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Connected by a 'River of Smoke': Amitav Ghosh and Jonathan Spence at The Asia Society

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

'Figures at a ghat' by George Chinnery. "Figures at a ghat" by George Chinnery. (Courtesy of the Asia House. Image reproduced courtesy of Mr and Mrs R J F Brothers.)

The Asia Society inaugurated its new Asian Arts & Ideas series this month with “The ‘Chindia’ Dialogues,” a three-day forum that examined the confluence of the world’s two most powerful developing economies.

The organizers chose an unusual point of departure for event — not a historical overview, but a conversation between Jonathan Spence, former Sterling Professor of History at Yale, and the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh.

Ghosh’s most recent book, “River of Smoke,” centers around the mid-19th century Opium Wars, and in their talk, Ghosh and Spence used the topic as a lens through which to view the early modern histories of India and China.

As Ghosh notes, historians tend to segment the past in terms of their own specialties (economics, politics, culture, etc.), but, “What a novelist can do is imagine the totality of the experience.”

Bon Mots

Jonathan Spence on Amitav Ghosh: "The joy of reading Amitav’s work is the completely new way of reading about things I thought I knew — of asking outrageously simple questions that are so difficult."

Amitav Ghosh on India and the opium trade: "India today does not recognize this past."

Ghosh on learning Cantonese in preparation for writing “River of Smoke”: "It was so exciting to discover this whole world of Cantonese street slang and Cantonese obscenities, which are so inventive!”

Ghosh on old (drug) money: "It’s possible to say that all old money in the major presidency cities in India really goes back to the opium trade. The same is true of Massachusetts, I should add."

Hear the complete conversation by clicking on the audio player above.

The image of the painting above by George Chinnery was provided courtesy of Asia House, where it is featured in the exhibit: The Flamboyant Mr Chinnery. An English Artist in India and China. The show is open through Jan 21 and its curator is Patrick Conner.

Produced by:

Sarah Montague

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