Bengal, Burma, London, China, North Africa, the Persian Gulf—Amitav Ghosh’s books are plotted all over the globe. Often with more than one place featuring in the same story, they blur geographical boundaries and sometimes, even time periods. Born in Kolkata to a diplomat father, Ghosh grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, studied in Delhi, Oxford and Alexandria, and currently resides in New York. It’s as if, like him, his stories too are always on the move and remind us how interconnected the world is. Increasingly so, since climate change has begun taking centre stage in his books starting with The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016). Ghosh talks to NGTI about his relationship with travelling and his love for Venice, which features prominently in his latest book, Gun Island. Edited excerpts from a telephonic interview:
Since your first book, The Circle of Reason, travel has formed a big part of your narration. How come?
I have been travelling since I was a kid. My father was a great fan of the railways; he knew the Bradshaw’s timetable (by London’s W.J. Adams) by heart. In those days, you could hire a saloon, which had a kitchen and bedrooms. We would rent these and travel to different parts of India with my uncles, aunts and cousins; a cook would travel along and make us meals every day. We treated the saloon like a hotel. There was no air conditioning and it required a lot of planning, but the experience was just lovely. There’s nothing like it today. So you see, travel has been the reality of my life. It also reflects contemporary life; today, tourism is one of the world’s biggest industries.
Venice features prominently in Amitav Ghosh’s latest book. He speaks fondly of the city’s old street festivals and classic feel. Photo By: Ulf Andersen / Contributor/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty images
What about these trips fascinated you most?
For me, interactions with people were a big part of the experience, as was the landscape and sampling all cuisines. Every station had a speciality—they were common knowledge and a big part of railway travel. Vendors would run up and down the train with food and other goods.
Do your travel experiences inspire your stories, or like filmmakers do you explore places that seem apt for your plot?
It’s not a straightforward process. I’ll give you an example, while pursuing Social Anthropology at Oxford I went to Tunisia for four weeks to learn Arabic. From there I went to the Algerian Sahara, then Morocco and on to Spain, and discovered some extraordinary places. Three years later, when I started writing my first novel, all my experiences found their way into the book.
While studying in Oxford, Ghosh travelled extensively. One of his fondest memories, is his trip to the Algerian Sahar. Photo By: Leonid Andronov/iStock/Getty images
Ghosh’s trip to Morocco played a significant role in his first novel. Photo By: Leuntje/Moment/Getty images
Centrality of certain folk characters to Gun Island explains why part of the book is set in Bengal. When you began writing it, did you already know a significant part would be in Venice?
Yes. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time in Venice and seen how much it has changed. It’s startling, but today the city’s entire working population is Bengali. Climate change has a lot to do with it—Bengal and its surrounding regions are low-lying areas and see flooding all the time. This has led to migration in great numbers, though most of it is inland or to Bangladesh, especially Dhaka.
You had spoken about four decades of visiting Venice at the Mumbai launch of your book. The city must have been very different then, what was it like?
Venice is magical. That’s why it’s the most used name in the world—there’s Venice beach in California and there are little Venices all over the world. One of my most vivid memories from that first visit in 1981 is of this huge festival organised by L’ Unita, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, which used to be a fixture in Italian life. The young and old were dancing, singing, eating together…it was exuberant. As the left movement withered away, so did the festival. Back then, a lot more Venetians lived there. Now it’s just a tourist city; you don’t find many old shops. Mass tourism invasion is making it tough for locals, crowding the city in the worst ways. Moreover, as tourists to Venice don’t always stay there, the daytime and night-time population are very different. Here you begin to see how destructive tourism can be.
According to Ghosh, Venice has changed significantly over the years, with an influx of tourist groups making it more commercial than artsy. Photo By: Grazyna Myslinska/EyeEm/Getty images
What do you miss most and what continues to draw you back?
I miss the popular festivals, street festivals, ordinary things. Everything is staged today. Over the years, I’ve returned for book tours, lectures and as jury for the Venice Film Festival. Venice is still just beautiful. The most remarkable thing about it is this realisation it brings regarding what a huge difference it makes to have no cars around. The tranquillity, the air, going walking everywhere… everything is different. It’s like entering a non-contemporary space. We should try this experiment in India too; the central parts of Banaras and many other places weren’t meant for cars.
Which places would you recommend to Venice first-timers?
One place is the Querini Stampalia Library. The tourist tide tends to turn towards particular places, but you should go to the less-visited, quiet parts like the Cannaregio. Known for its Jewish Ghetto, it’s a lovely walk. Then there are islands such as Murano and Burano that I’ve mentioned in my book. It’s also worth checking out graveyards on different islands; they’re very interesting, they’re haunting, with beautiful tombs. One thing that always makes a great difference is knowing people at the destination you’re travelling to. Now that I have friends in Venice, they show me things such
as parts where old Venetian families have their summer houses—they are fairly enchanting.
I’ve heard about your trips to food markets in Venice. Do you like cooking? Any Venetian delicacies you recommend?
Yes, I love to cook and going to markets everywhere I travel. Being around fresh produce, seeing what people are growing, is the most interesting thing to do. As I already have too many things, I’m trying to throw things out rather than collect more. But if I have to bring something back from a trip, it would be a local herb or something. There are two markets worth visiting in Venice—the Rialto Fish Market, all shopkeepers there are Bengalis, and this lovely street market near the station in the Cannaregio district. A dish you must have while you’re in Venice is baccalà mantecato, a dip made out of dried codfish, eaten with bread.
Ghosh’s recommendations to Venice first-timers include spots like the Querini Stampilia Library and Murano and Burano. Through all this, don’t forget to get home a Venetian souvenir. Photo By: Sasipa Muennuch./Moment/Getty images
As a writer, anything can tempt note-taking. Do you manage to unwind on vacations?
I take copious amounts of notes when I’m travelling; I’ve got notes going back 40 years! But when you go for dinner, meet people and relax, you still do unwind.
Have your travel preferences changed over the years? Is there anything you avoid?
Encounters with people really matter to me, but I avoid crowds. They don’t allow for conversation. Even if it’s a museum, I prefer the little ones that are a bit out of the way, over big ones that are generally overcrowded. One big difference in my travel routine is that I no more like going to a lot of places or spending time in cars and trains. I prefer to stay in one place and get to know it well.
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is a crazy journo, a guiltless foodie and loves trees the way people love their pets. She lives for the outdoors but also plots her escapes through books. She's always brimming with ideas and stories to tell.
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