In September 1838 a storm blows up on the Indian Ocean and the Ibis, a ship carrying a consignment of convicts and indentured labourers from Calcutta to Mauritius, is caught up in the whirlwind. When the seas settle, five men have disappeared—two lascars, two convicts and one of the passengers. Did the same storm upend the fortunes of those aboard the Anahita, an opium carrier heading towards Canton? And what fate befell those aboard the Redruth, a sturdy two-masted brig heading East out of Cornwall? Was it the storm that altered their course or were the destinies of these passengers at the mercy of even more powerful forces?
On the grand scale of an historical epic, River of Smoke book two in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy follows its storm-tossed characters to the crowded harbours of China. There, despite efforts of the emperor to stop them, ships from Europe and India exchange their cargoes of opium for boxes of tea, silk, porcelain and silver. Among them are Bahram Modi, a wealthy Bombay merchant, his estranged half-Chinese son Ah Fatt, the orphaned amateur botanist Paulette and a motley collection of others in pursuit of romance, riches and a legendary rare flower. All struggle to cope with their losses—and, for some, unimaginable freedoms—in the alleys and crowded waterways of nineteenth-century Canton.
[Letter to Paulette Lambert from a childhood friend, Robin Chinnery, ‘natural’ son of the eminent English painter, George Chinnery, who lived in Calcutta for many years before moving to Macau, China, where he remained until his death in 1852.]
Nov 7, 1838
Markwick’s Hotel, Canton
Dearest Puggly, I am transported! Canton, at last – and what an age it took! I came in a passage-boat - a most curious vessel, shaped like a caterpillar and just as slow. How I envied the rich fanqui shipowners who went breezing past us in their fine sloops and sleek yawls! I am told the fastest of them can make the journey from Macau to Canton in a day and a half. Needless to say, it took our caterpillar more than twice that length of time, and at the end of it we found ourselves in Whampoa which is yet some twelve miles from Canton.
Whampoa is an island in the Pearl River, and the waters around it serve as the last anchorage for foreign ships. These vessels are not permitted to approach any closer to Canton so here they must stay while their holds are filled and emptied. This is a sore trial for their poor crewmen because there is little of interest in Whampoa other than a fine pagoda: I have the impression that the village is to the Pearl River what Budge Budge is to the Hooghly – a ramshackle cobbily-mash of godowns, bankshalls and customs-khanas. Bored sailors and lascars, marooned for weeks on their stationary ships, occupy themselves by counting the days till their next shore-leave in Canton.
Fortunately one need not tarry long in Whampoa, for there are ferries to Canton at all times of night and day. The river is crowded here with vessels of curious shapes and fantastical designs yet you do not immediately have the impression of approaching a great city. To your left lies an island called Honam: being laid out with gardens, estates and orchards it is exceedingly pastoral in appearance - this too is reminiscent of the approaches to Calcutta where the fields and forests of Chitpur lie across the river from the city. But the number of sampans, lanteas and salt-junks have been increasing all this while and soon there are so many of them lying at anchor on both sides of the river that they are like a continuous barricade, blocking the shore from view. Then, above the masts and sails, appear the city’s ramparts – immense walls of grey stone, capped, at intervals with watch-towers and many-roofed gateways. Calcutta’s Fort William seems tiny in comparison with this vast citadel: its walls run for miles and miles; you can see them rising up a hill and coming together to meet at a majestic five-storeyed tower. It is called the Sea-Calming Tower (is that not the most poetic name?) and I am told that the soldiers who guard it will allow visitors to enter if offered a satisfactory cumshaw: the view is said to be extraordinarily fine, with the whole city lying spread out beneath your feet, like an immense map. It takes only an hour or two to walk to the tower, skirting around the city walls, and I am determined to go – otherwise I will see nothing at all of the citadel. It is utterly forbidden for a foreigner to step through any of the city gates – which does so make one long to go in! Oh well… there is more than enough to see and paint anyway, for all around the city walls there are suburbs –the citadel is but the flagship of the city of Canton and it has a flotilla of lesser vessels anchored around it.
You may not credit it Puggly dear, but the greatest of Canton’s suburbs is the river itself! There are more people living in the city’s floating bustees than in all of Calcutta: fully one million some say! Their boats are moored along the water’s edge, on either side, and they are so numerous you cannot see the water beneath. At first this floating city looks like a vast shantytown made of driftwood, bamboo and thatch; the boats are so tightly packed that if not for the rolls and tremors that shake them from time to time you would take them for oddly-shaped huts. Closest to the shore are rows of sampans, most of them some four or five yards in length. Their roofs are made of bamboo, and their design is at once very simple and marvellously ingenious, for they can be moved to suit the weather. When it rains, the coverings are re-arranged to protect the whole boat, and on fine days they are rolled back to expose the living quarters to the sun – and it is astonishing to observe all that goes on within them. The occupants are all so busy that you would imagine the floating city to be a waterborne hive: here in this boat someone is making bean-curd; in another, joss-sticks; in that one noodles, and over there something else - and all to the accompaniment of a great cacophony of clucking, grunting and barking, for every floating manufactory is also a farmyard! And between them there are little watery lanes and galis, just wide enough to allow a shop-boat to pass; and of these there are more than you would think could possibly exist, for they are manned by hawkers and cheap-jacks of every sort – tanners, tinkers, tailors, coopers, cobblers, barbers, bone-setters and many others, all barricking their wares with bells, gongs and shouts.
Fanquis say the floating city is a rookery for bandits, bonegrabbers, sotweeds, bangtails and scumsuckers of every sort – but I confess that this makes me all the more eager to explore it. It is so very eye-catching that I long to try my hand at a few nautical paintings, in the manner of Van Ruysdael perhaps, or even Mr. Turner (but that would never do, alas, for Mr. Chinnery turns positively green at the very mention of that name).
And so at last to the foreign enclave – or ‘Fanqui-town’ as I have already learnt to call it! It is the farthest extremity of the city, just beyond the citadel’s southwestern gate. In appearance Fanqui-town is not at all as you might expect: indeed it is so different from what I had envisioned that it fair took my breath away! I had imagined the factories would be prettily primped with a few Celestial touches – perhaps a few curling eaves or pagoda-like spires like those that so beguile the eye in Chinese paintings. But if you could see the factories for yourself Puggly dear, I warrant they would remind you rather of pictures of places that are very far away - Vermeer’s Amsterdam or even Mr. Chinnery’s Calcutta. You would see a row of buildings with columns, capitals, pilasters, tall windows and tiled roofs. Some have colonnaded verandas, with the same khus-khus screens you see in India: if you half-close your eyes you could think yourself to be on the Strand, in Calcutta, looking at the bankshalls and daftars of the big English trading houses. The colours are quite different though, brighter and more varied: from a distance the factories look like stripes of paint against the grey walls of the citadel.
The British Factory is the largest of the thirteen; it has a chapel with a clock-tower and its bell keeps time for all of Fanqui-town. It also has a garden in front and and an enormous flagpole. Some of the other factories have flags flying before them too – the Dutch, the Danish, the French and the American. These flags are larger than any I have ever seen and the poles are immensely tall. They look like gigantic lances, plunged into the soil of China, and they rise high above the factory roofs, as if to make sure that they are visible to the mandarins within the city walls.
As you may imagine, already on the ferry, I was thinking of how to paint this scene. I have not started yet of course but I know it will be a stern challenge, especially where it concerns the matter of depth. The factories are so narrow-fronted that to look at them you would think they could scarcely accommodate a dozen people. But behind each façade lies a warren of houses, courtyards, godowns, and khazanas; a long, arched corridor runs the length of each compound, linking the houses and courtyards – at night these passageways are lit with lamps, which gives them the appearance of city streets.
Some say the factories have been constructed in accordance with a typically Chinese pattern of building, where any number of pavilions and courtyards may sit within the walls of a single compound; but I’ve also heard it said that the factories are a bit like the colleges of Oxford and Leiden, with halls and houses grouped around many linked quadrangles. Were I a painter of Persian miniatures, I would paint the façades head-on, and then I would create an angle behind them such that the pattern of the compound’s interior would be made visible to the eye. But it is not to be thought of, for it would be a great scandal: Mr. Chinnery would be horrified and I would have to spend years doing exercises in perspective.
I am getting ahead of myself: I have yet to bring you to Fanqui-town’s landing ghat, which is called – and this is true I swear – ‘Jackass Point’ (the fabled Man-Town must, in other words, be entered through the Point of Jack’s Unspeakable). Yet this suppository is no different from our Calcutta landing-ghats: there is no jetty – instead there are steps, sticky with mud from the last high tide (yes, my darling Puggleshwaree, the Pearl, like our beloved Hooghly, rises and falls twice a day!). But even in Calcutta I have never witnessed such a goll-maul as there is at Jackass Point: so many people, so much bobbery, so much hulla-gulla, so many coolies, making such a tamasha of fighting over your bags and bowlas. I counted myself fortunate in being able to steer mine towards a lad with a winning smile, one Ah Lei (why so many Ahs, you might ask, and never any Oohs? On the streets of Macau too you will come across innumerable young men who will pass themselves off as ‘Ah Mau, ‘Ah Gau’ and the like, and if ever you should ask what the ‘Ah!’ signifies you will learn that in Cantonese, as in English, this vocable serves no function other than that of clearing the throat. But just because the bearers of the ‘Ah’ are usually young, or poor, you must not imagine that they possess no other name. In their other incarnations they may well be known as ‘Fire Breathing Dragon’ or ‘Tireless Steed’ – whether accurately or not only their Wives and Friends will know).
Ah Lei was neither dragon nor steed; he was less than half my size. I thought he would be crushed by my luggage but he hoisted it all on his back with a couple of flicks of his wrist. ‘What-place wanchi?’ says he to me, and I tell him: ‘Markwick’s Hotel.’ And so, following my young Atlas, I stepped upon the stretch of shore that forms the hearth and threshold of Fanqui-town. This is an open space between the factories and the riverbank: the English speak of it as ‘The Square’, but Hindusthanis have a better name for it. They call it the ‘Maidan’ which is exactly what it is, a crossroads, a meeting-place, a piazza, a promenade, a stage for a tamasha that never ends: it is a scene of such activity, such animation, that I despair of being able to capture it on canvas. Everywhere you look there is something utterly strange and ever so singular: a storm of chirruping approaches you, and at its centre is a man with thousands of walnut-shells hanging from shoulder-poles; on closer inspection you discover that each walnut has been carved into an exquisite cage - for a cricket! The man is carrying thousands of these insects and they are all in full song. You have not taken more than a step or two before another tempest of noise approaches you, at a trot; at the centre of it is a grand personage, perhaps a Mandarin or a merchant of the Co-Hong guild; he is seated in a kind of palki, except that it is actually a curtained sedan chair, suspended from shoulder-poles. The men who carry the chairs are called ‘horses without tails’ and they have attendants running alongside, beating drums and clappers to clear the way. It is all so new that you stare too long and are almost trampled underfoot by the tail-less stallions …
And yet it is a tiny place! All of Fanqui-town - the Maidan, the streets and all thirteen factories - would fit into a small corner of the Maidan in Calcutta. From end to end the enclave is only about a thousand feet in length, less than a quarter of a mile, and in width it is about half that. In a way Fanqui-town is like a ship at sea, with hundreds – no, thousands – of men living crammed together in a little sliver of a space. I do believe there is no place like it on earth, so small and yet so varied, where people from the far corners of the earth must live, elbow to elbow, for six months of the year. I tell you, Pugglissima mia, were you to stand in the Maidan and look at the flags of the factories, fluttering against the grey walls of Canton’s citadel, I am certain you too would be overcome: it is as if you had arrived at the threshold of the last and greatest of all the world’s caravanserais.
And yet, in a way, it is also so familiar: everywhere you look there are khidmatgars, daftardars, khansamas, chuprassies, peons, durwans, khazanadars, khalasis and lascars. And this, my dear Puggly, is one of the greatest of the many surprises of Fanqui-town – a great number of its denizens are from India! They come from Sindh and Goa, Bombay and Malabar, Madras and the Coringa hills, Calcutta and Sylhet – but these differences mean nothing to the urchins who swarm around the Maidan. They have their own names for every variety of foreign devil: the British are ‘I-says’ and the French are ‘Merdes’. The Hindusthanis are by the same token, ‘Achhas’: no matter whether a man is from Karachi or Chittagong, the lads will swarm after him, with their hands outstretched, shouting: ‘Achha! Achha! Gimme cumshaw!’
They seem to be persuaded that the Achhas are all from one country – is it not the most diverting notion? There is even a factory that is spoken of as the ‘Achha Hong’ - of course it has no flag of its own.
Neel’s days began early in the Achha Hong. His employer, Seth Bahram Modi was a man of settled habits and his retainers and employees were obliged to arrange their time to suit the Seth’s will and convenience. For Neel this meant that he had to rise while it was still dark, for it was he who bore the responsibily of making sure that Bahram’s daftar was cleaned and made ready in exact accordance with his wishes. The Seth would not tolerate any imprecision in this matter: the room had to be swept at least half an hour before he made his entry, so as to give the dust time to settle; Neel’s desk and chair had to be placed exactly so, pushed against that corner of the far wall and nowhere else. Making sure of all this was no mean feat, for it involved waking and chivying many others, some of whom were not at all inclined to take orders from a munshi as young and inexperienced as Neel.
The daftar was as strange a room as any Neel had ever seen: it looked as though it had been transported to China from some chilly part of northern Europe - its ceiling was high and raftered, like that of a chapel, and it even had a fireplace and mantel.
It was Vico who told Neel how the Seth had come into the occupancy of his daftar. In his early days in Canton, Bahram, like most other Parsi merchants, had resided in the Dutch factory: the story went that in the distant past in Gujarat, the Parsis had been of great help to merchants from the Netherlands – later they, in turn, had offered the Parsis shelter when they began to trade with China. Back in Surat, Bahram’s grandfather too had once had a trading partner from Amsterdam, and it was this connection that had first brought Bahram to the Dutch Factory. But Bahram had never much cared for that hong; it was a dull, solemn kind of place where a loud laugh or raised voice could fetch disapproving glares and even dumbcowings. Besides, as one of the youngest members of the Bombay contingent, Bahram had almost always been assigned the dampest and darkest rooms in the complex. Nor did it add to his comfort that so many other Parsis were living in that Hong - including many elders who believed it to be their duty to keep an eye on him - so when he learnt that a fine apartment had become available in another building, he had wasted no time in going to take a look.
It turned out that the establishment in question was the Fungtai Hong, which was a ‘chow-chow’ or miscellaneous factory. The Fungtai’s frontage was modest by comparison with some of its neighbours. Like all the factories it was not really a single edifice, but rather a row of houses, connected by arched gateways and covered corridors, each building being separated from the others by a courtyard. The houses were not all of the same size: some were small, while others were large enough to be divided into several apartments, each with its own kitchen, godown, daftar, khazana and living quarters. The houses at the rear were generally the least desirable: being separated from the Maidan by numerous corridors and courtyards they were darker and dingier than those in front; some were like tenements and their cell-like rooms were occupied by the poorest of Fanqui-town’s foreign sojourners – small-time traders and money-jobbers, servants and minor daftardars.
The most desirable lodgings in Fanqui-town were those that looked out on the Maidan, but these were few in number since the buildings were so narrow-fronted. They were considered a great luxury and were priced accordingly but even then it was very rare for an apartment with a view to become available. So when Bahram saw that he was being offered a suite that looked out on the Maidan he was quick to put down an advance. Since then, he had rented the same suite on every subsequent visit, adding a few more rooms each time, to accommodate his growing entourage of shroffs, khidmatgars, daftardars and kitchen-staff.
Later, following Bahram’s example, many other Bombay merchants had started to gravitate towards the Fungtai, which was how the factory came to be known as the ‘Achha-Hong’. But the distinction of being the first Parsi to move there belonged to Bahram, and now, having sojourned there for more than two decades, he occupied the best rooms in the building as if by right: his establishment included a godown, a kitchen, a khazana, and several small cubicles and dormitories to accommodate his entourage of fifteen employees. His own apartment was on the top floor, and it consisted of a spacious but gloomy bedroom, a frigid bathroom and a dining room that was only used on special occasions. And then of course, there was the daftar, with its fine view of the Maidan and the river – over the years, its mullioned window had become one of the minor landmarks of the foreign enclave and many an old resident had been known to point it out to newcomers: ‘take a dekko up there; that’s where Barry Moddie has his daftar’.
It was in his daftar that Bahram usually took his breakfast. This meal was an elaborate affair, a ceremony that had evolved over many years: it was presided over by Mesto the cook, and it was served not in Bahram’s private dining room, but on a marble-topped table in a corner of the daftar. Shortly before the Seth entered the daftar, Mesto would cover the table with a silk cloth; then, once Bahram was seated, he would lay before him an array of little plates and bowls, containing perhaps some akoori - eggs, scrambled with coriander leaves, green chilies and spring onions; some shu-mai dumplings, stuffed with minced chicken and mushrooms; maybe a couple of slices of toast and some skewers of satay as well, and possibly a small helping of Madras-style congee, flavoured with ghee, and a small dish of kheemo kaleji – mutton minced with liver. And so on.
Bahram’s breakfast always ended with a beverage that Mesto claimed to have invented himself: the drink was made with tea leaves but it bore no resemblance to the chàh that was commonly served in Canton - indeed it was considered so revolting by the Achha-Hong’s Chinese visitors that the very smell of it had made a couple of them vomit (‘Just look,’ said Vico, disparagingly, ‘these fellows are happy to eat snakes and scorpions but milk they cannot take!’).
Although it was Mesto who prepared the beverage, the responsibility for procuring the ingredients fell to Vico – and this was no small matter, since one of the drink’s most important requirements was milk, a commodity that was harder to obtain, in Canton, than myrrh or myrobalans. The foreign enclave’s sole source consisted of a few cows that belonged to the Danish Hong; since many of the European merchants could not do without cream, butter and cheese, the Danes’ entire supply was spoken for as soon as it had squirted into the pail. But the tireless Vico had discovered another provider: directly across the river from the foreign enclave, on Honam island, lay an immense Buddhist monastery which housed a sizeable contingent of Tibetan monks. Being accustomed to buttered tea and other comestibles that required milk, the Tibetans kept, as a substitute for yaks, a small herd of buffaloes: these were the animals that provided the milk for Mesto’s beverage. He boiled it with a measure of dark Bohea leaves and a sprinkling of cloves, cinnamon and star anise – all this was rounded off with a few handfuls of cheeni, the refined Chinese sugar that had recently become popular in Bombay. The resulting confection was called ‘chai’, or ‘chai-garam’ (the latter being a reference to the garam-masala that went into it): Bahram could not do without it, and tumblers were brought to him at regular intervals, providing the punctuation for the passage of his day.
Like everyone else in the Achha Hong, Neel too was soon looking forward eagerly to his mid-morning samosa and chai-garam.
Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta and grew up in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India. He studied at the universities of Delhi and Oxford, and has taught at a number of institutions. River of Smoke is the second in the Ibis Trilogy, the first of which, the bestselling Sea of Poppies, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2008. Ghosh’s other works include The Circle of Reason, which won the Prix Médicis Étranger Award, The Shadow Lines (Sahitya Akademi Award), In an Antique Land, The Calcutta Chromosome (Arthur C. Clarke Award), Dancing in Cambodia and Other Essays, Countdown, The Glass Palace (Grand Prize for Fiction at the Frankfurt International e-books Awards), The Imam and the Indian and The Hungry Tide (Best work in English Fiction, Hutch Crossword Book Award). He has also been awarded the Grinzane Cavour Prize (2007), the Dan David Prize (2010) and the Blue Metropolis International Grand Prix (2011), all of which are for lifetime achievement.