We’re just halfway into the year, but if there’s one novel in 2011 that will make the pulse race and the mind wonder with sweep, scale, power and a riveting, multi-threaded story, it is Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke. Coming three years after Sea of Poppies, which was the first volume in the Ibis trilogy, the middle panel of the triptych is even vaster, denser with action and richer in backdrop.
Poppies was set primarily in the Calcutta of 1838—the fulcrum of the British empire in the east, where trade was the lubricating agent of colonization—and on board the Ibis, transporting indentured workers to Mauritius, along with convicts. But River of Smoke abandons this centre, for the most part, stretching its action from Mauritius in the West to Canton in the East, with passing cameos by other parts of the world, such as the island of St Helena where Napoleon is exiled after losing the Battle of Waterloo, which puts in an appearance in the novel.
Much of the action continues to take place on board merchant ships—either in mid-voyage, or anchored off the coast of China, as events come to a slow boil in the world’s largest market for the opium that British and Indian traders make a killing on. The line from the poppy fields of eastern India is thus drawn all the way to Canton. Here, local opium dealers supplying a willing population of addicts not only help reverse the trade deficit of the British empire with China—while adding to the wealth of individual opium traders from all countries who’ve joined the gold rush—they also lead the Chinese empire to clamp down on opium imports. The outcome, of course, will be the Opium Wars, in not one but two editions.
Early empire: The Opium Wars form the backdrop to Ghosh’s narrative (Hulton Archive/Getty Images); and (left) poppy flowers in bloom (Thinkstock) .
It is against this tumultuous history and geography that Ghosh brings in the original characters, some directly, some through reference, from Poppies. Among them are the Calcutta zamindar Neel Ratan Haldar, the half-Chinese Ah Fatt, the botanist’s daughter Paulette Lambard, and, of course, Deeti and her second husband Kalua. As with history, the outcome is known at the beginning. Deeti’s sometimes clairvoyant illustrations on the walls of a grotto—harking back to the first stories ever told by man through cave paintings—to which the other actors are invited to contribute, are the route through which family history is passed on. But it is not the “what” but the “how” that mesmerizes in this work.
Powering this “how” is an all-new character, the redoubtable Bahram Modi—who effortlessly becomes Barry Moddie to the motley crew of Europeans populating the novel. A true figure of entrepreneurial swagger and disarming innocence, this opium dealer who has married into a rich Parsi family that finances his expeditions is revealed as the biological father of Ah Fatt, Neel’s former cellmate and current comrade. Modi/Moddie runs through the novel as its energy centre, even though not everything is centred on him or his opium-bearing ship, the Anahita.
River of Smoke: Penguin India,533 pages,Rs699.
The intersection of history with individual lives, with each taking on the contours of the other, is not a new device in literature. But Ghosh stands apart in never trying to separate the two to show off this device. Instead, the individual stories blend seamlessly into the larger events of history, with the imagination of the novelist clearly taking off where dry data ends. The research is immaculate, but at no point does fiction descend into a chain of facts shorn of the surprise and unpredictability that make a novel unputdownable.
The urge to follow each depicted destiny is irresistible. They’re not all about the fates of people either. There’s a botanical quest for a plant that might be the elixir of life. There’s a trail of art and painters. An entire thread of the story is told through letters written to Paulette by Robin, a childhood companion who has matured into gay adulthood and is at the centre of the art-meets-botany story.
The wealth of visual detail, the sound of real voices in conversation, and the authenticity of rituals and behaviour draw the reader into an all-consuming relationship with the text.
This is an action novel in the truest sense of the phrase. Like the classic thriller, the characters are continuously on the move, motivated by the need to survive the crises they are plunged into and still achieve their objectives. But they’re not cardboard cut-outs, obviously—among the most pleasurable ways in which Ghosh drives that home are his lavish descriptions of what they eat and how they dress. Because his characters come from all over the world, the outcome is a sensory feast of tastes and flavours, colours and textures.
The diversity is palpable in the confluence of international cultures at Canton and in the illegitimate children born of liaisons between men and women from different countries, Englishmen and Indian women, or Parsi and Chinese, for instance.
But most of all, it is evident in the use of language. Uncompromising in his intent of letting every character speak the way he would in real life, rather than in a flat register of universally comprehensible—and hence, characterless and dull—English, Ghosh often leaves it to the reader to puzzle over the exact meaning of words used in Mauritius, among Parsis, in Canton, among sailors.
Few reading experiences are as breathtaking as the one of reading an author at the pinnacle of his prowess. Assimilating prodigious amounts of information, speaking in different voices, gliding smoothly in time and space as only he can, and melding unwritten histories of individuals and families into the larger, chronicled history of trade, imperialism, language and war, Ghosh creates an unforgettable world novel.
And best of all, there’s still at least one volume to go before this story is completed.
In six words: ‘Naval’ gazing in the 19th century.
Arunava Sinha translates classic and contemporary Bengali fiction into English.
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