Reading between smoke & water

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Amitav Ghosh is raising an amphibious memorial to the Opium Wars.  Arul Mani reads the second instalment in his Ibis trilogy

 Amitav Ghosh
Second round Amitav Ghosh
Photo: Dayanita Singh

TO SEE the available volumes of the Ibis trilogy as historical fiction and to thus prose endlessly about sweep and canvas is perhaps to travesty what Amitav Ghosh has achieved. ‘Good’ historical fiction is marked by a happy lack of ambition — it confines itself to making reassuring gestures towards the past and so implicitly affirming the solidity of the present. River of Smoke uses the past to make several oblique comments on the present — the noisy British defence of trade in opium as free trade serves only to remind the reader of similar contretemps in recent times.

This second volume of the trilogy opens with what seems like a general-issue expedition to a faraway temple, many years after the events described in Sea of Poppies (the first volume). Deeti, who chose indentured labour over local grief in the first book, is now a silver-haired matriarch in a remote corner of Mauritius, who shepherds her large family to their shrine up a forbidding tangle of rocks. We are offered tantalising hints of what happened after the company on board the Ibis parted ways (some reunions have occurred, apparently) — and so there’s a healthy curiosity about many things for which no explanation is offered. The shrine turns out to be a cave that Deeti once took refuge in, and the act of worship is an en famille effort to recapitulate family history aided by the charcoal drawings that she and various others of the Ibis have put up on the walls of the cave.

This effort leads, inevitably, to another story. Ah Fatt of the Ibis is the son of Bahram Modi, a Parsi merchant from Bombay who sets out on his customary journey to Canton, China, on board the Anahita, having staked his fortune on a huge opium consignment. Bahram’s desire to make a killing and be his own master is the prism through which we view the quarrel between Britain and China over the sale of opium. Bahram’s story is intercut with those of three others from the Ibis — the dispossessed zamindar Neel becomes munshi to Bahram; Paulette Lambert finds a surrogate father in the taciturn Cornishman Fitcher Penrose and sets off on a botanising expedition with him; while Robin Chinnery travels to Canton in the hope of finding the love he seeks without fear of stricture or intervention and writes long, chatty letters to Paulette detailing his exploits.

The idea of the past remade through language receives far more play than we saw in Sea of Poppies. What results is a world illumined by the rich clash of dialects and inter-languages

Ghosh’s desire to give our comfortable assumptions about past and present a good shaking is visible also in his setting the narrative’s burden upon characters on the social and moral peripheries of their own worlds. Robin Chinnery must leave India behind to find what he coyly calls “a male friend”. Paulette Lambert’s unladylike desire for knowledge and professional competence requires her to embark on similar journeying. Bahram and his friend Zadig must escape respectability and can find themselves only when they muster up the courage for disreputable unions.

Another ambition that Ghosh has much success with is revealed early in the novel. Deeti’s arrival into narrative mastery takes the form of a raunchy hip-rubbing dance between her native dialect and the French-inflected Creole of Mauritius. Lines such as “It was so dark nothing was visib except when the lightning flashed — and tuletan the rain, coming down like hail, and the thunder, dhamakdhamak- dhamkaoing as if to deafen you” make for simply the best moment of ventriloquism in fiction I’ve come across in a long time. The idea of the word made flesh, of the past remade through language, receives far more play than we saw in Sea of Poppies. What results is a world illumined by the rich clash of dialects and inter-languages — Fitcher’s Cornish locutions, the stately prose of the incorruptible Commissioner Lin Zexu, appointed to curb opium trafficking, the fustian spluttering of British merchants, Bahram’s stilted English and the supple lobpidgin that serves as an extension to lovemaking with Chi-mei, the boat-woman in Canton who becomes his mistress.

River Of Smoke Amitav Ghosh Penguin 588 pp; Rs 699

The past is remade for us also in sundry moments of illumination. Unknown bits of history ambush us. And thus we learn that Hainanese junks stopped over regularly at Great Nicobar to pick up birds-nests collected by local tribes, that devilish attention to detail was required for transporting opium, of the mysteries of composting on board ship, of the Uighur origins of the Samosa, of how the gardens of China changed botany worldwide, of what a ship’s comprador did to make a living, and the fascinated horror with which the Chinese circulated stories of Europeans using handkerchiefs to transport snot.

In talking of colonisation, Ghosh offers several skilfully muted moments of critique. The Chinese emperor chooses to be guided by the good of the people rather than by profit and is surprised that the British don’t extend this consideration beyond those of their own country. My favourite bit in the book is what we might call a moment of national consciousness. Neel’s first encounter with this sort of thing happens as an excess of shared shame — when he realises that the stench of opium clings more closely to people like him than to any other kind of alien.

What are we to make of a book like this? Some clue may be found in the acts that bookend the narrative. The novel ends, as it began, with a moment of memory-keeping. Neel finds a painting by Robin Chinnery of Canton as it was, before it was remade by the British following their success in the Opium Wars, and pays more than he can afford to buy it because nobody would believe that such a place existed otherwise. In seeking the restitution of lost memory, Ghosh achieves for the reader an amphibious life, one that may be lived equally in history and fiction.

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