In Conversation with Amitav Ghosh

By • Jul 26th, 2012
Category: Books and Authors, Diaspora, Featured, India, People

AmitavGhosh-KamlaShow-copyrightIn River of Smoke author Amitav Ghosh takes us to the heart of opium trade between British India and China. He takes us to 1830s Canton, which was the main outpost for the opium trade. Opium was a major revenue generator for the British and helped offset the balance of trade as Ghosh points out in the interview. Opium was illegal to import into China, but the British found a workaround.

The New York Times describes River of Smoke as “exploring the fizzing currents of language, politics, trade and culture that swept through the vast opium¬†network operated by the British East India Company in the 19th century.” In this book Ghosh has focussed quite a bit on “the hybridity born of cultural contact, the bastardisations of language in pidgin and port slang,” as The Guardian put it.

River of Smoke is the second volume from The Ibis Trilogy. Sea of Poppies is the first volume of the trilogy, where Ghosh takes us to the heartland of India where the poppy seeds for the opium is grown. Sea of Poppies was published in 2008.

In this wide-ranging interview Ghosh talks about how he wrote River of Smoke, his writing process and his study in 3 different cities. He also shares his fascination with evolution of language and the influence of Portuguese on Indian languages.  He touches upon the common cultural bonds between India and China. One of the surprising findings of the opium trade was the role of prominent American families and there is an American character in River of Smoke.

This interview was recorded at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California.

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8 Responses »

  1. This was a great interview Kamla; your in-depth background research and quick,on-the-spot curiosity brought out great insights. I liked the bit about how Britain handled it BOP problems with China, the discussion on China’s “connoisseurship in botany” and how it impacted foreign landscapes, indentured labour versus slavery, contact language development…to sum it all up, I thoroughly enjoyed the interview.

  2. Well done Kamla.
    Your personal reading and knowledge enhanced and widened the subject matter of the interview.
    Will head to library to read both his books.
    Thanks for passing this on.’

  3. @Jayaradha thank you for the nuanced feedback. Ah! ha! the BOP angle appealed to you…not surprised by that. Love you picked up that delightful phrase “connoisseurship in botan.” Thanks for listening.

    @Pearl Sofaer – thank you the comment and for listening to the interview. You might like, if you have not already, Amitav Ghosh’s book “In An Antique Land,” that takes you back to 12thc and the robust trade that existed between India and Egypt and Middle East.

  4. Very interesting interview, Kamla. I am now much motivated to read the books.
    When I was much younger, I always thought, not having dwelved into the subject, the “Opium Wars”, was Britain’s attempt to “prevent” the spread of opium from China. Only much later did I come to realize it was just the opposite. Fascinating!
    Keep up the excellent work – and podcasting. I am now a regular listener to your Thursday podcast.
    Take care,

  5. Thoroughly enjoyed the interview, Kamla. Both of you are such wonderful speakers and it’s wonderful to hear language so well enunciated. I also liked how he subtly corrected you from “arcane” to “archaic” The topics were definitely very interesting, and the language part of it, I could really identify with – that and the opium trade discussion have definitely piqued my curiosity enough to likely make me go pick up the book. I am already a fan of his, from Calcutta Chromosome.



  6. Thanks @Ravi Abraham for the encouragement. Interesting is it not how the Opium trade and the resulting wars were perceived differently?

    @Kanna thanks for listening to the interview with such keen ears :-) Glad that you enjoyed it. Hope you get to read the book.


  7. Thank you, Kamla. I have read the first of the trilogy, and bought the second, but haven’t started reading it yet. Now I am motivated to start. I heard that it was a bit difficult to get into, but he is one of my favourite authors, and so I shall persevere. I love the fact that he has his “study retreats” in three different cities!
    I do so enjoy your podcasts!
    Thank you.

  8. Thank you Mrs. Dubey for your wonderful feedback.

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