Climate change is responsible for mass emigration, says Indian author Amitav Ghosh

Indian author Amitav Ghosh launched 'Flood of Fire' during the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival in London

Indian author Amitav Ghosh launched 'Flood of Fire' during the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Climate change is responsible for mass emigration, says Indian author Amitav Ghosh

01 June 2015

By Naomi Canton

Climate change is the cause of mass emigration today, according to one of the world’s finest novelists Amitav Ghosh.

Kolkata-born Indian author Ghosh launched his latest book Flood of Fire at Waterstones in Piccadilly, London during the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2015. He was in conversation with Bhavit Mehta, Literature Programme Manager at the British Council. The novel, the final volume in the Ibis Trilogy and his eighth novel, covers the first mass migration from India in the early 19th century when more than one million Indians travelled as indentured labour to work in 19 British colonies.

“It’s perfectly clear to me that climate change is one of the major factors in emigration as people are almost always emigrating from regions that are climate distressed, whether from Western Africa, Syria or Darfur in Sudan,” Ghosh told the packed room at Waterstones. “The 2008 drought in Syria is one of the major factors in starting their civil war. There is never any mention of these broader drivers,” he added.

Ghosh, who has a D. Phil in social anthropology from Oxford University, said that climate change, not economics or politics, was the main factor in migrants jumping aboard boats and leaving their homes. This year tens of thousands of migrants from Libya and elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East have been rescued from boats in the Mediterranean; thousands of migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar have been found in waters off Indonesia.

According to Ghosh, just one metre of sea level rise would “swamp half of Bangladesh.”

“I am from Bengal I know how vulnerable it is. I’ve seen entire villages disappear. There has been such an intense encroachment of lands that were once fertile, they are just being gobbled up by the sea,” he added.

Ghosh said that nobody who paid any attention to what is happening in South Asia could “be in any doubt about how vulnerable it is.”

“Even in South Asia people don’t pay any attention to the broader impact,” he added. “If the world had any kind of sanity it would put in place a plan for the future for Bangladesh. It’s clear that a large part of this country will disappear and where will those people go? Yet there is something in our contemporary mindset that prompts us to interpret every problem as a political one.

“We are facing an incredible catastrophe unless water is distributed with absolute equality – but that is not happening! Look at California!”

“I don’t think that the Syrian conflict is solvable. Many of the sex workers in Kolkata are climate refugees, they are displaced people from the Sundarbans. Looking ahead we are looking at great upheavals of populations that are not even beginning to be addressed,” he said. He added it was “bizarre” that Australia did not take in more refugees as it is so sparsely populated.

“It’s so inappropriate for America to lecture Indonesia and Malaysia on taking in Rohingya refugees when Asia is already so thickly populated. Why don’t they take them in?” he asked.

Queues of people waited to get Amitav Ghosh's autograph in a copy of 'Flood of Fire'

Queues of people waited to get Amitav Ghosh’s autograph at the event

“All Asian countries have taken in enormous number of migrants. India and Malaysia in particular have,” he continued, adding climate scientists “faced attacks regularly.”

In 2007 Ghosh was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest honours, by the President of India. This year he was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize for his entire body of work.

Dressed in a stylish Indian waistcoat with an elegant scarf around his neck owing to a sore throat, Ghosh explained that what motivated the Ibis Trilogy was his fascination at the large numbers of Indians that chose to emigrate during the 19th century and the parts of India they left from.

“It really began as a book about departures,” Ghosh said.

The Trilogy, which has taken him more than 10 years to complete, is a work of historical fiction set before and during Opium Wars in the first half of the 19th century.

It is centred on a ship, named Ibis, transporting indentured labour and convicts from Kolkata (the capital of India during the British Raj) to sugar plantations in Mauritius in a movement known as the ‘Great Experiment’.

As a result of the abolition of slavery in 1834, the system of indentured labour was introduced by the British Government to maintain a cheap supply of labour, particularly for the sugar plantations in Mauritius, then a British crown colony, which had until then relied on slave labour.

Between 1834 and 1920, almost half a million indentured labourers arrived from India at Aapravasi Ghat to work in Mauritius.

The Trilogy also describes the trade of opium between Britain and China, which was run by the East India Company and led to the First Opium War (1839-1842). The main characters in the Trilogy meet on Ibis for the first time. The ship departs from Kolkata, then hits a storm and comes across two other ships in the same storm. Some of the passengers of Ibis end up in Mauritius, others go on to Canton and Hong Kong and they get caught up in events that lead to the First Opium War. The Trilogy follows that War to China’s defeat, to Britain’s seizure of Hong Kong.

The European and Arab diaspora had been emigrating for hundreds of years but Indians did not start emigrating until the early 19th century – yet now alongside the Chinese, the Indian diaspora is the largest in the world, he explained.

“I became very interested in this question of how did it happen, how did it originally start, that we Indians have all ended up in different parts of the world. I became particularly interested in the whole history of indenture. When I started writing Sea of Poppies, I tried to imagine the background from which an Indian might enter indentured labour. I wondered what was happening in India to set so many people to want to leave. If you look at the British people who typically emigrated to Australia and America they typically went from places like Devon and Cornwall and other coastal areas. In contrast, in India, the diaspora start in the deep interiors in places like Patna in Bihar and Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh. That seemed strange as you would expect people to leave from the coast – and these people in these interior regions were terrified of the sea.

“When I started researching the background of these people, what jumped out was that they were in exactly the area where the British from the late 18th century onwards were massively expanding opium production,” he said.

He explained at that time, tea had become a huge commodity in Britain but the Chinese would only accept silver from the British East India Company in exchange for it. The Treasury was running out of silver so instead the British came up with this idea of sending them opium grown in India in exchange for tea but then Chinese people started to become addicted to it. “By 1839 China was facing a tsunami of opium coming towards it. When you create a certain kind of monoculture that rapidly disrupts local life such opium production, then the displacement of people goes hand in hand,” he said.


Bhavit Mehta, Literature Programme Manager at the British Council with Amitav Ghosh, Indian author, at Waterstones, during the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

“Once I got into this topic it became clear to me that almost everything I knew about Indian history was not so closely related to the reality of people’s lives. It was something else we were learning. I don’t know if I would say the British Empire was highly moral if it was based on slaves and drugs,” he continued.

But what was more intriguing was why India had “completely erased the Opium Wars from its history,” he said.

“This was essentially an Indian war. It was financed by Parsi merchants from Mumbai, fought by Indian troops, planned in India and Indians merchants were among the beneficiaries. The reality is any old money in India, especially old capital, came from opium. Some of the most important Indian conglomerates in India today actually had their beginning in the opium trade,” he added.

The discussion then moved on to various subjects such as cooking, writing, travel, Ghosh’s family, how popular the books were in China and whether a film might be made of the Trilogy.

There were some awkward moments however. When Mehta asked if Ghosh was the ‘William Dalrymple’ of Bengal, Ghosh was visibly baffled, and said he was not.

When asked if he was Gandhian, Ghosh, who is an alumnus of the so-called ‘Eton of India’, The Doon School, was equally perplexed. “I am not a vegetarian. I certainly read Gandhi and his thought is a powerful influence on my work and my life. But I would never presume to call myself Gandhian – you have to jump through certain loopholes to do that.”

A comparison to literary theorist Edward Said also puzzled Ghosh. He said: “You are suggesting these astonishing comparisons to me! I am very surprised to hear I have been compared to Edward Said!! Wow! In what way could my work be like his? He is a systematic philosopher really who built a system of ideas and that is exactly what I am not. I am not a historian or an anthropologist. I don’t think in abstractions. I think in very concrete ways about the plight that various characters face. That is what interests me. What he does and what I do have very little relation to each other.”

When the 58-year-old was asked to name a favourite place he had travelled to in the past year, his face lit up again. “I sailed in a Bugis sail ship in the Flores Sea in Indonesia,” he said. The Bugis live in South Sulawesi province in Indonesia. Traditionally sailors, they constructed fleets of sailing ships to support the spice and cargo trade and controlled the major trade routes of most Asian waters. Today, they carry much of Indonesia’s cargo.

“It was one of the most magical and marvellous journeys of my life. The Bugis sailors are wonderful, good-hearted, friendly and raucous. The marine life in that area is so amazing,” he said.

Ghosh who is married to writer Deborah Barker and has two children, said he loved entertaining at home. “I like to cook because I like to feed people and have people around my table. I also cook for my family. I don’t like exquisite creations. My children don’t like my cooking so much. They prefer pizza. I also grow a lot of food in Goa. I grow black pepper and I like growing spices and doing things with food from my garden.”

The first two volumes in the Ibis Trilogy have been translated into Mandarin. “I think Chinese readers have read them with great interest,” Ghosh said.

“The Opium Wars are very alive in Chinese memories, there are so many museums dedicated to the Opium Wars in China and it was a very important part of history for them,” he said. “The First Opium War [when China tried to seal its borders to British trade to prevent opium entering the country leading to Britain waging war on China] was really a critical moment in world history because that is what gives us the Asia that we know today,” he added.

The first book in the trilogy, Sea of Poppies (2008), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

“Sea of Poppies has been optioned and many filmmakers have spoken to me about it. It is not currently under option. I have no reservations but I think anyone who sets out to make a film would have to make the whole Trilogy. I am not interested in adapting them. I don’t want to get involved with any new media. I have too many things to write,” he said.

Ghosh, who divides his time between the Goa, Brooklyn (in New York City) and Kolkata, said: “I write all day but I am very easily distracted. Music would distract me. A dog barking would distract me. I need seclusion. Writing is a deeply meditative process and a sudden phone call at 8.30am can affect my concentration so much that it’s the end of my day. Goa is very rural but even the birds disturb me.

“I often ask myself why I don’t have a foothold in London as I love it, it’s a wonderful place to be, especially for South Asians, it has such a rich South Asian cultural life, and there are so many people passing through, but I don’t think I could ever afford to live here,” he said.

To listen to the audio of the event click below:-

The India launch of Flood of Fire will take place at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi Delhi on 3 June when Ghosh will be in conversation with Shivshankar Menon, former Foreign Secretary of India (under the previous UPA Government.)

To read all the stories we carried on the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival click here.

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival is heading to the Leeds Big Bookend this weekend where renowned British author Sunjeev Sahota, of Ours are the Streets fame, will launch his second novel. Find out more here.