In this second part of the Ibis Trilogy, the author presents a world of curious cultural mixes, but is dominated by the British
“Is it not amazing, Puggly dear, that whenever we begin to congratulate ourselves on the breadth of our knowledge of the world, we discover that there are multitudes of people, in every corner of the earth, who have seen vastly more than we can ever hope to? And to no one is this state more attractive than to those whom it is consistently denied.”
Throughout his work, in River of Smoke Amitav Ghosh writes with a global perspective that is manifest not only in the series of locations and multiplicity of characters he depicts, but also in his persistence on connections that cross imaginary boundaries.
At the beginning of River of Smoke, the second volume in Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, Neel, the deported raja, whose story begins in Ghosh’s novel Sea of Poppies, remarks of a hurricane that it is “looking for new possibilities, creating fresh beginnings, rewriting destinies and throwing together people who would never have met”.
Throughout River of Smoke, characters trail across fleetingly and at other times in intricate and life-changing ways, as Ghosh probes the human imperfections and fortitude of individuals caught up in the opium trade to China. The novel begins with Deeti a central character in Sea of Poppies, while Paulette and Neel also appear frequently in the novel. Ghosh introduces a wide cast of new characters, most compelling of whom is Seth Bahram Modi, a trader from Bombay who has built his fortune by selling opium in China. Bahram’s story is movingly complex, and Ghosh consistently maintains a humane, rather than polemical interest in this man who is a privileged merchant accepted by his British peers but always aware of his colonial origins.His love for a Chinese woman must remain a poignant secret from his extended Parsi family in Bombay. In Bahram, Ghosh vividly captures the struggles of an individual whose desires and interests are ultimately defeated by far-reaching historical, economic and political events. River of Smoke is rich in historical detailing and liberally sprinkled with Hindi, Bengali, and pidgin dialogue. It is told in a narrative style that wears its erudition and its political insights in a light way.
Paulette’s search for a mysterious camellia plant appositely captures the theme of the novel that the era of global modernity is about connections, accidental discoveries, and an unregulated flow of information between people who shape world history in an often anonymous manner.
The narrative is suffused with the rich alignment of commerce and miscegenation, embracing within its large rubric a variety of set-pieces, from a Chinese boat serving authentic Indian fare to an Armenian trader interviewing Napoleon in exile on St. Helena. Though the period detail is meticulously researched and lovingly described, the characters through whom the story is told are largely marginal in the world he portrays: a half-caste gay painter, an orphaned female would-be botanist, an Indian merchant in a white man’s world.
Those who dominate that world are the British citizens of a global imperium espouse the doctrine of free trade in high-minded, hypocritical rhetoric that masks the amoral venality of smuggling opium. This twisting of tongues energises all of Ghosh’s writing. It allows him to engage with quiet irony in the official rhetoric of the British Chamber of Commerce in Canton and to pass it off as one style among many.
The book in this way engages with the broader sweep of history, in particular the enigmatic chain of events that led to the first Anglo-Chinese opium war of 1838, without ever allowing you to forget the ways in which these headline facts had myriad and tragic consequences for millions of individual human lives. What begins, for the likes of Bahram Moddie, in possibility and freedom, ends in chaos, with the trade stalled by the Chinese emperor’s determination to rid his country of an opium plague and British desperation to defend the financial engine of colonialism.
On one level, the novel, River of Smoke, that arises from this formative geopolitics is a remarkable feat of research, bringing alive the hybrid customs of food and dress and the competing philosophies of the period with intimate precision; on another it is a subversive act of empathy, viewing a whole panorama of world history from the “wrong” end of the telescope.
We get a moment’s glimpse in River of Smoke, for example, inside a ship’s cabin and Ghosh can’t resist explaining how a copper tub is “attached ingeniously to the ceiling, with removable trivets”. Bahram, the Parsi opium trader from Bombay, whose story is the primary focus of the novel, likes to eat “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 Hindustani name – the famous samosa”.
Every element, no matter how small, in the novel’s world opens up to reveal the further worlds stacked up behind, which overall makes this book interesting. This novel is a stirring portrayal of the past and a prescient inspiration of the future.
© 2016 Sulabh Swachh Bharat. All Right Reserved