Monday, August 8, 2011

Book review: River of Smoke

Author: Amitav Ghosh
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books)
Pages: 538
Price: Rs 699
Eisha Sarkar

Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Monday, August 08, 2011 at 04:55:23 PM

After sailing through a storm in the Bay of Bengal aboard the Ibis in The Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh, in the River of Smoke, invites you to be spectator to the events that lead to the first Anglo-Chinese Opium War (1839-42), which had far-reaching economical, cultural and political repercussions in the East. 

The weaving of history with fiction can be tricky, but Ghosh knows his craft too well. In The Shadow Lines, Ghosh did remarkably well to thread a story through the Swadeshi movement, World War II, the Partition and the communal riots of 1963-64 in Dhaka and Calcutta. In the River of Smoke, he once again assembles a huge cast of characters, real and imaginary, to create a tale of avarice and lust, religion and fate, free trade and protectionism, trust and treachery.

At the centre of this tale is Seth Bahramji Naurozji Modi, a rich Parsi merchant, who sets sail from Bombay to Canton (modern Guangzhou) in China, with the largest consignment of opium in his 30 years of the trade. Despite his wife's superstitions, rumours of impending trouble in China and losing nearly 300 crates of opium in a storm, Bahram continues his journey in search of money, respect and his estranged half-Chinese son, Ah Fatt. As the Chinese authorities tighten the noose around the drug trade by preventing opium-carrying vessels from plying along Canton's Pearl River, Bahram desperately tries to find a way into the Chinese market. He is forced to choose between the good and the evil, between his love for Canton and his sense of obligation to family and investors in Bombay, and between British opium traders who vouch for "free trade" and a conscientious American merchant, Charles King. He goes from being one of the most powerful businessmen in Canton to a desperate smuggler and finally ends as a lonely, helpless man, much like the consumers of the drug he trades in.

The huge cast includes horticulturists, traders, merchants, lascars, smugglers, officers, painters and printers from Britain, India, Mauritius, Malaysia and China. The characters aboard the Ibis from The Sea of Poppies remain in the background. Neel, the raja-turned-convict, finds himself a job as Bahram's munshi. The story is narrated by a grey-haired Deeti, the widow who, in her youth, escaped sati and boarded the Ibis with Kalua and who she later married. A major of the narrative is in the form of letters from painter Robin Chinnery to amateur botanist Paulette (another character from The Sea of Poppies).

However, in spite of the large number of characters, the protagonist of the story remains the city of Canton -- its people, its narrow lanes, its flower boats and opium dens, its markets and maidans and the fanqui town for foreigners. With few references from diarists and paintings such as those of George Chinnery’s, Ghosh manages to bring out the colour and vibrancy of the ancient trading port. He spices rich narrative with generous helpings of Chinese, Hindustani and pidgin (the language of trade used by foreigners in Canton), true to the period.  He also packs in trivia to depict how the cultures in the town melted into each other: "... a Xinjiang specialty called a samsa… these were small triangles of pastry, stuffed usually with minced meat: baked in portable Uighur tandoors they were sold hot in the Maidan… and were spoken of familiarly by their Hindusthani name – samosa".

Little is known about the Opium Wars in India. In school textbooks, you jump straight from Aurangzeb's rule to the Revolt of 1857, which saw the end of the Mughal rule and the transfer of India to the British Crown. Why did the East India Company start annexing territories in India? Where did they get the money to pay for their troops? How did they rule millions of a race different from their own? Faced with an immense trade deficit, would the British have continued trading in tea, silk and porcelain with China, if the Chinese hadn’t got hooked on to opium? Would the East India Company have been able to hold on to her loss-making Indian colonies, without forcing farmers in Bihar, Bengal and Malwa to grow poppy instead of food crops? In many ways, River of Smoke is more than just a work of fiction. It urges you to find answers to questions you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of. Poppy was the ideal cash crop. It suited the Indian conditions, gave a drug that was highly addictive and expensive, and forced debt-stricken farmers to leave their villages and look for employment as coolies and labourers on British plantations in Mauritius and the Far-East.

Of trade, drugs, ships and sin, of men and their secret lives, of a time when news-gathering was an art and art reflected life, of lives that were built and those that were lost, River of Smoke is a riveting sequel to The Sea of Poppies. This is a series you don’t want to miss.

1 comment:

Sruthisagar Yamunan said...

Guess should stop waiting for the paperback and go buy this at once. Thanks for the post.