“Amitav da smart accha, chop chop bookie writie”, is how a lascar in the Chinese sea port of Canton would have reviewed Amitav Ghosh’s ‘River of Smoke’, or at least that is our understanding of the pidgin described by the author in this book. This is part two of the Ibis trilogy which began with the ‘Sea of Poppies’.
The book, however, is less of a trilogy in the sense of a set of familiar characters moving to another geography or period setting and having a fresh set of experiences . Most protagonists of this book are newly introduced and the personalities of the one’s retained are so altered by circumstances that they might as well be completely different people. Having said that, the book can be considered a part of a continuum if we move away from the human characters and consider Opium and the East India Company as the protagonists of the Trilogy. The first book dealt with the production of Opium by the East India Company along the sleepy planes of Ganga while this one takes us to the hustle and bustle of Canton, then, one of the busiest trading ports of the world.
The book is set in the period just before the Opium wars which, believe it or not, was a war undertaken by the British Empire to free the Chinese people from the tyranny of their Qing Emperor who, horror of horrors, was not allowing the British to freely sell opium in China.
The story is largely narrated from the perspective of Behram Mody a Parsi trader from Mumbai. Behram, or Barry Moddie to friends, is your run of the mill anglicized Parsi who peacefully co-exists with the British and becomes one of the biggest Opium traders of Mumbai. He does not actively share the British doctrine of ‘Opium as a path of liberation for the Chinese’ but, like any self respecting business person, chooses not to think about the ethics and morals of the business. Also, like any other self respecting trader of the time, he has a Chinese mistress who also serves as an important part of his attachment to Canton. Another narrator is Robin, a flamboyant Bengali boy with an eye for other pretty boys. His narration is in the form of letters written to Paulette, a character carried over from the earlier book.
The book describes in vivid details the lives of the foreign traders, not allowed access to interiors of China, who had to conduct their business from Canton. The author describes the social and personal lives led in the 13 Hongs or factories, one approximately for each nationality, that formed the Fanqui Town or foreigner’s enclave in Canton. The build up to the Opium wars is described with a large number of characters including the villainous gora merchants, the canny Parsi, the tradition bound Chinese traders, servants and lascars, strict mandarins, kind Armenians and even Napoleon Bonaparte.
A historian by training, Amitav Ghosh does good job of transporting the reader to the Canton of the early 19th century. The language is colorful, sometimes to excess, with large doses of Hindi, Bhojpuri and Bengali thrown in. The book is nicely paced to keep the reader engrossed.
The book, however, might not rate very high as a literary offering. Not that I am very proficient in that kind of a critique, but to my mind the book lacks a fluidity and depth encountered in a more literary work. This book is more of a pulp offering, designed to appeal to a broader audience, like a bridge between the Chetan Bhagat end to Rushdie & Seth end of the Indian writing in English. That, in a way, could be the reason behind its commercial success.
All in all a nice read that I am rating 3.5/5.