Tuesday 25 October 2016

A Canton Voyage: Trade And Mix On The China Seas

A cosmopolitan world, born of the maritime opium trade, pulsates with life
The River Of Smoke
By Amitav Ghosh
Hamish Hamilton/Penguin | Pages: 568 | Rs. 699

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.

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