Amitav Ghosh, the internationally acclaimed author of Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, first visited Burma in 1997 and set his novel The Glass Palace there three years later. Earlier this month, the Bengali-Indian former staff writer for The New Yorker revisited the country to see the changes taking place. He took some time to meet The Irrawaddy in Rangoon to discuss his recent experiences.
Question: What’s the reason behind your trip?
Answer: Earlier this year the translation of The Glass Palace won the Myanmar Literature Award. At that time the Indian Embassy wrote to me and asked if I could come but I was not available right away. I’ve been planning to come back for the last couple of years since the reforms started. This is a very good opportunity. I seized it.
Q: The last time you were in Burma was 1997. What differences have you noticed after 15 years?
A: It is like going from one planet to another. It’s so different. It’s almost unbelievable, and I was told in fact that most of these changes actually occurred in the last 12 months, which is truly staggering because the visual landscape has changed so much.
One of the things that make cities of Burma so distinctive is that all the men wear longyi. Now the longyi seems to be fading. Everyone is in shirt and pants. That’s one thing. The traffic on the roads, the taxis, the buildings—all of that is starting to change. But most of all change is in the atmosphere.
I was doing an event at the Indian Embassy and inside there were so many people who came to the meeting. I spoke of things I would not have dreamt of and which people would not have accepted before. I was talking about the press scrutiny board and [late veteran Burmese journalist] Ludu Sein Win who was such an inspiration to me. So all those things, 15 years ago you couldn’t have mentioned.
Q: What’s your impression of Aung San Suu Kyi?
A: That’s like writing a book. Let me say that for me she’s been a sort of beacon in the world. I feel that admiration for her, and I’m feeling incredibly happy she reached this point in time when she’s able to initiate changes in Burma. When I was here in 1996 it was on the eve of [the ex-military government] proposing a new Constitution. Essentially the deal they were offering then was not really different from the deal the NLD [National League for Democracy] eventually accepted.
So, I felt then she and the NLD was making a mistake by turning down that deal [at that time]. I said so to her that time because they withdrew from the 2010 elections. I said to her that one consistent thing in the history of Southeast Asia in the 20th century is that any party that withdraws from the election loses something very profoundly.
In 1942 when the Congress of India withdrew from the election, it had a profound impact, creating a sort of condition whereby after that they were crumbling. So I felt even then that a small step forward was better than no step forward. I felt that then, to be honest, she was badly advised because—and I’m just giving my opinion—that it was her British and American advisers who were pushing the view that [the NLD] should withdraw.
I have seen a lot of things written about the constitutional arrangement settling proposed deals and I’ve seen a lot of criticism of it, especially from the NGO community who don’t want any place for the military and so on. Of course, in principle they are right. But you have to remember you are operating within this context.
What we’ve seen in the Southeast Asian context is that you can’t create a perfect Constitution. For example, in Pakistan you have a perfect democratic Constitution but power is not in the hands of civilians, which means in effect that the constitutional authorities, the elected authorities, actually are helpless.
They have no power. They become window-dressing. So I think at least as a transitional measure it is much better to have the army there and make it accountable because if it is in the open to some degree, it’s accountable. In Pakistan, it’s not. It becomes the deep state. By creating a perfect Constitution what you create is a deep state. So I personally think a transitional measure is not without reason.
Q: Your uncle and father were your inspirations for writing The Glass Palace. Could you tell our readers more about them?
A: My uncle’s family was in Burma from the earliest 20th century. He created a big kind of business in teak. He got the contract to provide the sleepers throughout India. So he became very rich. On December 24, 1941, when the Japanese first bombed Rangoon, one of the bombs fell on his timber yard which was right by the river. So all his timber was burnt up.
That was the catastrophe for him. He left. He walked over the mountain, and came back to Calcutta. I grew up with him, and it was amazing in life to see this man who once was very rich, yet slowly his life dwindled and dwindled. All his life, even though basically he left Burma, in his head he was living in Burma.
So he would tell these stories of Burma all the time. I just grew up with these stories. My father’s stories of Burma too. My father came and stayed in Burma. He was in India when the Second World War broke out. He joined the British Indian Army. When the British reinvaded Burma in 1944, he was with Lord Slim’s army.
Q: Have your father and uncle read The Glass Palace?
A: No, my father died two years before The Glass Palace was finished. The book was dedicated to him. It’s very sad because his stories are very important parts of the book. My uncle’s stories too. He died long before the book.
Q: Aung San Suu Kyi said India should support Burma’s democratization process. What will be the future Indian-Burmese relationship?
A: I think it’s very important. I would say it’s more important for India than Burma. India and Burma share a thousand-mile border. It’s a very critical border for India because that area of India is incredibly underdeveloped. But it has the unbelievable human potential that we see in India now.
My friends teaching in universities have told me that their best students come from northeastern India. The fact that Burma has a troubled border and India has a troubled border will hold back both countries. If an economic corridor can be opened between Assam and Southeast Asia, it would revolutionize India, let alone Burma. So in that sense, that border is more critical to India than Burma.
I really hope that India begins to engage in Burma in a serious way but also with a kind of humility. Yesterday, at one of my events here, there was an adviser to the Burmese President. He said to me how keen he is for Indian business investment in Burma.
I wanted to say to him “be careful with what you wish for” because we can’t forget what happened here in the 1910s and 1920s when Burma’s rice producing industry was taken over by Indian money lenders, and a very large percentage of Burmese farmers went into catastrophic indebtedness.
So the point is it should be good business rather than exploiting. That’s one thing I hope for. The other thing I would like to see best is an expansion of cultural and educational links. India has more Burmese student refugees than any other country except Thailand. So that’s the natural bridge.
Q: India was quite supportive to the Burmese democracy movement in the early days but later Burma seemed to be forgotten. Why did that happen?
A: I don’t think it happened. In 1993, India gave Aung San Suu Kyi the Jawaharlal Nehru Award—the biggest award in India. The Burmese resistance movement was at the defense minister’s house. The defense minister at the time was George Fernandes. In those days, I was covering a story so I used to go to Fernandes’ house.
All the Burmese resistance was around his house. Apart from that there was widespread support for the NLD. I think what [India] did was they switched from a position of non-engagement with the junta to a position of engagement like that of Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. You can criticize that move. People have criticized India on that move. But in reality, that’s the policy that worked.
Q: Why does India have so many internationally renowned writers like Rabindranath Tagore, yourself, Salmen Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth?
A: I can’t explain really. I think in India people love telling stories. That’s always been the case. You can consider India’s influence in Southeast Asia was never a military influence, or political influence even. But it was the influence of stories like Ramayayan and Mahabarata.
Throughout Southeast Asia, throughout Asia, they became such important cultural forms. It happened not through power, not through politics. It happened through stories. In a sense I think you could say we are doing what our ancestors did—telling stories. That’s one thing we are good at.
Q: You are from the world’s largest democracy. What are the disadvantages of being a writer in a democratic society?
A: The idea that there are no constraints on writers [in democratic society] is a mistake. There are constraints even in the US and I myself experienced those constraints around 9/11 and 2001. We experienced literary censorship.
The real threat to freedom of expression in our times doesn’t really come from the government. In most parts of the world now it comes from non-state actors like extremist groups or other various kinds. In India, various kinds of identity groups object to someone saying this or that.