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Saturday, 26 May 2012

On reading ' River Of Smoke'

How do we define a good book...I read somehwere most probably in High School..some books are to be swallowed, some to be chewed..but Google is there..let me find out the complete quote..

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

                                                                     Sir Francis bacon

It has been a week I have finished reading ' River Of Smoke' and was swept in the after effects a few days more. Yes many books are there..to be tasted swallowed etc etc and some books just defies all dimensions..not only transports the soul to a roller coaster ride through the lives of the characters, it,s just that opening a page just changes the backdrop at once..I move back around two hundred years in time in a country I have never been and am caught up in the tornado of events. 

I have read Amitav Ghosh before and more or less loved all the books. The Hungry Tide was specially dear to me because of the riveting experiences of Sundarbans..the mystries of the mangroves..and the chemistry between the leading characters Fakir and Piyali.

The Sea Of Poppies was the first in Ibis trilogy, tale of opium being cultivated in India, rich fertile lands meant to yield crops turned into narcotic hubs by selfish traders, the plight of  Raja framed by the shrewd British , oblivious to the finances of his estate lands in Alipore Jain Calcutta,and then the story of Deeti and Kalua social outskirts eloping to find themselves deported to Mauritius along with other slaves in Ibis.

River Of Smoke came second in the trilogy. I delayed reading this book as I did not want to get in the Ibis world yet too soon..the plight of the deportees, being caged like animals, suffeing bouts of sea sickness stuck in the underground of Ibis..their dream of escape. Yes 'River Of Smoke' did begin from where Sea Of Poppies ended..the journey of the fugitives of Ibis yet Ibis gets off the centrestage in the turn of events before the reader realises  and Redruth and Anahita occupies the  seaward voyage.

In a subtle progression of the narrative the Ibis and its characters take the backstage pushing forward  a new city Canton unfurling like a book in the eyes of readers, Canton and fanqui town .. the ' pidgin' language ( I think Ghosh,s uniqueness lies in mastering the languages and dialects, be it the language of lascars in Sea Of Poppies, or " pidgin" in River Of Smoke). Foreigners.. American, Europeans and yes Indian traders ( Indian trader to be precise) flocking in the city, shipping their cargoes, cargoes full of opium cultivated in India, joining hands with local merchants to smuggle the shipment, ruin two counties India  and China and bask in the glory of reaping huge monetary benefits and all these being the ' loyal subjects of Her Majesty, Queen of England' 

Canton (Guangzhou) , Pearl River

Canton, now Guangzhou on the bank of Pearl River, the boat city..it is in one of the boats where protagonist Bahram Modi meets the love of his life Chi mei. Bahram stands as the ironic facet of the novel being noble generous,foresighted Persi businessman on one hand yet having quintessential  business heart, hideous affects of opium escapes his vision rather the fame the riches that opium brought him obscured his vision. Opium has given him the identity he has lost living with his tycoon brother in laws and conglomerate in law family. He stands apart from the other shrewd European merchants smuggling narcotics in this land they love and the land which has loved them back but..as he himself realises later he sold himself to ' Ahriman' the Zoroastrian demon whom he loathed in his prayers all his life.

The book illustrates the backdrop in minute details ,city of Canton , Maidan , fanqui town where foreign merchants reside and sets the pace to a thriller like extent.The Chinese resistance an ,effort to save the eroding country under effect of opium , the bunch of greedy East India Company merchants finding ways to smuggle the drug through the alleys of the city , their high and mighty attitude of being ' British'  being proud to turn Indian farmlands into opium fields and China as a potential ' market'. The thriller grips the reader, other sub plots, of Paulette the botanist and her quest of Golden Camelia faints as the main plot takes over and the reader feels as much inclined as the Chinese authorities to oust the greedy merchants save a country from corruption from the claws of this killer drug.

The abrupt end of Bahram Modi surrendering his huge cargo under the pressure of Chinese authorities and another ploy by English merchants for the beginning of a war brings about the anti climax. The loss of the war by the Chinese , more smuggling after the British victory just would draw the long sigh from the reader and the total fall of fanqui town where the friendly Chinese and foreigners all enjoyed the ' Law of Free Trade' being turned into British colonies and the equation was now of the ruler and the ruled.

Ghosh never attempted to pass judgement on history, just the turn of events pointing to the stage of history crying for justice, justice for the Chinese  being poisoned with the drug , for the Indians starving despite having vast fertile lands, lands without paddy and wheat, lands full of the narcotic flower.

The critic may have several points up his sleeve but I cannot help but revel in reading a book which has brought life to a phase of history, a neglected part of history being relived with feelings and emotion. Well just felt thankful to Amitav Ghosh for this River , smoky hazy but he led the readers to lift this veil , sail through the river and embark on a new journey across its banks.