Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Ghosh Chromosome

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Amitav Ghosh's second novel of the Ibis trilogy, 'The River of Smoke' has just been released. He talks about the power of the imagination, the joys and pleasures of writing, and what it is to be a full-time author

By Shevlin Sebastian

There was something wet and cold plastered against his cheek. He [Bahram Modi] raised a hand to wipe it off, but just then the ship went into a steep roll and he ended up smearing the stuff on his lips and his mouth. Suddenly, in the pitching darkness, with chests and containers sliding and crashing around him, his head was filled with the giddying smell of opium.

This is an excerpt from Amitav Ghosh's just released ' River Of Smoke '. It is part two of his Ibis trilogy, the first one being the acclaimed ' Sea of Poppies ', which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2008.

Set in September, 1838, it follows the lives of unforgettable characters like the Parsi, Seth Bahram Modi, who travels, on a ship, from Bombay to Canton in China to do business in opium. In Canton there lives his estranged half-Chinese son Ah Fatt. Other interesting people include the plant-hunter Fitcher Penrose, amateur biologist Paulette Lambert and the painter Robin Chinnery.

Ghosh writes about events that led to the Opium Wars between Britain and China. Throughout the book, there are so many vivid scenes that a reader feels as if he is physically present at the various locations.

“When you write a novel, if it is not real to the author, it won’t seem real to the reader,” he says. “I have a technicolour image in my mind. But it does not come immediately. It is only in the process of doing draft after draft that the image becomes clear.”

At first, it is like a pencil sketch. “And then, I ask myself, 'What are they wearing?' Then I will go and do some research. Slowly, the colour gets filled in. And soon, there comes a time when I see the characters with the utmost clarity,” says Ghosh, who was on a one-day reading tour to Kochi. “In fact I can hear their voices clearly and see them move around. By the time I finished writing this book I knew a place like Canton intimately.”

Astonishingly, for a big novel like the River, which is 553 pages long and contains 1.95 lakh words, he had no structure planned beforehand. “The characters take a life of their own,” he says. “It sounds chaotic, but I am literally blundering my way through. Many times, I have moved in the wrong direction. Then I stop, go off on another track, but, thankfully, in the end it all works out.”

Ghosh, who splits his time between Kolkata, Goa, and Brooklyn, is a full-time writer. So he starts work at 9 a.m. and writes throughout the day, with a one-hour break for lunch. But the writing life is tough. “You don’t get a regular salary,” he says. “There are long periods when I don’t earn anything at all. But I don’t get stressed out by it.”

A few years ago, Ghosh was a Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at the City University of New York. He had a steady income, apart from an easy work schedule. “But that stressed me out,” he says. “To write you need the uncertainty. Otherwise, it takes away the edge. You have to feel you are on the brink of a precipice all the time.”

As a result, Ghosh has had a distinguished career so far, and won many international prizes, like the Prix Medicis, the Sahitya Akademi Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke award. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages. In 2007, he was awarded the Padma Shri.

So what are the tips on writing that this master novelist can impart? “Anybody who wants to write should read a lot,” says Ghosh. “You should also write regularly. Writing is like music. To be a good musician, you have to do your riyaaz every day.”

And Ghosh is feeling out of sorts because he is unable to write while on this book promotion tour. “I am missing my riyaaz,” he says, with a smile. “When I get to my desk, it will take me two weeks to get back into the groove. I am like a musician who realises that he is working with an instrument that is out of tune.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)