Monday, October 10, 2011

On Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke

This essay appeared last weekend in the New York Times as "Fashioning Narrative Pleasures From Narcotic Ones"

No writer in modern India has held a novelistic lamp to the subcontinent’s densely thicketed past as vividly and acutely as Amitav Ghosh. Since the publication of The Circle of Reason in the mid-1980s, Ghosh’s work has been animated by its inventive collages and connections. River of Smoke,  the second volume of his ambitious Ibis trilogy, is the work of a writer with a historical awareness and an appetite for polyphony that are equal to the immense demands of the material he seeks to illuminate.

Like its predecessor, Sea of Poppies, this new novel fashions narrative pleasures from narcotic ones, exploring the fizzing currents of language, politics, trade and culture that swept through the vast opium network operated by the British East India Company in the 19th century. Sea of Poppies was set almost entirely in the cities, harbors and plains of India, the source of the poppies from which the opium was made. River of Smoke takes the action forward to the same opium’s destination, the Chinese trading outpost of Canton.

Although convincing in its reconstruction of early-19th-­century India and revelatory in its linguistic ventriloquism, Sea of Poppies often labored under its own weight. Improbable plot turns too often tied its narrative threads together; its pastiches too frequently lapsed into stretches of creaking comedy. Superficially less dramatic, River of Smoke is much more evenly written and engaging.

It is clear that Ghosh is fascinated by the history of Canton and, within it, of Fanqui-town, a tiny foreign enclave on the edge of a formidable but mysterious civilization that is beginning to resent the corruption of its people by opium. The outpost is populated by traders from around the world (but dominated by the agents of the East India Company) and surrounded by a flotilla of boats that ferry smuggled goods and serve as eating and pleasure houses. Although so small it’s “like a ship at sea,” Fanqui-town is, in one observer’s memorable description, “the last and greatest of all the world’s caravansaries.”

At the center of Ghosh’s story stands a man who owes his life to Canton: Bahram Modi, a Parsee merchant from Bombay. Entirely absent from the first book in the trilogy, Bahram is almost everywhere in the second, and serves as a channel for much of its energy. One of the few independent Indian businessmen in a trade controlled by the East India Company, he is both insider and outsider. A self-made man who has staked his fortunes on one massive shipment of opium, Bahram is paradoxically rich and poor, caught between a group of British merchants who swear by “the elemental force of Free Trade” and a Chinese establishment eager to root out the commerce in opium.

If there is one thing that reveals all the constituent elements of Bahram’s life, it is his language, which is “silted with the sediment of many tongues — Gujarati, Hindustani, English, pidgin, Cantonese.” Probably the most memorable character in all of Ghosh’s fiction, Bahram is captured in every possible mood, from opium-­induced hallucination to boardroom bluster, romantic rapture to Zoroastrian-­inflected philosophical rumination.

Ghosh clearly sets up the events leading to the breakout of the Opium War of 1839 as a mirror to contemporary realities. His British merchants, although fully realized characters, are what today might be called free-trade fundamentalists, adroitly dodging any moral criticism of their position. The force of Ghosh’s ideas and the beauty of his tableaux of Canton are two of the book’s achievements; the semantic ripples of the variety of dialects he folds into the narration are a third. River of Smoke is both a stirring portrayal of the past and, novelistically, a beacon for the future.


Ashutosh said...

I originally read this review in NYT. Snooped around and discovered your blog. Love your writing.

Rangnath Singh said...

Nice introductory review of Ghosh's new work. Liked it.

Pessimist Fool said...

Never read Amitav Ghosh. But I think I would like to read River of Smoke. Can I read this book without having read Sea of Poppies?

Julia Dutta said...

I would say it is better to read Sea of Poppies before reading River of Smoke, since there is a connection. Although Mr Ghosh himself at the launch in Delhi said that RoS is a book on its own, but I think not, since this is book 2 of his ambitious project the trilogy which started with SoP.

Personally, I thought that RoS was no doubt a story that drew up to the Opium War, but it majorly focussed on one life, the life of Behramji and the Parsi involvement with the Opium trade. In that sense, to me SoP was more interesting. havind said that, I would still say, one really cannot give RoS a miss...