Author Amitav Ghosh Enlightens Houstonians through Trilogy
By Sanchali Basu
HOUSTON: It was indeed a treat to listen to Amitav Ghosh discuss his latest work, the Ibis trilogy at the Asia Society of Texas on April 10. The first 2 of the trilogy, the best-selling Sea of Poppies, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2008. River of Smoke is the second in the Ibis Trilogy, where one travels the opium route with Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium merchant from Bombay to 19th century China.
The author was welcomed by the co-chairs Dinesh Singhal and Rick Pal of the University of Houston India Studies program. They thanked Chancellor, Dr. Renu Khator, Lois Zamora, chair comparative literature, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, writer, faculty UH, with whose collaboration the evening was made possible. They mentioned their humble beginnings in 2009 with a meeting at Dr. Khator’s house, and how it has taken wings and gone on to become a strong program with Houston’s vibrant Indo-American community. They asked the audience to spread the word and support the program
Chitra introduced the author as someone who had a great influence on her, being born in the same city, Kolkata. Ghosh has taught Comparative Literature and English at City University of New York, and Harvard University. He is the recipient of several awards including the Padma Shri, Sahitya Akademi Award and Ananda Puraskar in India and International e-book and Arthur C. Clarke award to name a few. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages, and he currently divides his time between Calcutta, Goa and Brooklyn.
He started his talk by giving the background of his trilogy and how in the late 19th century when India was under the rule of the British, the East India Company’s main trade commodity was tea which amounted to more than 20% of all British revenue. Tea was taxed as high as 100% and the taxes alone paid for all non-military expenses. The Chinese were more interested in buying opium and the British found it to be more profitable. Thus began the protagonist’s journey on a smuggling boat to Canton.
The author walked us through a very extensive slide show which encompassed the types of boats used, including the graduation from the square rigged ship to the Baltimore schooner. He mentioned the Parsis (a dwindling community in India now) who ran the most important ship building companies in the world at that time.
The opium factories in the east and west coast of India generated enough wealth to build almost half of London and the grand palaces in India and there was not a single merchant at that time who did not trade opium. The places like Macau, Lintin Island, Whampoa in the Pearl River estuary were shown on maps which formed the trade route. The sneaky process in which they off loaded the opium on Lintin Island and landed on the mainland (Canton) without their cargo was explained. The significance of Canton, the mega city as old as Rome and its rich heritage and culture was touched on. The industrial power that it has now become stemmed from that era, be it in the field of porcelain, furniture, flowers, lacquerware or pictures. Most of the paintings of western leaders were done by Chinese painters, Lamqua being the most notable.
The conversation with Chitra ensued and Ghosh elaborated that characters do have a will of their own and end up in places one wouldn’t have conceived. He loved to read since childhood and historical fiction by Bengali and other writers had inspired him with his present worker. He does like to travel to the places he writes about but they do not in any way resemble what they used to be. There are magical moments that trigger a novel, when characters come alive.
On the topic of the political and social function of literature and the difference between India and the USA, he did emphasize that there is more freedom of expression in China vs India and that Indian books are subjected to attacks by Indian politics.
The audience was mesmerized by the mellifluous flow, depth of knowledge and the charismatic persona of the author. A reception followed with wine and finger foods and the author obliged by talking to all his ardent admirers who stood in line to get their books autographed by him. Ghosh definitely made a great impact on Houstonians on his first visit to the Space City.