Conventional wisdom has it that in the age of Twitter long striders in the world of fiction are doomed to extinction. Attention spans have dwindled, the pundits say, brevity is all, and the grand narrative is to be consigned to the trash heap. Well, thank God, Amitav Ghosh hasn’t been paying attention to the so-called experts but has decided to go where his inclinations have led him.
Sea of Poppies, the first novel in his Ibis trilogy, published a little over three years ago, was immodestly large in its ambition and narrative span and was, in a word, a masterpiece. Ghosh has always had an appetite for the big and the spectacular, and writing at the height of his powers, he gave us a book that was chock-full of memorable characters and set-pieces, dialogue that was pitch perfect, and learned yet compelling disquisitions on subjects that ranged from the best way to harvest an opium poppy to how new prisoners were admitted to Alipore jail a couple of centuries ago. The best thing about that novel was how lightly it wore its learning, its grasp of the politics and trade and people of the nineteenth century. It was thrilling, funny, tragic, insightful and fun, and it moved at the speed of a ban—the rogue wave that is to be encountered in the waterways of Bengal.
Naturally, with the bar set so high with Sea of Poppies, there was trepidation that the second book in the trilogy, River of Smoke, would fall short—that it would stumble into that trough that middle sons and middle novels in trilogies often slide into, that it would be good but not great. But Ghosh is too talented a writer, too canny a campaigner, to be caught in such a trap, and the new novel is the equal of its predecessor. There are differences between the two, of course, and I’m not talking here just of things like the storyline and characters but also of the way in which the novel is told. We have all the wonderful things that were woven into the fabric of the first novel—a bewildering array of tongues, a host of characters, the sights, sounds and smells of cities and the countryside, fights and feasts—but here the pace is slower.
There is rather more elucidation than action. This is not really a problem, for it is appropriate to the period in which the novel is set. The only quibble I had was that every so often there would be a break in the narrative to introduce a long letter by the portrait painter, Chinnery, in which the daily goings-on in Canton would be described. This was disconcerting, because while the letters themselves were entertaining and informative, they did interrupt the flow of the book. However, as quibbles go, this is a minor one, and it took little away from my enjoyment of the book.
There’s more elucidation than action in the novel. The only quibble—the narrative breaks too often for Chinnery’s letters. Sea of Poppies introduced us to the opium trade that was one of the key sources of revenue for the British empire in the nineteenth century. Through the eyes of a slew of characters such as the indomitable Deeti (perhaps my favourite character in the novel), Kalua, Zachary Reid, the dashing young sailor out of Baltimore, whom the beautiful Paulette Lambert falls in love with, the Falstaffian Baboo Nob Kissin Pander, Benjamin Bentham’s gomusta, and Raja Neel Rattan Halder, we were shown how the drug was harvested, manufactured, sold and transported to distant markets, enriching a few and ruining the lives of countless others.
River of Smoke takes us deeper into the opium trade, to the final destination of the drug: China. The novel is set in the turbulent time that preceded the first Opium War between the British and the Chinese in 1838, and takes place principally in the city of Canton, where the factories of the foreign tai-pans were situated.
The novel opens with a glimpse of Deeti, whom we last saw as a pregnant young woman, watching terrified as her husband and protector, Kalua, rows into the teeth of a hurricane in a long-boat in a desperate attempt to escape his tormentors on the good ship Ibis. The intervening years have been good to Deeti and we see her now as the imposing matriarch of a large clan. After a brief encounter with Deeti, the action moves to Canton where the massed ships of the great tai-pans are waiting to unload their cargoes of opium. But the emperor of China has finally had enough of the drug that is destroying the lives of his subjects and threatens to take punitive action if the merchants do not immediately surrender their opium. This they are not prepared to do, and the scene is set for a tense stand-off that the author mines with great skill to produce some of the book’s most dramatic moments.
But as with Sea of Poppies, there is much more than drama to be had in this novel. Generous helpings of humour, adventure (the hunt for the golden camellia was a favourite), history, romance, villainy and suspense are expertly blended into the narrative to make for a rich and entertaining read. I for one hope that Ghosh doesn’t make me wait too long for the third instalment of the trilogy—he needs to feed the addiction he has created.
With Amitav Ghosh, a literary writer I’ve stopped reading, the main problem is not even his (laughably bad) prose (A Canton Voyage: Trade And Mix On The China Seas, July 18). When I read his novels, I became aware of the extent to which literary writers I do read are artists and Ghosh is not. But then, that is true of all his St Stephen’s College friends.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
With Mr. Amitav Ghosh (a literary writer I don't read) the main problem is not even his (laughably bad) prose.
When I read Mr Ghosh's novels I become aware of the extent to which literary writers I do read (and who I had never thought of that way) are artists, and Mr Ghosh is not.
But then that is true of all his St Stephen's College friends.
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