Harvest of poppy

Harvest of poppy

Lead Review

Harvest of poppy

“The more I think of my painting, the larger it becomes: there are so many people here who simply cannot be left out.”

So confides Robin Chinnery, a character in Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, River of Smoke, to a friend. Robin is an artist and while he muses on his masterpiece, the one that will win him eternal fame, the author of this novel tells his story, a vast one, teeming with people and stories that also just cannot be left out.

The starting point is Mauritius, surrounded by turquoise seas, and from there the novel sails on eastwards, to the islands of the Great Nicobar where the paths of two pairs of characters diverge only to meet again in Canton, by way of the islands of Singapore, Macau and Hong Kong.

Simultaneously, other ships set sail, setting into motion other threads of the story: one from Bombay with a precious load, making its precarious journey across to Canton, and another, a botanical one, focused on its search for the holy grail of plants — the golden camellia. Naturally, their paths cross soon enough and are entangled.

It is the time of the opium trade. The business has been a lucrative one, one that has richly rewarded the men who controlled it, British, Chinese and Indian alike. Trouble brews on the horizon, however: the Chinese Emperor, impatient of the havoc and destruction this drug has wreaked on his people, is taking drastic measures to stop its import.

These portentous rumbles from the Imperial Court do nothing to deter the men who trade in the powerful opium; there is so much money to be made in its trading that they cannot believe it will ever be stopped.

One of these men is Bahram Modi or Bahramji Nawrozji Modi of Bombay; he has sunk all his savings, and more, into carrying a cargo of opium larger than any before and as he sets sail from Bombay, the reader sails along with him. A storm and many moons later, Bahram arrives in the bustling port of Canton.

This is a world, a trade, known well enough from the usual historical accounts but the surprise the author offers the reader is a fresh set of eyes to see it through — not British or Dutch or Chinese eyes, but Bahram’s and a point of view that has been missing so far, that of Indians and more particularly, of those Indians deeply involved in the trade of opium.

Having persuaded the reader to look at historical events differently, the author now leads him into the exuberant, bustling world of Canton’s Fanqui town. The business of so many different kinds of people living in close proximity here — British, Dutch, Chinese and the largest group of all, the Indians or Achhas, as the locals call them — and the subsequent meeting, mingling and often, colliding of their cultures creates an implosion of energy that lifts up the arc of this long story.

With vivid details of daily life in the factories, as the various embassies are called, accounts of the politics between their residents and brilliant descriptions of the other worlds that float around these — the gaudy flower boats on the water offering all manners of entertainment, the kitchen boats where even Bengali food could be found, and the innumerable islands off the main city — Ghosh creates a fascinating world that tantalises the reader. Robin Chinnery puts it well when he says, “...it is as if you had arrived at the threshold of the last and greatest of all the world’s caravanserais.”

One of the most delightful consequences of all this mingling is the curious fusion of languages that emerges. With great skill, the author treats the reader to not one, but many such hybrid languages. In Mauritius, Deeti, the matriarch, goes on about things “difisil” and “ridikil”, while in Fanqui town, Bahram wants everything “jaldi, jaldi” and is often “gubbrowed” when he does not get what he wants.

On the Pearl River, all desires can be met by boat people calling out endlessly, “Wanchi this..? Wanchi that..?” Still, the most delicious moments are not those created by these mutated words but by the gaps that language often creates; Bahram’s incomplete understanding of the English the Englishmen around him employ, and his clumsy handling of it make for unforgettable memories.

Once, when asked about his health, he replies, “My health is pink.” Another time, when the talk was of bending like a willow, instead of breaking like an oak in an impending storm, Bahram applauds, saying the speaker had “..shot the bullseye.” He went on to say that, willow would be better for now, “why go for oak already?”

In the gaps between the main streams in the novel, the author slips in other stories. The botanical ship, under its master, Cornishman Fitcher Penrose sends Robin Chinnery into Canton to look for the golden camellia and he discovers not just plants, but the rather secretive world of artists who paint in the studios of Canton.

Then, there is Ah Fatt, the illegitimate son of Bahram Modi, at once in awe of and resentful of his rich father; another fugitive is Neel Rattan Haldar who, as Anil Munshi, is now part of Bahram’s household.

Yet, for all its wealth of detail and complexity of plot, the major strength of this book is the human warmth of its characters. An especially sympathetic one is Bahram Modi, Barry Moddie as the Europeans call him, who actually carries the story through.

It is difficult not to be drawn to Bahram with his warm, generous nature; here is a man hard headed and astute enough to be a successful tai-pan and at the same time, a man who feels a kinship with all the men and women in his world. His munshi, Anil Munshi, describes him well, “...it is also true that amongst those close to Seth Bahramji there are few who do not love him.” He goes on to explain why, “...for if there is one thing I know about the Seth it is that he has a large and generous heart.”

Bahram Modi and others like him, the living, breathing characters that populate this immense story, ensure that the reader is drawn right into the heart of the book. They also are the reason that long after the events described in the story are played out, the reader will remember them again and again. That, after all, was what the author intended — that the story not be lost in the haze of history, but remembered.