Monday, July 11, 2011

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh: A Review

By John Cheeran
Amitav Ghosh is a highly persuasive writer. Unhurried narrative and an eye for detail make him compelling reading. The second of his Ibis trilogy, The River of Smoke, is a long novel at 535 pages but Ghosh succeeds in taking you along the voyage and the slow unfolding of the standoff in Canton between Chinese authorities and an assorted group of merchants who swear by the supremacy of free trade at any cost.
The River of Smoke fills in you with the buildup towards the first opium war between Britain and China in 1839. China had an ambivalent policy towards opium trading in Canton, encouraging British and Indian merchants to operate in connivance with a section of Chinese traders. When the emperor realised that drug addiction was reducing his subjects into zombies he wanted to bring in import restrictions. It threatened the existing commercial relationship between Britain and China.
But what sustains the interest of the reader is the story of Bahram Seth, the Parsi trader, who has taken the biggest gamble at a now-or-never moment in his life to take a huge cargo of opium to Canton. Bahram has been trading in opium with Canton merchants for long, he is familiar with the tics and twitches in the Chinese system and has a yen for making money. But this voyage in 1839 from Bombay to Canton was against heavy odds, starting from the ominous signs at his home and entreaties of his wife Shireenbai, then the storm that destroys the figurehead of his ship Anahita and loss of a large chunk of the cargo.
Though another ship – Redruth, carrying plants and flowers—is there in the sea, it is only to illustrate the unfolding Canton picture.
Yes, Ghosh persuades you to take a stand against the profiteering spirit of English traders in Canton but it is the fate of Bahram Seth that keeps you turning the pages. Bahram, too, is in league with British traders but by painting a fuller picture of the Parsi merchant --his relationship with a Chinese boatwoman and a son he cannot acknowledge in public and the machinations of his brothers-in-law back in Bombay --- you are made to empathize with him. Bahram wants to sell this load of opium at any cost even though he admits to himself that he has sold himself to Ahriman by doing something that is now declared illegal by the Chinese authorities and new commissioner Lin.
With no prospect of selling his cargo and commissioner Lin making plans to destroy the whole load of opium, with little hope to rebuild his life, Bahram muses while watching his nephew playing cricket at the maidan in Fanqui Town. “Will they remember that it was the money we made here, the lessons we learnt 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?... Was it just for this: so that these fellows could speak English, and wear hats and trousers, and play cricket?”
Sea of Poppies did not have a heroic, tragic figure as its mast and that did take away the emotional frisson from it. In River of Smoke, long after the siege of Canton was resolved, Bahram refuses to leave you. He lets you drown in a river of smoke.

No comments:

John Cheeran at Blogged