Amitav Ghosh liked researching his novels more than the actual writing. “The research part, you’re out there, you’re visiting people. That’s the fun part,” he said.
Amitav Ghosh spoke about the writing and research that went into his latest novel, The Hungry Tide, at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, 2004.
He said The Hungry Tide took him “four years of pretty continuous research”, involving visits to the Mekong River in Cambodia, and the Sundarbuns in Southern Bengal.
“The Hungry Tide is at bottom a story about a relationship between a girl and two men,” he said. “One of the major characters in the book, actually, is the landscape in which it’s set.”
The novel is set in the Sundarbuns, which he said was an archipelago of thousands of islands, many of them sandbanks, dominated by mangroves, in Southern Bengal.
“The mangroves are so thick you can’t see the tigers but the tiger is always watching you,” he said.
He said around 300 people were killed by tigers each year in the Sundarbuns.
When he was researching in the Sundarbuns he and his companions came across a tiger track in the mud.
The track was filling with water, so they knew the print was fresh and the tiger had been watching them coming down the creek.
“You almost never see a tiger until that last minute,” he said. “But you know its presence is everywhere.”
The Hungry Tide tells the story of Priya, an Indian-born American who studies dolphins and other marine mammals around the world.
She meets Kanai, a well-educated Indian man, at a railway station at the entrance to the Sundarbans.
Priya is trying to unravel the mystery of which dolphins live in the local rivers, and where they travel and why, and she has to overcome obstacles to achieve this.
Kanai, called to the Sundarbuns by an aunt who has discovered a bundle of papers addressed to Kanai by her late husband, uses the papers to unravel another mystery.
And Fokir, an illiterate fisherman with an extensive knowledge of the Sundarbuns, is a key to both quests.
Antropologist and author Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta, and grew up in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Northern India.
“I think of myself very much as an Indian writer. As an Indian writer expatriated,” he said during one session at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. “My books found an enormous audience in India long before they found an audience outside.”
Amitav Ghosh lives with his wife Deborah Baker and their children in Brooklyn, New York.
Ms Baker is a senior editor at Little, Brown and Co. and has written a Pulitzer finalist biography.
Amitav Ghosh teaches English at Harvard University for one semester (three months) a year.
Born in 1956, Amitav Ghosh studied at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi; St. Edmund’s Hall, Oxford; and the Faculty of Arts in Alexandria (the setting of his book In an Antique Land).
He worked for the Indian Express which is a newspaper in New Delhi, and he completed a doctorate at Oxford.
Then he started getting novels published, like The Circle of Reason; The Shadow Lines; Dancing in Cambodia; and The Calcutta Chromosome.
His best known novel is The Glass Palace, and he said the novel had a 120 year span, starting with British soldiers invading the royal city of Mandalay in Burma (Myanmar) in 1885.
The Hungry Tide is his latest novel.
“I do a lot of research and this book, particularly, involved a lot of research,” he said.
Amitav Ghosh talked about one path of research he followed.
While in the Sundarbuns he was in a boat and saw the carcass of a marine mammal on a sandbank. On closer inspection it was an Irrawaddy River dolphin, so this got him interested in these dolphins.
“I sent out an email, I wrote to several specialists, and only one of them responded,” he said.
A scientist in Townsville in North Queensland told him about Isabel Beasley, a student in Cambodia studying the Irrawaddy River dolphins in the Mekong Delta.
He spent some time with Isabel Beasley in Cambodia. “This is the wonderful part of research. You meet interesting people,” he said.
He said there were not many more than 50 dolphins in the Mekong, and once the population went less than 50 the species was doomed. But Isabel Beasley was still dedicated to studying these dolphins even though they were probably doomed to extinction.
Also he said Isabel Beasley had been savaged by her pet dog, and even though she was still bandaged and had to give herself injections as a result of the attack, she still gave Amitav Ghosh a tour of the region because, she said, she had spent four months setting it up.
As mentioned, The Hungry Tide features one such scientist as a character.
Amitav Ghosh said he was more interested in characters than issues when he went to write a story. “The characters absolutely,” he said.
“That’s why I write novels, because novels are about people.”