River of Smoke, the latest by the internationally renowned, snow-white haired Amitav Ghosh, has captured the collective imagination of readers as it sails down the Pearl River in Canton, China. The second in the Ibis trilogy on the opium wars between China and Britain, the author takes us across the broad canvas of globalization in that era. It has already topped fiction lists worldwide and deservedly so. The author and his literature have a reputation for being ‘cerebral’ or a tough read for the average reader. Here, we raise some pertinent questions that arise out of this book.
As one skims the pages of this book, what springs out is the attention to detail in characterization and location. Through the vivid depiction of places, persons and events, the author takes us back into time to view a panoramic world history, which is at once intriguing and enlightening. The narrative goes a long way in providing the reader a bird’s eye view of cross cultural influences and free trade in the 1800s. The book has an exciting plot on a grand scale, and gets bonus points for historical accuracy. Ghosh’s time working as an anthropologist clearly shines through as the book is a riveting and discursive history lesson for the interested. Can one ever really relate to experiences where they were not actually present, we ask? Also, as a society, have we forgotten how to empathise?
Interestingly portrayed are the characters in the book who struggle coping with their sudden loss as well as unimaginable freedom. Take for example, the intimate struggles of warm and charming Barham Modi, the Parsi trader battling with the ethics of the opium trade. Great sympathy is evoked for him when he suffers a reversal of fortune, which forces the reader to empathize and duly imagine the anguish he must have experienced. An Arab proverb poignantly says, “All sunshine made the desert”, implying that life is a journey of joys as well as misfortunes. Can the convergence of money and power have unexpected consequences, we contemplate.
Ghosh is an author who wears his love for language on his sleeve. In the first few paragraphs of the book, one is bombarded with obscure words such as “belsers”, “bowjis” and “pus-pus” which add colour and local identity to the conversation of the characters. These are words that not only you, but dictionaries may have forgotten, which makes you reach for ancient dictionaries or make frantic calls to grandmothers. Far too much of the book is laden with these words and unless you have an in-depth knowledge of the root language or a great dictionary, this can be a tiresome read. We ask: Are we losing consciousness of regional words and flavor when opting for books written in pure English? Is our 5000-year old culture suffering as a result of globalization?
The rich detail in this book results in the creation of cinematic shots in the mind of the reader, where we are transported to early 19th century China with literary ease. As we turned the last page and were transported back to 21st century reality, we were overcome with a flood of emotions and questions that are as relevant today as they were in that era. Not only did this take us by surprise, it overwhelmed us; the sign of a great novel. It forces us to question not only the myriad styles and slow evolution of readership in India, but the basis of our chosen morals and circumstantial opinions and decisions.
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