Amitav Ghosh and his Sea of Poppies

The Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh brings the British Empire to life again — the other side of the story, so to speak, from the other side of the world. If we’d had his wondrous new novel, Sea of Poppies, six years ago, we might have saved ourselves the folly of Iraq. Instead, you could argue, we reenacted the cruel absurdities of superpower addiction and the illusions that weave themelves around it.

Sea of Poppies, the start of a projected trilogy on Britain’s Opium Wars against China, elaborates the premise that, as Ghosh says in conversation, “basically, it was opium revenues that made the British Raj in India possible. Indeed, it was silently acknowledged by the British who resisted all attempts to end the opium trade until the 1920s. In fact the British Empire didn’t long outlive the opium trade.”

Our own foreign-oil habit — yours and mine — suggests itself as the counterpart addiction that drives the American empire. Evangelical bullying and the theology of “freedom” are vital links. President Bush’s line, justifying the invasion of Iraq, has been: “I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom.” In Sea of Poppies, Ghosh’s kingpin Ben Burnham — closely modeled on historical figures from the Raj — has no trouble invoking his God in the service of opium.

“One of my countrymen has put the matter very simply,” as Burnham says in the novel. “‘Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.’ Truer words, I believe, were never spoken. If it is God’s will that opium be used as an instrument to open China to his teachings, then so be it. For myself, I confess I can see no reason why any Englishman should abet the Manchu tyrant in depriving the people of China of this miraculous substance.”

Popular will, democracy, representative government have as little to do with the action of Ghosh’s novel as Congress did with the war in Iraq. “Parliament?” Ben Burnham scoffs to a disbelieving Indian raja. “Parliament,” Burnham laughs, “will not know of the war until it is over. Be assured, sir, that if such matters were left to Parliament there would be no Empire.”

Our free-ranging conversation touches on, among other things, Niall Ferguson‘s apology for empire; the narrowing discourse in American media; Afghanistan and Pakistan today; the polyglot world of sailing ships; the anthropological eye; and the history of Asian words in English.

It is not his project as a novelist and an Indian, Amitav Ghosh remarks, to break the “imperial gaze” of British writers from Kipling to Conrad. Rather he would love to recapture the cosmopolitan vision of the American, Herman Melville — the real precursor, he says, of Barack Obama.

Conrad’s work really doesn’t interest me that much… Conrad is writing about the age of steam, as opposed to the age of sail, which is what really interests me. The writers who have profoundly influenced me and my project are Americans, Melville most of all. To me, Melville is the greatest writer that America has ever produced. And I find his writing, his projects, so rewarding in every sense… his take his anthropological projects like Typee, or his ethnographies of the ship, like White Jacket. “Benito Cereno” precisely addresses the question of repression and rebellion, a really amazing story. Benito Cereno was based upon an episode in the memoirs of Andrew Delano, who was actually an opium trader, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ancestor…

One of the most wonderful things about Melville is that he was just about the only one of the nineteenth century nautical writers who paid enough attention to the world of the sea to actually write about Indian sailors. Even Conrad, when he does write about Indian sailors writes them as faceless and demonizes them. Melville is much more open-minded, much more curious. He’s Obama’s true precursor if you ask me.

Melville has a level of curiosity, a level of engagement with the world that is completely absent from 19th century English writing. Even though England has a long connection with Asia, it is so rare actually to find a believable representation of an Asian in English books. In Melville, on the other hand, you remember in Moby Dick, the 40th chapter, all of the sailors sing in different languages, and then suddenly you discover that this ship, which is a Nantucket whaling ship, actually has forty different nationalities on board, including Indians. In those ways, Ishmael — there you have him, a figure who is articulating a very challenging view of our relationship with nature, in terms of attention to nature; and the whole idea of the destructiveness — both the interest of whales and the horror of killing whales, and at the same time the joys of men working together in killing whales. All of these things are so richly and ambiguously rendered in Melville. In many ways, his work is inexhaustible in its inspiration.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Chris Lydon, November 19, 2008.

 

So the first homework assignment, kids, is: read Moby Dick.

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