Three years ago, with the publication of “Sea of Poppies,” his sixth novel, the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh embarked on a trilogy about the experience of emigration, both coerced and voluntary, in the early 19th century. That novel, about the indentured servants press-ganged from India’s Gangetic plain and shipped off to the British colony of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Although he did not win, anticipation surrounding the second volume of this trilogy has remained high.
“River of Smoke” does not disappoint. “Sea of Poppies” ended amid a raging storm, rocking the triple-masted schooner, the Ibis, and its colorful array of seamen, convicts and demi-slaves. Its sequel catches another storm-tossed vessel, the Anahita, a sumptuously built cargo ship laden with opium owned by Bombay merchant Bahram Modi, as it heads to China. In the same waters is the Redruth, on which sails a Cornish botanist looking for rare plants, especially the mythical golden camellia, and assisted by the Bengal-raised French orphan Paulette from the Ibis. But “River of Smoke” requires little familiarity with its predecessor; the Ganges makes way here for Canton, and the protagonists — traders, orphans, imperialists, smugglers, painters and mandarins — live in a different world from the one Ghosh described in his previous volume.
What unites the novels, though, is opium. At the end of “Sea of Poppies,” British opium interests in India were pressing for the use of force in China in the name of free trade. “River of Smoke” fleshes out that story. Bahram Modi (“Barry Moddie” to his British colleagues) hopes his huge consignment of Indian opium will make his fortune in the city where he — the poor son-in-law of a rich family — has reinvented himself as his own master, the secretive boss who inspires the devotion of his staff, the most prominent Indian businessman in Canton’s Fanqui-town, and the lover of a Chinese boatwoman. Through his eyes, the reader sees the Chinese noose tightening on the opium trade as an incorruptible commissioner, the real-life figure Lin Zexu, cracks down on Fanqui-town’s criminal ways.
The narrative is suffused with the rich intercourse of commerce and miscegenation, embracing within its capacious rubric a variety of set-pieces, from a Chinese boat serving authentic Indian fare to an Armenian trader interviewing Napoleon in exile on St. Helena. Though the period detail is meticulously researched and lovingly described, the characters through whom the story is told are largely marginal in the world Ghosh depicts — a half-caste gay painter, an orphaned female would-be botanist, an Indian merchant in a white man’s world. Those who dominate that world — the British citizens of a global imperium — espouse the doctrine of free trade in high-minded, hypocritical rhetoric that masks the amoral venality of smuggling opium (though the novel also gives voice to the handful of Western dissenters).
At times “River of Smoke” reads like a cross between a Capt. Hornblower tale and a Victorian epistolary novel, yet Ghosh’s sharply anti-imperial vision subverts both types. Above all, the novel reclaims a story appropriated for too long by its winners: those who, centuries ago, conquered (or imposed their will on) foreign lands, subjugated and displaced their peoples, replaced their agriculture with deadly cash-crops, thrust addictive poisons on them for profit and enforced all this with the power of the gun masked by a rhetoric of civilization and divine purpose.
And yet Ghosh does so without excessive earnestness, leavening his narrative with nuggets of fact and insight, from the Uighur origins of the Indian samosa to the role of Canton in forging a common sense of an Indian national identity among disparate peoples. The novel celebrates the joys of cultural and culinary mingling, the mongrelization of language in the forms of pidgin and Creole, and the mixing of peoples across old barriers of acceptable sexual and racial intercourse.
These traditions are breached, however, in prose that is largely conventional, even old-fashioned. “River of Smoke” could almost have been written two centuries ago, except that it captures the distinctive voices of these characters in ways that would not have been open to writers of that era. Language becomes a vehicle for representing the mating of cultures, and it’s brilliantly done. What sometimes seemed forced in the earlier book is natural and convincing in this one. (But watch out for a variety of strange terms, such as — on just one page— “swadders,” “buttoners,” “mumpers” and “mucksnipes.” The words “cumshaw,” “gubbrowed,” “mudlarking” and “linkisters” are used so often that you tend to assume you should have known them all along.)
Ghosh’s historical judgments are largely rendered subtly, without any of the sledgehammer effect of retrospective moralism that a lesser writer might have employed. But he is not above the occasional anachronistic cynicism. “Democracy is a wonderful thing,” Bahram observes to a British merchant. “It is a marvellous tamasha that keeps the common people busy so that men like ourselves can take care of all matters of importance. I hope one day India will also be able to enjoy these advantages – and China too, of course.” That’s too tendentious to be worthy of a fine writer.
But the novel’s strengths are considerable, its flaws barely apparent. With “River of Smoke,” Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy is emerging as a monumental tribute to the pain and glory of an earlier era of globalization, an era when people came into contact and collision, intermixing costumes, customs, convictions, consonants, couplings and cash, shaping history all the while through their pettiness, their privations and their passions.
“Do you think they will remember what we went through?” Bahram muses as he watches young Indian Parsis playing cricket in Canton. “Will they remember that it was the money we made here, the lessons we learned and the things we saw that made it all possible? Will they remember that their future was bought at the price of millions of Chinese lives?”
That is a haunting question. And there will be more, undoubtedly, when the final instalment of the Ibis trilogy arrives. I can hardly bear to wait.
RIVER OF SMOKE
By Amitav Ghosh
Farrar Straus Giroux. 522 pp. $28