended on the one hand by Morichjhanpi, and on the other by Singur and Nandigram. And they’re absolutely similar, in so many ways. Here, you have this party claiming to be the party of the dispossessed, actually savagely turning upon the dispossessed. So, you know, it’s a strange sort of swansong for a certain kind of Stalinist Left.
Now, you have a similar situation with the Maoists, who’ve grabbed more than 40,000 sq km of government land. What is your opinion on this?
That is a difficult and complicated subject. On the question of the Maoist insurgency, let me put it like this – I think the issue of what is happening to India’s forests is the most pressing issue facing India. And I really celebrate Arundhati for having brought it to public attention. I don’t agree with her prescriptions, but I think the fact that she’s brought it to public attention in a way that many of us have been trying to do for years – but none of us has succeeded and Arundhati has – is a great thing. I think that article she wrote was perhaps her finest article.
And where I would say I would depart from her thinking about this is two things. One is, the problem for India in relation to the forests is that the indigenous people were dispossessed of their lands in the 1850s, by the British legislation on forests which essentially declared the forests, which had been common land, which the tribal people had treated as their common property, as state land, which thereafter was run by something called the Forest Department. And this Forest Department still exists, and it controls 20 percent of India’s land surface. That’s as big as Akbar’s empire. It’s as big as Punjab and Haryana put together. It’s an enormous swathe of territory.
We talk of India being a democracy and this and that. But within this area, people cannot actually exercise their democratic rights. They have no property rights, they have no democratic rights. Anyone who has been inside the forests knows that the Forest Department operates as a, what shall I say – as a squeeze agency. It loots the forests, and squeezes these people. It’s a ghastly thing.
So, where I say I disagree with Arundhati – well, not even disagree, it’s just that Arundhati points this out in her article too, but doesn’t take it to its logical conclusion, which is that in fact, this issue could be largely addressed if there were administrative reforms of the Forest Department, going from top to bottom. I think that would be one way that we could radically change the situation in the forested areas of India. The problem is that it’s actually inconceivable.
Why do you feel it’s inconceivable?
Well, because the Forest Department itself is an incredibly powerful lobby at the Centre, and it has the backing of several important MPs. So that’s where we see it completely stymied. So, I think it’s completely understandable that the indigenous people have taken to resistance.
At the same time, the form that this resistance has taken, being led by Naxalites, is a very depressing form, you know, because these forms of power, though they may initially represent some sort of legitimate grievance, in the end become power-seeking entities in their own right.
So, what will it lead to? I think it will lead to some sort of warlordism. And I’ve seen this so much in Burma and elsewhere that it just leads me to despair.
But I do think there are clear, straightforward ways of addressing this, as I said, administratively, if we do a sort of thorough-going reform in the Forest Department.
But there is nobody even talking about these issues. The ideologues in Delhi are completely cocooned. They’re busy thinking about India being a superpower – whereas India doesn’t even control its own territory anymore. What is the talk about a superpower? It’s nonsense, no?