It has been three years since we read Amitav Ghoshs tale of the Ibis, the battered schooner, navigating the choppy waters to Mauritius with its load of indentured labourers. River of Smoke is the second novel in Ghoshs planned trilogy, picking up the narrative from where it was abandoned; Ibiss cast, crew and destination, though, are now mere adjuncts in the grander quest on the trail of the afeem. A colonial diktat had replaced north Indias verdant fields of crops and vegetables with an ashen sea of poppies, and now we must follow the inexorable logic of the market to arrive at the mouth of the Pearl river delta in Maha-Chin, where opium, the finished product, is consumed in prodigious quantities. And with the Great Manchu planning to throw a spanner in this merry operation of laissez faire, the rumbling of war cannot be far off.
Ghosh unravels his novel amid this tumult of events, and its visual impact on the reader is much like the Chinese scroll paintings that Edward Chinnery, the aspiring artist, discusses in one of his letters to the young botanist Paulette Lambert. A scroll unfolds, he writes, in front of you, from top to bottom, like a story; events, people, faces, scenes unroll as they happened. As a metaphor, it is apt for the fascinating, Dickensian array of characters that have converged in the melting pot that is Canton: the ruthless mercantilist to the fallen feudal lord, the enthusiastic botanist to the sing-song girlies plying their trade.
Except that Ghoshs characters are not broad brush strokes, they are not archetypes of the community or profession they represent but minutely etched figures with varied personal histories, idiosyncrasies and sartorial choices. In their sheer wealth of detail, they are reminiscent of Madhubanis miniatures, a skill the character Deeti in the book had inherited and put to use while recreating the characters on the walls of her Mauritius shrine as an exercise in collective remembrance.
In the character of Bahramji Naurozji Modi, the Parsi trader from Bombay and the owner of the vessel Anahita, the vagaries of the opium trade find full expression. A dutiful father and conscientious husband while at home, it is as Barrie Moddie that he comes alive in Canton, where he is stripped of the multiple wrappings of home, family, community, obligation and decorum. He docks a little further from Canton with his cargo, waiting for the strictures to relax on the sale of opium, and remains utterly unconvinced by the moral arguments that his friend Zadig Karabedian advances against the forcing of opium consumption on Chinas population. ...this is not some helpless little kingdom to be kicked around by others, he says. It is the Bahrams of the world who bear the weight of history, enjoy its fruits and pay its price, Ghosh shows, who tower over the course of events while the Napoleons (his appearance here somewhat contrived) must be reduced to cameo figures.
Given that River of Smoke roughly covers the period from September 1838 to July 1839, it is unwise to expect a blistering pace of narrative. What you get to see and vicariously participate in is the baroque grandeur of Canton, whose exoticism is heightened not just by the fact that it is the farthest a European is allowed to venture but also because European women are proscribed there. Ghosh abandons himself in creating that visual charm; this, after all, is his personal scroll where he must recreate the tamasha that outdoes all others in chuckmuckery. Whether it is the minutiae of the botanical apparatus aboard the Redruth or the wares of the garment market (the stitched selvage and wadmarel, panelled chaopao coats and embroidered chang-fu robes), the descriptions are a treat for the senses.
The ebb and flow in the tides of Bahrams fortune obviously lacks the dramatic tension that had characterised Deeti or Neel Rattans fate in Sea of Poppies; the multiplicity of tongues too, symptomatic of colonial-era churning, might appear somewhat forced after a while. What is far more abiding is the unavoidable resonance evoked by the image of the Chinese artists in Lamquas studio, producing painting after painting in a strict assembly line, the products capable of taking on the best Europe has to offer.
And yet the sense of foreboding cannot be missed, if one keeps in mind Chinas impending capitulation in the Opium War, knowing that by the end of the novel, much of Cantons charm will be reduced to pictorial reproductions. A sensuous feast has just got over, and yet there is no satiety as the fate of the characters hangs in a balance till the next novel.