(Published in the Business Standard, June 17, 2011.)
River of Smoke
Viking/ Penguin India
533 pages, Rs 699
And yet, it is also so familiar: Everywhere you look there are khidmatgars, daftardars, khansamas, chuprassies, peons, durwans, khazanadars, khalasis and lascars.”
Letter to Paulette from Robin Chinnery.
In 1917, the Bengali writer Sharat Chandra released the first part of an epic, overstuffed and energetic novel that would become a classic of its times. Srikanta would keep its readers engaged – and waiting – till 1933, when the last instalment was published. Amitav Ghosh is kinder to his readers; it’s taken just three-and-a-half years for the second volume in the Ibis trilogy.
For those who were drawn in by the zest and exuberance of the first volume, Sea of Poppies, and were familiar with Srikanta, there may have been echoes of Sharat Chandra’s classic novel. Like Sharat Chandra, Mr Ghosh possesses an inexhaustible curiosity about voyages, migration and travellers; like Sharat Chandra, he is fascinated by the largely overlooked story of the East’s discovery of the East. In Srikanta, there’s a telling passage where the narrator boards ship for Rangoon, literally propelled into the unknown by his co-passengers: “The mighty stream of Punjabis, Bengalis, Madrasis, Gujaratis, Marathas, Afghans, Chinese, Marwaris and Biharis gushed into the cavern with the force and turbulence of a mountain cataract.”
In Sea of Poppies, Mr Ghosh served notice as we set sail on the Ibis along with him that he was intent on using the stereotypes of the past to draw an entirely new fictional landscape. The opium den so beloved of a certain generation of Western travel writers transformed into the opium factory seen from the point of view of the workers; the sati that shows up as an exotic, barbaric ritual worthy of horrified fascination in Jules Verne’s Around The World In Sixty Days is reimagined from the point of view of Deeti, a young woman who narrowly escapes her intended pyre. As Mr Ghosh marshaled his massive cast of characters and reimagined the Opium Wars (the view from the Orient, if you like), he often used his historian’s eye for detail to explode or explore what lay behind the clichés.
River of Smoke is as exuberant and as crammed with characters, set-pieces, wordplay, historical footnotes, history lessons, colourful dialogue and epistolary pyrotechnics as its predecessor. The Ibis, with its crew of girmitiyas destined for lives of indentured labour, has been caught in a cyclone, and in the first few chapters, Mr Ghosh pours something of that ferocious energy into a breathless updating of plotlines as the action shifts from the Indian Ocean to Canton’s 19th century waterways. Paulette, the orphaned amateur botanist who can pass for Bengali, stays largely offstage, as does Deeti, whose future serenity in the face of considerable odds is, however, hinted at.
Much of the story is carried by Bahram, the Parsi opium trader from Bombay, who provides the necessary view into the politics of the opium trade. Another perspective is offered by Robin Chinnery’s letters to Paulette, but while the letters have the verve and accuracy you might expect from an author who has attended closely to the Chinese Repository and the Canton Register, they feel like a clever and very artificial plot device — an easy way of giving the reader the potted history of Canton and the Opium Wars. It’s a clunky way to take you to Fanqui-town.
But there’s no need to get into a spudder. The glee with which Mr Ghosh ransacks Hobson-Jobson, lascar’s dictionaries, pidgins, creoles, patois and odd dialects might have the unwary reader’s head going gidigidi, but if you no-savvy a particular line, the next paragraph will probably have a sufficient cumshaw to make your labours worthwhile. At its worst, when several dictionaries collide on the same page, the linguistic foreplay brings to mind Edward Lear’s immortal poem, The Cummerbund: “She sate upon her Dobie, – / She heard the Nimmak hum, – / When all at once a cry arose, – / ‘The Cummerbund is come!” At its best, this gleeful reinvention of the English language is too muchi good inside.
If River of Smoke doesn’t make the same impact as Sea of Poppies, that’s inevitable — the second volume of most trilogies is where you enter the broad, placid mid-river stretch, and where there’s more explication than action. Some readers will miss the characters they’d grown attached to in Sea of Poppies, and despite a judicious rash of hangings, gunboat raids and the fear over the fate of Fanqui-town as the Chinese clash with the Europeans, River of Smoke is sometimes becalmed, sometimes sagging under its own weight.
What it does offer is a deepening, alternate view of history — specifically the Opium War, but in a broader sense, of the history of the East. The multiple characters and his love for the rapid digression give Mr Ghosh a way of representing the 19th century trade wars via a rainbow coalition — this is history seen, as in almost all of his novels, from the perspective of the ordinary, overlooked bystander.
The motley crew whose competing stories are pulled together in River of Smoke are offering more than just entertainment. Over a century ago, G A Henty wrote swashbuckling stories of adventure and skullduggery where the natives were always the villains, the white men always the heroes. Mr Ghosh’s crammed-to-the-gills cabinet of wonders presents the view from the other side. When this also includes plausibly presented origin stories for the game of cricket or for chai-garam and other clever bits of bandobast, it makes for a splendid tamasha.