Floating the Dope

Veteran radio journalist Victoria Lautman is no stranger to the drawn-out pleasures of the symposium. She’s the Chicago Humanities Festival’s go-to interviewer and has recorded tete-a-tetes with literary bigwigs like Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, and Martin Amis. Nevertheless, before sitting down with Amitav Ghosh last Sunday, she confessed to a full house at Mandel Hall that she was more nervous than she’d ever been before meeting an author. Throughout the evening, it occasionally showed. After getting some inconsequential fact about her guest’s book wrong, she blurted out her willingness to commit “hari-kari” by way of penance. It’s easy to feel her pain; for any bona-fide Ghosh addict, the jitters are an unavoidable side effect.

Westerners may be accustomed to thinking of towering Indian intellectuals as otherwordly sages a la Rabindranath Tagore: sweet, senescent hermits, preferably in robes, spouting profound insights as casually as lesser mortals tweet. While he’d probably hate the stereotype, Amativ Ghosh fits the bill. He’s a slight, bespectacled man with a shock of white hair. His accent carries a hint of his native Goa while his enunciation oozes Oxbridge. Clad in a cardigan, he comes off as the incarnation of affability. When he starts talking about literature, the idea of his stopping starts to seem like sacrilege.

After two decades of penning historical epics, Ghosh has raked in so many accolades that it’s hard to keep track. His last two books have vied for the Booker prize and he’s already snagged the top state arts awards in India, Israel, France, and Canada.

Ghosh’s new novel, the second installment in a planned trilogy, chronicles the lives of characters caught up in the opium trade. “Sea of Poppies,” the first installment, delves into the putrid factories where the dope was processed before taking to the high seas as the poppies are shuttled off the Subcontinent. In his new work, “River of Smoke,” Ghosh has returned to the 1830s to set down the havoc that the state-sponsored narcotics wreaked in China.

Ghosh’s reading picked up as the smugglers arrived in the port of Canton and immersed the audience in the world of vice where the hash was hawked. We were swept into the city’s lawless foreign enclave, where foreign women were forbidden, and English traders giddily shed their Victorian prudery.  The soldiers and swindlers indulged in every drug under the sun, drank, whored, and let repressed homoerotic urges out into the open. The sector’s bizarre reputation soon garnered a distinctive nickname. Deriving from the Chinese word for foreign-devil, the locals dubbed it Fan-qui town. Yeah, that’s right, funky town.

It seems his childhood was less funky: at an early age, he was shipped off to indefatigably proper boarding schools. “I think I had the last real Victorian upbringing,” he said. When asked what this cloistering brought to the book, he responded, “Euphemisms–lots and lots of euphemisms. “

In conjuring up characters from wildly different backgrounds, from aristocrats to coolies, Ghosh plays with divergent patois and attacks the tragicomic consequences of imperialist pushers from every angle. Also, for a prim Oxfordian, Ghosh has a real yen for debauchery. When his sailors are not passed out in the opium dens, they’re so drunk that “should they fall on the floor they would drown in their own regurgitated swill.”

As the interrogation was winding down, Lautman asked whether in the course of his copious research on the Opium Wars, Ghosh had done his scholarly duty and taken a puff.  Taken aback, but ever polite, Ghosh launched into a robust explanation of how we all have taken opiates in some form or another, whether at the hospital, or…

“Yeah,” Lautman interrupted sharply.  “But have you ever smoked it.”

Ghosh took a long pause, before saying, almost apologetically, “You know, the right implements are surprisingly hard to find.”