‘It’s Not Normal that Indians and Chinese Should Know Nothing about Each Other’

The first time Amitav Ghosh and Shivshankar Menon shared a platform was when they wrote pieces for the launch of The Wire. On Wednesday, they came together to discuss Ghosh’s Flood of Fire before a packed audience in Delhi.

Amitav Ghosh and Shivshankar Menon in conversation at the Habitat Centre in Delhi on June 3, 2015.

Amitav Ghosh and Shivshankar Menon in conversation at the Habitat Centre in Delhi on June 3, 2015.

An hour before the launch of Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire, the third and concluding novel of the Ibis trilogy, there already was in place a long but orderly queue of about 50-odd people outside the Stein Auditorium at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre. To borrow a word from the books themselves, the bandobast was in overdrive. When Ghosh finally took the stage, an early bird audience proved that quality had met quantity here. For starters, the Penguin Random House representative who introduced former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon mentioned that he had also served as High Commissioner to China. Immediately, the lady to my left whispered helpfully “They don’t have High Commissioners to China. He was the Ambassador.”

The evening began with a five-minute book trailer of sorts, following Ghosh across Kolkata as he lays down the background of the trilogy, which began in 2008 with the novel Sea of Poppies.

The Ibis trilogy is based on the lead-up to the First Opium War between Britain and China: the opium sold to a captive Chinese market (later described by an impassioned member of the audience as “the biggest drug smuggling racket in the history of humanity”) and the indentured labourers that sailed from India to former British colonies. At the beginning of their conversation, Menon said that the Ibis trilogy was not merely historical fiction; it was history. “History is just like a map. It’s only a representation of a much larger reality. It (the trilogy) may be fiction, but it represents reality.” If so, this is a history with the lightest of touches.

Consider this passage from Flood of Fire, which Ghosh read before the discussion with Menon, about a British battalion (with Indian as well as British soldiers) marching with an entourage that included holy men to tend to the religious needs of the soldiers.

“(…) Then came Pagla Baba, the battalion’s mendicant and mascot. Thin and tall, his joints were huge and gnarled, and his skin was smeared from head to toe with ash, as was his matted hair, which he wore on his head in a turban of corals. At the insistence of the battalion’s English officers, he would sometimes wear a band of cloth around his waist. (…) The English officers hated Pagla Baba, and not just because he liked to bring a blush to their cheeks by flaunting his impressive manhood.”

Commenting on the multiple identities of the characters in the trilogy, Menon said: “Malum Zikri becomes Zachary Reid (…) He goes from black to white, but not politically correct. As black, he’s sympathetic, almost good, but as a white man, his morals become a bit questionable and he’s not quite so good.” Ghosh said that one of the colonial period’s most interesting aspects was this “reinvention of the self”. “I remember when we went to Oxford, it was quite striking how many of the Indians had suddenly became maharajas. Menon added: “They would get on the aircraft in suits and ties and get off at London dressed as swamis and sadhus and gurujis.”

Menon is also, as Ghosh mentioned at the outset, one of the few people in India who speaks “classical Chinese with facility”. Ah Fat, one of the most intriguing characters in the Ibis trilogy, is a half-Parsi, half-Chinese man addicted to opium. And when Ghosh eventually got down to discussing India’s seemingly inscrutable ties with China, he did not mince his words: most Indians remained, he said, “astonishingly ignorant” about China. “I think this relationship is not a normal relationship. There is something pathological about it, you know? Between neighbours, it’s normal that there should be conflicts and difficulties, and so on and so forth. But it’s not normal that people should know nothing about each other.” “They’ve almost turned their backs on it wilfully,” Menon said.

Ghosh used to count himself as one of the astonishingly ignorant people he spoke about. “I think of myself: I studied history. I had a deep interest in the world. From the age of twelve I must have known where La Paz is and where Brasilia is. But until I had started writing these books, if you had asked me where Hangzhou is, I’d have had no idea.”

A happy sideshow at literary talks like this one is where the author introduces a neglected gem of a book that deserves wider recognition. For Ghosh, this is From Frontier Policy to Foreign Policy by Matthew W. Mosca, “one of the most important works of Asian history to be written in the last decade.” He lamented the fact that Mosca’s book had received “not a single review in India”.

All of this might make one think that the two gentlemen onstage were quite sceptical about the state of affairs between India and China. But just ten minutes or so to go before the conversation ended, both Ghosh and Menon expressed a circumspect optimism about the future. (This was Ghosh mixing it up a little by asking Menon a question)

Ghosh: During Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit, he made some statements which seemed to me a radical departure from traditional Indian policy. For example, saying that the line of control is actually unknown. Do you think it’s the case that any Congress-led government is horribly tied to 1962 that in a way, it’s impossible for them to disavow that past?”

Menon: I think that much of what he [Modi] said is what we have been saying to the Chinese in private for the past few years.

As someone who has devoted ten years of his life to a story, Ghosh appeared understandably relieved at the conclusion of his epic. If a packed house at the launch translates into bestseller numbers (a persistent audience member tried, unsuccessfully, to coax the China sales figures of the novels out of Ghosh), he will be happier still.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer currently working with The Sunday Guardian. His stories, poems and articles have been published at Guernica, The Caravan, DailyO, The Four Quarters Magazine, AntiSerious and other magazines and journals.