“You cannot force your character to do something that isn’t them. They simply won’t let you”
I sat in the back, at the book launch of Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, amazed. Mostly because I was in the same vicinity as Amitav Ghosh but also because it dawned on me again, how brilliantly he had crafted his characters. I thought of Deeti and Fokir and Rajkumar and Tridib and Zachary. Characters that I feel I have met and know very well, Characters who stopped being characters and became breathing, living, walking bags of flesh and meat and bones.
The Hungry Tide, a book I had borrowed, introduced me to Amitav Ghosh. While I loved that book, it left me with an incomplete feeling. You know that feeling you get when you snap a book shut and process what just happened from outside because you aren’t a part of the story anymore? Didn’t happen. I read The Glass palace, Shadow Lines, Circle of reason; they were beautiful stories but I was uneasy. Usually, when I like something, I can tell you in great detail and with many examples, why. This time I couldn’t. But there was still a solid somethingness about Ghosh’s writing that appealed to me.
And then I read Sea of Poppies and suddenly, as the song goes, I saw.
The first of his Ibis trilogy, the book is set is 1838 during the opium war. His stories exist in that wonderful space where history meets fiction, where real events meet fictional people and run about through decades and centuries, changing as time changes. All the characters, big or small, and there are so many of them, have a story, they bring with them their past, through their accents and language or their behaviour. They characters do and speak (whether you understand pidgin and laskari or not) as they must, and Ghosh won’t so much as put in a footnote. Every description, including the women’s saree, the cityscape or the food served is extremely detailed.
In River of Smoke, Ghosh describes life in Canton, the way it was in 1856, using the information he gleaned from mad levels of research. You think you want to write a book and you reckon a year or two of back reading in libraries should do it? NOT GOOD ENOUGH. Ghosh pored over the menus from the banquets described in the memoirs of people who went to them. He read back issues of the Canton Register, the newspaper of the time, to find what the weather was like on any given day. The weather. The damn weather!
He studied anthropology from St Edmund Hall, Oxford but he grew up in Calcutta, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and you can see why displacement, despair and determination set the tone for most of his stories. They leave you feeling that way too. Things won’t be tied up in a little bow at the end; they’ll be as they are.
For two hours at that book launch, Amitav Ghosh answered questions (even stupid ones) in his mild-mannered, unassuming way and then it was finally time for the book signing. I reached the front of the line, I told (stammered at) him about how I was worried because I had read 200 pages and there was no mention of Kalua. He looked up and smiled and said, “You might have to wait a little more time, unfortunately.” And then told me I had a beautiful name. AMITAV GHOSH SAID MY NAME IS BEAUTIFUL.
I still don’t know what happened to Kalua. But I can’t wait for the next book.