Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Parsi community has created modern India: Amitav Ghosh

The Parsi community is an amazing pool of talent, having created modern India as we know it, says one of the country’s foremost novelists and chronicler Amitav Ghosh, who tails his Parsi protagonist, Bombay merchant Bahramji Naurozji Modi to China in his new novel, "River of Smoke" – the second book in the Ibis trilogy.

By Madhusree Chatterjee | IANS

The first book of the trilogy, "Sea of Poppies", a saga of migration of indentured labourers from Kolkata aboard the Ibis in the early 19th century and India’s early opium trade, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2008.

"The number of Parsis in the country has dwindled and the reasons are perhaps well-known. But the Parsis continue to be one of the most illustrious communities in India. After all, our ruling family is Parsi, some of the biggest industrial houses are Parsi, leading lawyers, doctors and professionals are Parsi. It is an amazing pool of talent," Ghosh told IANS in an interview in the capital.

"They (Parsis) have essentially created modern India – as we know it. Who introduced cricket into India? The Parsis. Who invented the style of singing and dancing in India that is now Bollywood? It was the Parsis," the 55-year-old writer said.

Ghosh said, "To a quite significant degree, Mumbai was a Parsi city, formed and shaped with the Parsi world view which is reflected in the incredible number of philanthropic institutions in Mumbai".

"It is something we don’t have in Kolkata," he said.

The writer, who has won the Sahitya Akademi award, is known for research-based fiction and non-fiction like "The Hungry Tide", "The Shadow Lines", "The Circle of Reason", "The Calcutta Chromosone" and "The Glass Palace".

He was honoured with the Padma Shri in 2007.

Ghosh’s novel, "River of Smoke", which picks up its thread from his earlier book, "Sea of Poppies", is built around India’s opium trade with China, the Opium wars, the fortunes of a medley of people who had boarded a ship, Ibis, carrying indentured labourers from Calcutta to Mauritius and a botanist in search of the elusive Golden Camellia blossom in China.

"This is a completely different book. One must not read it or approach it expecting it to be a continuation of the first book (‘Sea of Poppies’). It is not, and nor ever was my intention in conceiving of this as a trilogy. My idea was that the books would have tangential connection with each other through characters and certain themes. I don’t think there is a sequential order. This could be read first and then the ‘Sea of Poppies’," Ghosh said.

China is important in Ghosh’s novel.

"I am following the life of a character like in the first book. Canton (Guangzhou) – is where he (Bahram) made so much money, came into his own and received his inspiration," he said.

"Exactly in this period of time I described (1839) at least six or seven major Bombay merchants were travelling regularly to Canton. Their letters, public statements and many joint letters they signed are available – there is nothing obscure about it," Ghosh said.

The writer said in many ways, China was just like India.

"Wherever you see a banyan tree, someone will build a little shrine, every shop has a ‘pooja ghar (prayer room) – it is just like India," he said.

The writer said one of the most remarkable things in China "was the participation of women at every level of the labour force – as truck drivers, as taxi drivers, as shopkeepers".

The writer, who shares a deep connect with Kolkata where he spent his holidays as a child, said the long reign of the CPI-M had put Kolkata behind on the progress map.

"Their approach was ham-fisted, antediluvian and in the end they ended up dividing the state and leading it with an incredible burden of debt. They did do a couple of good things like land reforms. But for the city (Kolkata), they had no vision, no interest," he said.

"Let us hope there is a fresh wind blowing through Kolkata. It won’t be easy to change a place like Kolkata overnight," he said.

The writer has a fond boyhood memory of the city.

"When I was little boy, the nicest part of the day was 4 p.m. We would sit in the windows of our house which looked out to the Dhakuria Lake. At 4 p.m., people would come and wash streets with pipes and a man would go by shouting- ‘son papri, son papri’. In those days, there used to be a kind of yellow pushcart – called Magnolia Ice Cream. We would eat muri (puffed rice) and we would go for a walk to the Lily pool. And then we would eat Magnolia ice-cream," he said.

Ghosh is a keen cook. Lately, he has been cooking Schezuan food. "I have come to like Chinese food. Schezuan food is wonderfully flavourful," he said.

But any day, the novelist would settle for a Bengali platter "shaak (cooked greens) and Ilish maach (Hilsa fish)".