Author Amitav Ghosh launched his much- awaited book ‘Flood of Fire’ at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature festival here on Wednesday. The book brings an end to the Ibis trilogy, which is based on the opium war between British India and China.
At the event, Ghosh engaged in a lively discussion that took the listeners on a tour from the conception of the trilogy to its final culmination with ‘Flood of Fire’. Sea of Poppies published in 2008 was the first part of the trilogy and was followed by River of Smoke in 2011.
“When I started writing my first book, I had the ideas for a couple of characters. Especially the central character of Deeti. I tried to think of the background from which such a person could enter the indenture.”
The mental picture of his protagonist, Deeti, set him off to discover more about indentured migrations and this led to what has been described as “an epic 10-year project”.
“I looked into the factors that sent millions of people flooding away. One of the strangest thing about the Indian indenture is that when you think of Diasporas elsewhere such as in England or France, it starts from the coast as it is from the coast you would expect people to leave. But in India, the Diasporas start in the deep interiors of the Bhojpuri speaking regions. And that became a strange question to me. When I started researching the background, the thing that really jumped out was that this was exactly the area when British from the late 18th century onwards were expanding opium production,” he said.
“When you create such a monoculture it massively disrupts local life that was a part of what was happening there. Opium production and displacement of people went hand in hand. This is how my interest in the history started and once I got into it, it became clear that what I knew of Indian history was not so closely related to the people’s life,” he explained.
As a post-colonial writer, in his trilogy he brings to life certain unexplored and under-examined events from the history of British Empire.
He observed that when in Britain and China there is some mention of opium wars, surprisingly it is a “completely erased chapter” in the Indian history.
When asked about ‘migration’ which also appears as a dominant theme in his trilogy, he identified climate change as a “major factor” for the mass migration in various parts of the world today.
“We are already beginning to see climate driven migrations pushing into Java, and Indonesia. Yet there is something in the contemporary mindset which prompts us to interpret every problem as political problem and of course they take on political dimensions. But behind those political dimensions there are broader problems,” he said.
Being from Bengal, Ghosh said he is acutely aware of the situation in Bangladesh “in which a 1 metre of sea level rise will swamp something like half the country.”
“I have seen entire villages disappear in the Sunderbans. Land that was once fertile has just been gobbled up by sea,” he said.
Ghosh is known to be vocal advocate against climate change. His novel “The Hungry Tide” has been hailed as a crucial environmental text that touches upon issues of climate change, conservation and environmental degradation in Sunderbans mangrove.
“Nobody who pays attention to the South Asian sub-continent can be in any doubt how incredibly vulnerable South Asia is and yet even in South Asia people don’t seem to pay any attention to its broader impact. How does one account for the complete obliviousness that people have towards the situation?” he asked.
Touching on the recent migration of Rohingiya refugees, he said: “It strikes me as so bizarre that America is lecturing Indonesia and Malaysia to take in Rohingiya refugees. Why don’t they take them in? I find it so inappropriate…because all Asian countries have taken in enormous number of migrants, India already has.”