LAST NOVEMBER, the Asia Society in New York held its inaugural Asian Arts and Ideas Forum. The theme, over three days, was ‘The Chindia Dialogues’ and the programme began with an evening of conversation between the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh and the China scholar and Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale, Jonathan Spence. ‘Two wonderful people to take us back to the beginning of this relationship between China and India’, as Orville Schell, director of Asia Society’s Center on US-China relations, put it in his introduction.
Three days earlier, Ghosh’s most recent book, River of Smoke, had been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, which will be awarded on 15 March 2012. The book is the second in his Ibis trilogy, which began with Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize) and which continues to follow the lives of characters variously connected to the nineteenth-century opium trade. Sea of Poppies begins in India; by the time River of Smoke moves into full flow, much of the action is taking place in the Chinese city of Canton (now Guangzhou).
‘The joy of reading Amitav’s work is the completely new way of reading about things I thought I knew,’ Spence enthused. ‘You completely changed my way of looking at the opium trade. The farmers come first and from that beginning, at family level, you take us into this chaotic global world.’
‘For me, as a writer of fiction, it’s the most amazing compliment to hear you say that,’ Ghosh responded. ‘For me, your work has been my introduction to China [which] was this vast area of darkness. I’m not an incurious person but it’s extraordinary to me how completely blind we were in India to this world, and your works – Gate of Heavenly Peace, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci – were a small window.’
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