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Poppies, Burma and Bollywood

July 24, 2008
With his seventh novel, Amitav Ghosh has announced one clear intention: He is not about to retire.

By some counts Sea of Poppies (Penguin-Viking, 2008), his epic saga seasoned with a whiff of opium and a salty sea breeze, has caught up with Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth as the number one bestseller in India and could be well on its way to becoming the next 'Great Indian Novel'.

Its ocean of characters lingers for a curtain call even after the last page of the book has been feverishly turned and its hardcover remorsefully slapped shut. You are only consoled by the fact that its sequel, the second volume of the Ibis Trilogy, will be out in 2010. But can you bear to wait that long?

As Ghosh's book tour winds to a close after travelling to Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore, it is easy to see why crowds are drawn to this eloquent, white-haired gentleman who is as affable as he is professorial. An Oxford alumnus with a doctorate in anthropology and until recently a visiting professor at Harvard, Ghosh wears his erudition -- as one journalist put it -- lightly.

At 52, the raconteur beams with the vitality of a first-time author who has recently discovered his shtick. To rookie journalists who have forgotten to do their homework and have just learned how to spell Amitav Ghosh on the elevator ride up to his hotel suite, he is charm personified. In fact, you can't help but marvel at how graciously he suffers fools. But if you are up to the task, he can turn into an enthusiastic conversationalist with a great art for adda -- that unmistakably Bengali gift for packing away time, morsel by morsel, into indelible memory. Once entangled in his spell, you find that he is equally puckish and sage, awe-inspiring and genial -- the last when he enquires from time to time if you would care for some coffee.

Bijoy Venugopal caught up with Amitav Ghosh just before the launch of Poppies in Mumbai. The writer talked at length about the 19th century opium trade and his love of languages. He spoke with sadness of the political plight of Burma, recounted a strange meeting with the late Arthur C Clarke and spilled the beans on how Bollywood delights and frustrates him.

Image: Novelist Amitav Ghosh travelled to Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore to promote his latest book Sea of Poppies. Videos and photographs: Rajesh Karkera

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