Amitav Ghosh and his addictive empire trilogy

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Amitav Ghosh (35 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Amitav Ghosh — Indian born and educated, at home in New York — is our epic novelist of empire, then and now. River of Smoke is part two of his trilogy on Opium, the narcotic fuel of the British Empire in the 19th Century. Reading it, you have to wonder if he isn’t writing by loose analogy about Oil, trade and world domination in the 21st Century, too. About us, that is.

An aggressive imperial theology of “freedom” and free trade is among his links or parallelisms. In River of Smoke, opium trader Ben Burnham is sanctifying Britain’s mid-19th Century Opium Wars that forced Indian opium and mass addiction on China:

“It is not my hand that passes sentence upon those who choose the indulgence of opium. It is the work of another invisible, omnipotent; it is the hand of freedom; of the market, of the spirit of liberty itself, which is none other than the breath of God.”

Just yesterday it seems, George W. Bush was justifying the US invasion of Iraq:

“God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom.”

Three years ago Amitav Ghosh told me he’d written Sea of Poppies (2008), first in the novel series, in a fury against Bush’s war. He wrote River of Smoke in Obama time, and still he is playing with resonances between centuries and characters, real and conjured. In conversation again, I’m presuming to suggest I can see what he’s up to: he’s keeping an anthropologist’s wide-angle diary on 2011 and transposing much of it back into a Melvillian setting on the high seas and in the traders’ quarter of Canton around 1838.

In the Age of Obama, the war rhetoric is cooler but the wars go on. So the new book is full of mixed bloods and cultural crossings. The main character is a Indian Parsi named Bahram (not Barack), but like Barack he’s driven by ambition into the muck and mire of his trade even if his heart isn’t in it. Bahram is the first brown man in the all-white Chamber of Commerce in Canton, which doesn’t finally accept the outsider. He’s a very decent man who introspects on the morality of selling dope and seems about to renounce it when he puts himself into a deep opium dream and …

Amitav Ghosh is up to much else, including endless delicious variations on creole dishes and pidgin phrasings — the hybridization of peoples and cultures in an earlier round of globalization. China is a central preoccupation in River of Smoke, as it is in our world of 2011. One class of Ghosh’s English cast is pushing opium on China. But there’s another great enterpriser, Fitcher Penrose, who’s making a lively business getting plants out of China for commercial development in England. Azaleas, chrysanthemums, wisteria, hydrangeas, and many more flowering plants originated in China, plus rhubarb; and there’s a fantasy cure-all Golden Camellia that Penrose & Co. are hunting down -– all to suggest the fabulous breadth and depth of China’s historical-cultural treasure. Then and now, Amitav Ghosh seems to be asking how we will come to see China not as a faceless mass of people, or as a factory, but as a civilization.

Related Content

  • nother

    “Change as Obama promised is actually not possible.” I enjoyed the interview but I do take umbrage with this statement by Mr. Ghosh. That particular POV has been put forth since the beginning of time and yet time and time again change trumps cynicism. The occupiers of Wall Street, ext. will have something to say about all this and they were inspired by the Arab Spring- who mind you were inspired by President Obama’s speech in Egypt. I also believe that the President will enable the current currents of change that he set forth.

    I also appreciate Mr. Ghosh’s distress about Politics vs. the spiritual life. Alas, the Desperate do not have the luxury of relying or focusing on spheres of beauty, and lets be honest if the youth of the Arab Spring and American Autumn were to follow Mr. Ghosh’s sentiment, the happiest among us would be the oligarchs – those corporate power-mongers will I have no doubt wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Ghosh that politics is overrated!

    Politics and the moral/spiritual/beautiful life are not mutually exclusive, I believe (Plato didn’t believe it either, right?). How much can one truly enjoy Monet’s lilies, Vermont’s foliage, Whitmans verse, or a Sunday sermon, when your neighbor is being marginalized. I’ll say this, the spheres of beauty sustain me in so much as they give me the strength and empathy to sustain my brothers and sisters.

    I very much respect Mr. Ghosh, I hope I’m forgiven for cherry picking a couple of this admirable man’s statements to give myself a reason to rant! Much love.

  • nother

    Gonna piggy back on myself just a bit, last night before writing the post above I watched the Oscar nominated film Burma VJ Reporting from a closed country:

    The heart of the story is that in the face of absolute despotism when all was lost the monks of Burma took the lead in the fight for democracy (and they’ve paid dearly for for it). They could have easily just meditated on the spheres of spiritual beauty within the confines of their monasteries but they surprised everyone by embracing the politics of protests. Which unifies them with the brothers and sisters in TIbet who are oppressed by China, to wit, here is some scary sh*t:
    “South Africa’s decision to deny a visa to the Dalai Lama is continuing to spark protests. It follows a vehement attack by Desmond Tutu on the ruling ANC party – it was the archbishop who had invited the Tibetan spiritual leader to join him for his 80th birthday celebrations.”

  • Freeman

    I didn’t compare this plot so much to oil, as I did to the CIA introducing crack to the inner cities.

  • Pingback: Blue Mass Group | politics is not the sphere of the beautiful()

  • Potter

    Beautiful book cover! Chinese history and culture is so wide and deep. I am happy that you are getting into this even starting with opium. Trade is a good thing in the sense that we get to know each other, but not so good when it’s about callously taking advantage.

    This also made me think of our drug wars–increasingly militarizing. And I am thinking of how we pedaled ( and maybe still do) our tobacco abroad.

    I am so grateful for the “Fitcher Penroses” who went to China to bring back those beautiful plants, for the clipper and steamships that brought green tea from China that I drink everyday, and for porcelain clay I use. The most beautiful glazes ever are on on the most exquisite ceramics you can see in museum cases; the ancients still unrivaled. High fired wares ( stoneware and porcelain), building kilns that could reach such temperatures, began in China.

    A civilization indeed…and we never studied this in school. It was all Western Civilization and the East existed when we traded or clashed in war.

  • Pingback: ‘Chindia Dialogues’ Speaker Amitav Ghosh Featured on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show | anniealikhan()