Thursday, 22 September 2011

“River of Smoke” by Amitav Ghosh – Book Review

The empire building that took place on such a grand scale from the eighteenth century until the middle of the twentieth century went hand in hand with the development and promotion of trade, commerce and industry by the empire builders. Some of the trade and industry that developed during the course of empire building was good. Some were not. The slave trade and the opium trade were two of the most evil trades which flourished in that period. In both these, the empire builders were ably assisted by the people they had subjugated. The slave trade could not have been carried out so efficiently without the assistance of the Arab intermediaries and African slave-catchers. Similarly, the forced cultivation of opium in India, at a terrible cost to the Indian peasantry and the dumping of that opium in China required the active support of many tens of thousands of Indians and Chinese and many of those Indian and Chinese intermediaries grew rich and fat from that evil trade. Many of Mumbai’s philanthropists, well-known names like David Sassoon, Pestonjee Wadia, Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy, Jamsetji Tata, were all involved in the opium trade, which was where they made their money before moving on to different things.

The second book in Amitav Ghosh’s historical trilogy on the opium trade, River of Smoke, continues from where Ghosh had left off in the first book, the Sea of Poppies. Some of the characters who were on the Ibis can be found in the River of Smoke, which commences with a setting in Mauritius before moving to Canton which it stays almost until the end. Just as in the Sea of Poppies, Ghosh’s latest offering is crammed with jargon, slang, characters and cross-cultural currents. Europeans might be in charge at Fanqui town, but Ghosh makes sure that subaltern voices are also heard, as loudly as that of their masters. Equally loud and clear is the voice of the Chinese mandarins, especially that of the High Commissioner Lin Tse-hsu, who is sent to Canton with a specific mandate to put down the opium trade which is costing China dear. Ghosh’s respect for Commissioner Lin at times changes to breathless awe and admiration. The novel ends with a standoff between Western merchants in Canton and the Chinese mandarins, which will soon lead to the Opium War (1839-1842).

Seth Bahram Modi, a self-made man and the most successful Parsi merchant in Fanqui town, plays the lead role in the River of Smoke. Bahram transports his opium in the Anahita, a ship built in Bombay by Parsi ship-builders, which Ghosh tells us is a sleek and elegant three-master that regularly outruns the swiftest British and American made opium carriers. Bahram lives life King-size. He eats well, dresses well and can claim to have met Emperor Napoleon along with his Armenian friend Zadig, while Napoleon was imprisoned by the British at St. Helena. Yes, Ghosh takes his readers to St. Helena and the meeting with the Emperor. And unlike other Indians in Canton who carve for Indian food and make a bee-line to Asha-didi’s boat for some curry, Bahram Modi or Barrie Moddie as the Westerners call him, is shown to enjoy all the local delicacies including sugar-cane sweetened caterpillars.

Bahram makes it to the Committee, the Chambers of Commerce which represents Western merchants in Canton, the only Indian merchant on it. The Western traders who occupy Fanqui town are a colourful lot, dancing with each other and many of them have a close male Friend since western women aren’t allowed into Canton. When they aren’t eating or drinking or dancing, they invoke the principles of free trade to fight the mandarins who try to keep opium out of China. The fact that opium can’t be sold in Britain cut does cut much ice with the merchants who refuse to comply with Chinese laws since “it has been the custom for Fanqui town to govern itself”. Bahram is very much in tune with the Western merchants, though he is man with a heart and does feel guilty about what he does.

At one point, we hear Bahram crib about how India’s ship-building industry was all set to overtake the British, but was then destroyed by the British through protectionist laws. Ghosh doesn’t elaborate on this point and though it makes sense to avoid even more digressions, I was a bit disappointed. It is well-known that India’s textile industry was destroyed by the British who imposed high tariffs on clothes manufactured in India and dumped in India relatively cheap textiles produced by British mills. However, can the same be said for India’s shipping industry which never really made the transition from wooden sailing vessels to iron-clads powered by steam?

In case, you wondered about the name, the River is the Pearl River, which runs through Canton and the Smoke comes from the opium (I guess). Towards the end of the novel when Commissioner Lin confiscates all the opium held in stock by the foreign merchants in Canton, I expected him to burn them and create smoke, but no, he instead has the crates opened, all 20,381 crates worth many hundreds of tons of silver Ghosh tells us, the balls of opium broken, mixed with salt and lime and thrown into water filled trenches, from where they will mix with the waters of the Pearl River. There is no smoke and in case you are worried about the pollution, Commissioner Lin has written “a poem, a prayer addressed to the God of the Sea asking that all the animals of the water be protected from the poison that will soon be pouring in.

What I liked most about the River of Smoke is its clutter. What I didn’t like most about the River of Smoke is also the clutter. In addition to the Anahita, the River of Smoke has another ship, the Redruth which carries a botanist named Fitcher collecting specimens of flowers and plants from Cornwall to Canton. Quite a bit of space is devoted to Fitcher and those around him who spend all their time collecting plant specimens or paintings of plants. Other than Fitcher and the painters, there are a number of characters who are not guilty of the opium trade, but are around anyways. Especially since many of the local Chinese use English names, after a while I got really mixed up about who’s who. A list of characters at the end (or beginning) of the book would have definitely helped.

Ghosh has tried desperately to link the River of Smoke to the Sea of Poppies, but I just couldn’t see the point in starting the novel in a wind-swept corner of Mauritius and then taking us to Canton, where the book stays till the very end of this 550 page tome, when we go back to Mauritius for the last few pages. In the Sea of Poppies, we saw British agents force Indian farmers in the Gangetic plains to grow opium to the exclusion of all other crops, and buy it from them at very cheap rates. However, the opium which Bahram transports to Canton on the Anahita is not opium from Bengal, but freely grown opium from the Malwa which was then ruled by Maratha states such as the Scindias and the Holkars, subject to British suzerainty. It makes sense in a way, since with the exception of a few Bagdadi Jews such as David Sassoon, the Parsees were the most prominent among Indian opium merchants. It wouldn’t have made sense to have Bahram transport Bengal opium, unless he was based in Kolkata and the Parsees trading in opium were all based in Bombay, weren’t they?

I liked the River of Smoke more than the Sea of Poppies which I thought had an unrealistic ending. I found the last hundred pages of River of Smoke to be especially gripping as the tense standoff between Western merchants and the Chinese mandarins went on. However, the River of Smoke ends on a rather tame note. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading the concluding book in this trilogy.

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