The second part of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis-trilogy, River of Smoke, turns out to be an expansive canvas containing intricate images of mundane lives in Canton (Guangzhou), the city of love, lust, and pleasure, around 1938-39, the year the First Opium War started. The painting memorializes the Fanqui-town (the settlement of the foreigners) that was destroyed during the Second Opium War (1956-60). Ghosh weaves the core of the novel around the rivalry between the British Imperial power and Lin Zexu, the Chinese Commissioner entrusted by the Emperor with the responsibility of eradicating the smuggling of opium into China.
The novel narrates the journey of a Bombay-based, Parsi entrepreneur, Bahram Modi, to Canton in search of fortune through opium trade and his love for a Chinese boat-woman, Chi-mei. The city of Canton does not merely serve as a backdrop in the unfolding human drama but acts a central protagonist that determines the fate of European, Armenian, and Indian entrepreneurs. Neel, who was a former aristocrat landowner in Bengal and who was turned into a convict by the British on the charges of forgery, jumps Ibis, the ship transporting indentured laborers from India to Mauritius, and eventually escapes to Canton to take up employment with Bahram Modi.
In the first volume of the Ibis-trilogy, Sea of Poppies, which terminated at the Bay of Bengal, Ghosh narrates several characters’ ordinary, impoverished lives changing irrevocably under the impact of British colonialism in India. While the first part ended with the indentured Indian laborers on board Ibis entering the Bay of Bengal, the second part begins with festivities in a make-shift temple atop a mountain in Mauritius. Young and adult alike ask survivor Deeti to recount how men managed to evade the British guards and take to the sea on a boat. This supernatural moment of escape acts as a pivot for Ghosh’s realistic narrative to unfold.
The motif of travel across historical space and time -- the hallmark of Ghosh’s writing -- is rehearsed here, too. The novel narrates the story of three ships -- Ibis, Anahita, and Redruth -- and a body of landmasses -- Great Nicober, Canton, Singapore, and Port Louis in Mauritius. In the process, Ghosh manages to present a grand history of the evolution of these geographical spaces. Take for example, his description of Singapore’s emergence as a major trading port at the expense of Malacca, which had witnessed a cosmopolitan engagement between different races, languages, and religions. The intervention of the British seems to destabilize an older fluid notion of culture as new rigid boundaries are put in place:
[Bahram] began to understand why several businessmen of his acquaintance had recently bought and rented godowns and daftars in Singapore: it seems very likely that the new settlement would soon overtake Malacca in commercial importance. This evoked mixed emotions in Bahram: he has a suspicion that this British-built settlement would not be an easy-going place like the Malacca of old, where Malays, Chinese, Gujaratis and Arabs had lived elbow to elbow with the descendants of the old Portuguese and Dutch families: Singapore had been so designed as to set the ‘white town’ carefully apart from the rest of the settlement, with the Chinese, Malays and Indians each being assigned their own neighborhoods -- or ‘ghettoes’ as some people called them.
The River of Smoke, like Ghosh’s earlier works, e.g. In An Antique Land, traces a pre-/early colonial world where cultures and civilizations seemed to have interacted more fluidly engendering a cosmopolitan environment. While the validity of such cosmopolitan claims could be challenged, it’s fascinating to read the process of exchange and entanglement between human beings before the advent of capitalist modernity that erected boundaries between cultures and civilizations. Ghosh’s narrative charts how dialogues between civilizations rupture once the western notion of Free Trade and profiteering is allowed a free reign without any regard for morality.
Apart from exploring the process of exchange between human beings, River of Smoke narrates the emergence of an incipient global ecological consciousness. Fitcher Penrose-owned Redruth’s voyage around the world in search of rare plants that could adapt and grow in England marks the inauguration of a new way of being global. The botanical explorations also bring to focus the sharp rivalry between the European imperial powers launching expensive undertakings in search of rare plants in places like China that had closed off much of its gardens from harvesting by the Europeans. Along with imperialists, there were botanical entrepreneurs like Penrose who scoured the earth for exotic plant varieties.
Ghosh’s ambitious novel is a capaciously drawn anthropologist’s account. The spacious description serves to create what Roland Barthes had termed a “reality effect,” an illusion of reality of life in an era that can best be recreated through fictional reconstruction. There are numerous moments in the narrative -- e.g., the description of the smuggled dresses in the ‘Wordy Market’ -- that can flag the reader’s interest. However, the innumerable digressions do not help in capturing the unwavering attention of the reader. Yet, at the center of Ghosh’s narrative is a very simple human drama -- the fulfillment of Bahram Modi’s financial success and romantic liaison with Chi-mei, and his eventual downfall. While the history of the Opium Wars has been written and will be undertaken in future, the novel succeeds in depicting the unremarkable lives of people like Bahram caught in the vortex of historical events. It is Ghosh’s unerring human empathy that makes the novel a worthwhile read.
Mosarrap Hossain Khan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English, New York University. He researches in the area of Muslim everyday life in the Indian sub-continent.
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