Sunday, February 24, 2013

Amitav Ghosh - River of Smoke

In our History textbook in school, we had a chapter titled Greater India.  It was about Indians settled in other countries.   How these people came to move away from their motherland and settle in a foreign places is often an interesting story.  How Indians came to mix and match their language and culture with that of their adopted country to create a hybrid culture that was acceptable to them as well as the natives can make a fascinating narrative.

Sea of Poppies was about how a lot of people from various backgrounds find themselves on the Ibis.   River of Smoke starts with a magnificently evocative description of Deeti's shrine.  The Ibis had landed, after a stormy crossing, at Mauritius.  Deeti finds herself in an alien land, with a child, and has to forage for food in the forest there.  On one such sojourn she finds a cave in the cliff overlooking the sea.  This becomes her shrine, where she draws images from her past life.  This is where she starts her family, and establishes a clan.

But we are running ahead.  The story where Sea of Poppies ended continues with Raja Neel.  Raja Neel finds himself along with Ah Fatt, on way to Canton where Ah Fatt hopes to meet his father the great opium merchant Behram Moddie, owner of the grand ship Anahita.  In Canton, we meet an array of new characters.  Behram, his Man Friday Vico, the British and American opium merchants, Charles King, Mr. Lindsay, Dent, Wetmore, Jardine.

Essentially it is about how the East India Company forces the farmer to grow opium in India and then sells it to China to suck the wealth out of these countries.  Unfortunately for the traders, this is the time when the Emperor of China decides to appoint a tough Commissioner to deal with the issue of widespread Opium addiction that was eating into the social fabric of China.  The Commissioner Lin decides to make the traders of Opium pay for their smuggling, both the Chinese and the British.  The Britishers are not used to being dictated to by the countries they trade with and try to strike back.

Caught in this crossfire is Bahram Moddie who has staked all his wealth in this last huge consignment.  It is a trip that will either make him or break him.

Paulette has been taken on by Fitcher, a botanist who is visiting China to look for a rare plant that he has drawing of.  She cannot go to Canton, and has to stay in Hongkong.  She runs into Robin, an old playmate from Calcutta, the bastard son of the celebrated painter Chinnery.  Robin is in Canton looking to broaden his artistic skills and knowledge.  He pledges to help Fitcher and Paulette to look for the elusive plant by tracking the person who made the drawing.  In the process, he writes very illustrative, incisive and entertaining letters to his old friend Paulette.

River of Smoke paints a beautiful picture of the language, food, the clothes, the culture, the way of life of these merchants in Canton.  It is a brilliant sequel to Sea of Poppies which was more like an introduction to the key characters and their backgrounds.

In one of the blurbs the author was compared to Charles Dickens and Tolstoy.  I shook my head after I was done with the book.  This is Amitav Ghosh, he stands in a class of his own.  It is not fair to compare him with anyone else.


Raja Swaminathan said...

Haven't read the book but you've done a great job here of presenting a very vivid description of the story.

It is indeed interesting to visualise how life must have been in another time, in another country. Especially a country like China which has a rich cultural history and a mystique about its past.

Wonderfully reviewed, Ava. And like you correctly say, it isn't fair to compare a writer with another. Each writer stands (or falls) on his own merit (or otherwise). :-)

Ava Suri said...

Thanks Raja. Critics tend to play upon the 'common' attributes of writers. For instance, if there are a lot of interesting characters, the book becomes 'Dickensian', if it is epochal, it becomes 'like Tolstoy'.

Amitav Ghosh's novel stands on its own feet, and deserves to be evaluated individually, not compared.

Smita said...

I am yet to finish Sea Of Poppies....but how come this book has been released without much fanfare?

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

I loved reading this sequel. I loved Sea of poppies and then I loved this even more. I love his books and can't wait to read the final book in the trilogy. Good review Ava!

Ava Suri said...


It was released a while back. Don't know about the fanfare part. In Chandigarh I miss all that stuff. I suppose it goes on in the big cities.

You cannot read this without reading Sea of Poppies. You CAN, but it is better to read it in order.

Try karo. :)

Smitha said...

This is one book, I did not pick up coz some of the reviews haven;t been great. I loved all his other books. Your review makes me want to get hold of it.

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