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I am choking, reaching for water and trying to talk at the same time. I have just bitten down on a chilli and have contrived to inhale the ensuing explosion into the wrong section of my windpipe. “Oh, you’ve got a chilli. You’ve got to be careful of the chillies,” says Amitav Ghosh, one of India’s most accomplished writers, with deft understatement. “Oh my God,” he adds with rising alarm as my coughing reaches a crescendo.
This is mortifying. I’m the sort of person who takes a childish pride in my spice threshold. I’m the guy who laughs in the face of a vindaloo. Now I’ve been struck down by “Calcutta Chinese”, a hybrid cuisine concocted by Chinese immigrants to this Indian city. “No. No. I love spicy food,” I rasp unconvincingly, gulping for air and guzzling down beer, which only makes me splutter more. “I lo-ve it.”
Ghosh’s choice of Kolkata eatery — Beijing Bar and Restaurant, as announced in bold yellow lettering on the red shopfront hoarding — is inspired. Eating Chinese food adapted to Bengali tastes reveals much of what you need to know about Ghosh. Novels such as The Glass Palace (2000), set in Burma, India and Malaysia, and River of Smoke (2011), which unfolds in Mauritius and southern China, are awash in the possibilities of admixture and miscegenation. They trace the histories of immigrants pulled and pushed across Asia’s often-arbitrary borders by the forces of exploitation, adventure, poverty and greed. His protagonists are indentured labourers far from their former homes, or Indian “lascar” sailors press-ganged, or otherwise, who sail the seas in creaking vessels. He writes of exiled Burmese royals, of Parsi opium dealers in Canton and of French botanists scouring India and China for exotic flora. His prose mixes languages like spices in a pan.
“It’s got cumin, coriander, all of that,” he explains, once I have recovered my equilibrium. “These restaurants are among the most popular in Calcutta,” he adds, using the old name for his birthplace. We’re in Tangra, in the east of the city, home to its much-diminished Chinese population. “The Chinese community here goes back to the 1780s and most of them were completely Indianised. Some of them were just people who had jumped ship. Many came to work in industries like saltpetre. And because of the whole opium connection, there was a lot of traffic back and forth,” he says of the massive British trade in Indian-grown opium to China.
Tangra is a former slum and even now some of the backstreets are strewn with a thick layer of rubbish. Near the restaurant, I saw a man casually lob a stone at a passing dog. Originally the Chinese had lived in another part of town but, after a brief war between India and China in 1962, they were persecuted, with some (including the owner of the restaurant we’re in) thrown into internment camps. Many were relocated to Tangra. “It was a truly appalling situation they were sent into,” says Ghosh. They moved into the tannery business, built their own courtyard compounds and set up establishments with names like “Big Boss Restaurant” and “Hot Wok”. In the same district, there’s a soy-sauce factory and a Chinese-style temple. “The amazing thing is that the Indian-Chinese have even appropriated some Indian gods and goddesses. They have their own Kali temple. It’s really a Chinatown like no other,” says Ghosh excitedly. When he was growing up as the elder of two siblings — his sister is eight years younger — going out for dinner meant going to Chinatown. In 1990, in his mid-30s, he married Deborah Baker, an American author, and the couple held their wedding dinner in Tangra.
Ghosh has the gentlest of demeanours and an almost cherubic expression behind owlish glasses. Only the colour of his hair, lightning-bolt white, hints at his 58 years. He’s quietly spoken and nods encouragingly when he’s listening but he answers with an intellectual rigour that sometimes makes you doubt the premise of your question. When Ghosh was a child, his father, a retired army officer, was seconded to various embassies, so the young Amitav had spells living in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Ghosh was educated at the Doon School, a boys-only boarding school in northern Uttarakhand state, also attended by Vikram Seth, another of India’s most celebrated writers. After a brief flirtation with journalism, he went on to study anthropology in New Delhi, Oxford and Alexandria. His first novel, The Circle of Reason, about a suspected Indian terrorist, was published in 1986.
His wanderings have not ceased. These days, he spends part of the year in Brooklyn, New York City, where his two grown-up children live; part in rural Goa, on India’s west coast; and part in Kolkata. “Each place gives you something else, some other kind of energy,” he says. “Calcutta is the place that I have the most connection with of any in the world. My family home is here, my mother, my sister live here. But I find cities increasingly hard to take and Calcutta, especially, has become a very hard place to work. The level of ambient noise is unbelievable.”
For the past weeks, he has been holed up in his Goa home, putting the finishing touches to Flood of Fire, the third part of his epic Ibis trilogy. The project has taken a decade. The three novels, starting with Sea of Poppies, which was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize, have cemented his reputation outside the country, although his second novel, The Shadow Lines (1988), had already made him a household name in India. The trilogy, set against the backdrop of the British opium trade, has been largely well received, both as literature and as a critical exploration of colonialism.
Ghosh, dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt and comfortable trousers, had picked me up an hour before lunch from the Bengal Club, a relic of empire that still bans guests from wearing “native dress”. On the way to eat, we had driven to Khidirpur, the old dockside area where in 1838 his protagonists wait to board the Ibis, a former slaving ship now running indentured labourers to Mauritius and opium to China. “Sailors from all around the city would have been here. It isn’t cosmopolitan at all today but, all those years ago, it was,” he says. “Calcutta has really faded as a maritime city. The river silted up so ocean-going ships can’t come here any more.”
At the restaurant — cavernous and old-fashioned, with pleated pink curtains and yellow tablecloths — I scan the feast. Of the many dishes Ghosh has ordered, the milling Indian waiters in their pressed white shirts and bow-ties have already brought out the salty chicken wonton, a heaping plate of spicy crab claws and the chilli-garlic mutton that did me in. I had spotted “Hakka chicken” on the menu but the starchy waiter had put paid to that notion with a conversation-stopping, “the Hakka chicken is not good”.
Ghosh, who has spent much time on historical research in China, is an adventurous eater. “I’m pretty much Cantonese in that way,” he says. “All those wonderful things you see in Hangzhou aquariums filled with extraordinary insects,” he adds, enticingly, referring to the famous eastern Chinese city that is known for its excellent food. “I love that.” In much of his prose, food is piled Dickens-high. In River of Smoke, Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium-trader, eats his way through a lovingly described 88-course Chinese banquet that includes sugar-cane-sweetened caterpillars, fried sparrow heads and porcupine served with turtle fat. “He had no prejudices in regard to ingredients and cared only about flavours and tastes,” Ghosh writes self-referentially of Bahram. There is nothing quite so exotic on offer at the Beijing Bar and Restaurant, which even eschews pork in deference to local sensibilities. So, in addition to the other dishes, we settle on a whole steamed fish, known locally as beckti, and some corn soup with shredded chicken.
I ask Ghosh about the motley crew of characters gathered on the Ibis. They include an Indian woman rescued from her husband’s funeral pyre, a raja fallen on hard times and an American mulatto sailor. Many end up living out their lives in Mauritius. When Ghosh visited the island, he was amazed to find that, generations later, people still referred to their neighbours as “ship brothers”, in reference to voyages of a century or more before. “I found it very moving,” he says, crunching down on a wonton, as pleasingly crisp as a fortune cookie. “They are moving away from traditional notions of community to something else, where your caste doesn’t matter, your religion doesn’t matter.”
His challenge in the Ibis trilogy was to “excavate the history that I feel isn’t present in history books” while simultaneously breathing life into his characters. In The Glass Palace (2000), he writes about an Indian officer in the British army who joins a renegade army helping the Japanese to “liberate” India, a now near-forgotten historical blind alley.
The overarching theme in the Ibis trilogy is opium, in particular the first opium war of 1839-1842. “It’s the guilty secret of the birth of capitalism,” says Ghosh, arguing that the British empire could not have survived without it. River of Smoke, the second of the trilogy, refers to an opium bonfire lit by Chinese Commissioner Lin in his efforts to end sales of a drug that was poisoning his countrymen.
Ghosh’s novels are full of British cant. Many of the empire-builders he describes spout high principles but deal in slaves and poison. In his research, he came upon the wonderfully illustrative diary entry of an opium trader in China of the 1830s who noted, apparently without irony, “so busy selling opium could not read the Bible today”.
Like other nations, Britain has expunged much of this unpleasantness from its collective memory. Ghosh reminds me, for example, of Winston Churchill’s refusal to divert food to Bengal in 1943, a decision that contributed to the starvation of 3m people. Yet how, I ask, breaking off a piece of the tender white fish with my plastic chopsticks, are we to use history? In Asia, memories of past wrongs — whether Japanese atrocities in China or massacres committed during Bangladesh’s independence push in the early 1970s — poison the present. Perhaps history should not be so much remembered as quietly forgotten?
“You make a very good point. The Middle East is completely imprisoned in the past. Nobody can let go,” he says. “The great thing about Southeast Asia is really exactly what you’re pointing out, that people are able to let go. I remember being in Vietnam and asking people what do you think about the war? And they said, ‘which war?’”
I say I’m interested in how parts of the world that were once intimately linked could have grown so distant. Take India and China. True, Sino-Indian ties are growing in importance these days. Yet as recently as 2002, the only flight linking the world’s two most populous nations was run by Ethiopian Airlines. “What we have between India and China, quite apart from real border problems, is a cognitive problem,” he says. Even educated Indians have no idea about the geography of China, he adds, sucking the meat from a crab claw. “If you ask them where Hangzhou is, I think fewer than one in 100 will know. It’s profoundly shocking.”
Things have changed a bit, he says, under Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister who is an admirer of Chinese development. Does that mean he likes Modi, I ask, surprised that a liberal figure such as Ghosh would have even one good word to say about the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party. “In general the BJP, and its whole approach, its whole stance, its belief system is something that is completely antithetical to my views,” he says of the party’s strongly Hindu ideology. “But I have to say, by the time the last government ended, everybody was just desperate for change. This is not the change I would have wanted but the status quo was indefensible.”
The beer is going down so well we ask for another. What can he tell us about Flood of Fire, which will be out this June? He never talks about his books while he’s writing them, something he puts down to superstition. But now he’s finished, can he be tempted? “Many of the same characters are there and many are back from Sea of Poppies,” he says. It must feel good to have finished a project that has taken up nearly one-third of his adult life. “It was very, very challenging, perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever written. At the end of three books, there are so many narrative threads that have to be pulled together. I feel like I’m surfacing for air.”
Both of us, satiated, are by now picking gingerly at the remains. The food leaves a pleasant afterglow. I end by asking about his fascination with language. His writing revels in the linguistic bastardisations that occur at sea or when different communities — Indian, English, Cantonese — fumble to understand each other in a common pidgin. Whole passages are only barely comprehensible. “Not goin’ta have no shagbag of a leech fingerin’ me taffrail,” exclaims one character in a typical explosion of seafaring vulgarity.
“I usually try to build in some redundancies so you’ll be able to understand roughly what’s going on,” he says of his technique. And indeed, before long, the reader acquires a new vocabulary, silently absorbing the meaning of words such as “tamasha”, “gomusta” or “lascar”, words that, incidentally, Ghosh says can mostly be found in the extended Oxford English Dictionary. “I think that’s why I came into writing and that’s been for me a consistent and long-time interest,” he says, pushing his plate away contentedly. “I just love words. I live in words. I love putting words together.”
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor
Illustration by Patrick Morgan