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Monday, June 27, 2011

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(Published in The Financial World, Tehelka on 27 June 2011, retrieved from

Author: Amitav GhoshTitle: River of SmokePrice: Rs. 699Publisher: PenguinPages: 553
It’s been a long wait for readers of Sea of Poppies. Exquisitely written and almost bawdily ambitious, that book left us wondering about the fates of five men who jumped ship, and four people who stayed behind. Three years later, River of Smoke answers some of those questions, while throwing up several more.

Sea of Poppies took us into the minds of Deeti, a widow who is saved from the pyre by an untouchable, Raja Neel Rattan Halder, a zamindar who is exiled on a framed charge of forgery, Ah Fatt aka Freddy Modi , his fellow-convict and opium addict, Paulette Lambert, a French orphan who lives on the charity of a new-moneyed British family, Baboo Nob Kissin Pander, the family’s sly gomusta, Jodu, a boatman who was Paulette’s childhood playmate, Zachary Reid, a ‘metif’ – of mixed race – who passes himself off as White and rises to the post of First Mate, and Serang Ali, a former pirate who now heads a band of lascars.

Just as its prequel did, River of Smoke begins with Deeti’s shrine. But now, the timorous, Bhojpuri-speaking bahu is a commanding matriarch who prattles on in Mauritian patois. The people who found their way to the walls of her shrine in Sea of Poppies now make their way to its doors, and as they add their contributions to the Madhubani artwork of its interiors, we find out who their patrons were. In a book that is even longer than its prequel, Amitav Ghosh largely restricts himself to the stories of Neel and Paulette from the cast we know, while lingering on the life of Ah Fatt’s father Bahram Modi.

To know what happened to the rest of the cast of Sea of Poppies, we’ll have to wait for the last book in the trilogy. River of Smoke makes a passing mention of Zachary’s fate, drops a hint about Jodu’s, and somewhere along the way, seems to suggest that everyone – or almost everyone – is reunited with his or her family, at least briefly. There are indications that the relationship between at least two people has changed. Entertaining and informative, River of Smoke builds to a climax which is a tad predictable, but startling in its suddenness.

The crackdown on opium, which would eventually lead to what we now know as ‘The Cutting of the Chinese Melon’, forms the backdrop of the story. The author nimbly knits fiction and history, weaving real-life characters into interactions with the ones he creates, and keeping his audience guessing about which of these are true, which inspired, and which imagined.

This may be the reason for such painstaking detail in Ghosh’s descriptions. Reading about the buttons on Napoleon Bonaparte’s coat, one pictures the General asking a visitor to St. Helena about the Parsi religion and the trade in Canton. The author intersperses a committee’s discussion on British policy in China, with a description of the courses served – regular readers will know Ghosh rarely leaves out his research – and then breaks off from a Chinese magnate’s discussion on opium trade in Canton to describe the delicacy ‘Buddha Jumps over the Wall’. The name of the dish, which sounds like an exotic drink in a contemporary dance club, makes you forget most of the preceding conversation.
The minutiae don’t distract from the subtext, though. China’s singular policy in dealing with foreign powers is subtly compared to that of British colonies. As we’re reading about businessmen who thank their counterparts by gifting them rocks, the Cantonese snack samsa which would yield its Indian spinoff samosa, ropes that hang down from the roofs of taverns to keep drunk patrons from falling down and choking on themselves, and paintings that are manufactured on an assembly line, we are startled by a simple, poignant fact – that the Indian factory is the only one on the Cantonese shore that doesn’t fly a flag, because it doesn’t have one.
While Ghosh compressed multiple lives into the microcosm of the ship in his last book, here he dissects the impact of the events in Canton on its inhabitants. The angst of the colonised seeps through in snide comments such as “Really, there was no language like English for turning lies into legalism”.  
But the most interesting interplay in the book is the balance between racial prejudice and political camaraderie. Democracy is described as a “marvellous tamasha that keeps the common people busy so that men like ourselves can take care of all matters of importance” by a Parsi businessman, whose comment is toasted by a British ship-owner. The Chamber of Commerce that represents all the non-Chinese businessmen in Canton seems to be a melting pot, where racism dissolves in the interest of business investments. However, the illusion is broken when a bewildered young Bombay businessman asks, “We gave all that money for the dinner, and then they call us monkeys and niggers?”
Ghosh leaves you with a grin when Chinese guards watching a game of cricket try to find logic in it. The portrayal of a Frenchwoman’s attempt to speak English by modifying her own language, which ends up startling sailors with innuendo, borders on slapstick, as does the description of an Indian’s understanding of British idioms. But the name of the dictionary Chinese dealers use to communicate with foreign businessmen has one laughing out loud.
Ironically, while omens provided comic relief in Sea of Poppies, as Nob Kissin Pander scours the elements for signs of Lord Krishna’s presence in Zachary, the bad ones seem potent in River of Smoke. One wonders whether this is an attempt to bring out a character’s belief that India is a land where “it is impossible even for the very best men to be true to themselves.”
Verdict:  Definitely one for the bookshelf!


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