River of Smoke
By Amitav Ghosh
Penguin Rs 699/-
Finally, Amitav Ghosh’s sequel to Sea of Poppies, universally loved by all, is here. I couldn’t wait to get my grubby mitts on a copy of River of Smoke, given how Sea of Poppies was filed in the unputdownable category by yours truly. This book, the second part of a trilogy, takes the story ahead from the first book which took us down the Ganges to Kolkata tracking the journey of poppies to opium. This book goes to Canton in China, the destination of the processed opium. Like the previous book, this too is set in the early 19th century, with the Chinese authorities trying vainly to prevent the illegal entry of opium into the country, with the drug creating an addiction epidemic in the country, boffering the income of the British traders.
There is an immediacy in Ghosh’s narrative that takes the reader into the moment, not as an observer but as a participant of the events unfolding, whether it is a cyclone taking a group of indentured labour and slaves off a slaveship to a deserted island, or whether it is a seaman falling slick into a shattered hold of opium turned liquid due to the rain. The amount of incredible research gone into this work comes through in the detailing that the narrative is infused with.
The novel begins in a raging storm, appropriate perhaps, considering this is a novel about seafarers. There are three vessels caught in the storm, the first is a slave ship called Ibis which is destined for Mauritius from Calcutta, the Anahita, with its cargo hold full of raw opium for China and the Redruth, a brig with planthunters and a cargo of treasured and precious rare plants.
The language is hybrid, dialect, pidgin in parts, slang in others, and forces the reader to stop, ponder over a word and then proceed. And yes, these pauses do detract from the smoothness of the reading experience.
The reader is taken through the lanes, alleys and islands of Canton. This is primarily, the story of Bahram Modi, the opium trader who has established a home for himself on the Canton waterfront, his passion for a young lady who lives on a sampan, and his desire to rise above being the lowly son in law married into a rich family and his estrangement from his half Chinese son. The embargo against the opium trade imposed by the Chinese government, concerned about a population that was succumbing to the lure of the drug, and the events that lead upto the Anglo Chinese opium war of the 1838 forms the larger political backdrop against which the events of this novel are placed. Woven into the narrative is the orphaned Paulette, who is accompanying a botanist to China to track down an elusive flower, the golden camellia.
There is no eulogizing, just the telling of a story, an interesting if a rather complicated one at that. And for the sheer mastery of the tale telling, this is a book you must read, though it may take much stopping and mulling over words to do so.