Sunday, June 26, 2011

Navigating The Opium Trade

This appeared in today's DNA


Set in 18th century Japan, David Mitchell’s recent The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet dealt with how officials of the Dutch East India Company tried to re-invent themselves by making their fortunes in a trading outpost off Nagasaki. The same subject matter, that of the fall-out of interactions between an insular civilisation and traders from the West, also animates Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke.  

 The second novel in a proposed trilogy that focuses attention on the venal traffic in opium in the 19th century, this re-introduces us to some of the characters from the first, Sea of Poppies, as well as adds new ones. Here, Ghosh turns his ethnographer’s eye to the effects of such trade in Guangzhou, the Chinese city then known as Canton. As with Mitchell’s novel, River of Smoke floods its banks with period detail; this, though often absorbing, comes in the way of narrative flow.

The virtuoso opening set piece fills us in on the life of Deeti, the impoverished widow from Sea of Poppies who, following her husband’s death in an opium factory, had fled her home in Bihar to set sail on the Ibis. That worthy vessel, after weathering a storm, lands in Mauritius with Deeti and other refugees on board. Years later, as the matriarch of her family, the doughty Deeti presides over their frequent visits to a cliff-side shrine, with memories of her flight always prevalent.

Returning to the 1830s, the narrative acquaints us with the person who holds centre-stage for much of what follows: Behram, a canny, middle-aged Parsi trader from Bombay, who’s set sail for Canton on the Anahita with a large cargo of opium. This shipment represents his one chance to decisively break free from the clutches of his wealthy, grasping in-laws back home.

Apparently, the Anahita faces the same storm as the Ibis. Crates of opium burst open in the hold and Behram inadvertently falls into the gluey substance – a rather obvious foreshadowing of events to come. However, it’s when the Anahita reaches its destination that the novel hits its stride. The people, surroundings and ways of life of ‘Fanqui-town’, the foreign traders’ quarter of Canton, are captured with precision and verisimilitude. Be it food, clothes, leisure activities, business pursuits, gossip and more, Ghosh presents scene after vivid scene set in the district’s streets, clubs, markets and factories, where characters swing between the laws of free trade and those of conscience.

Caught in a whirlpool of circumstance, Behram tries his best to profitably dispose of his cargo. Meanwhile, there are other narrative cross-currents, such as those of Neel, the dispossessed potentate first encountered in Sea of Poppies, who now becomes Behram’s munshi. The novel also traces the relationship between Fitcher, English horticulturalist, and Paulette, orphan and budding botanist, another character from the trilogy’s first volume. In addition, the antics of Paulette’s friend Robin, who arrives in Canton on an artistic and botanical pursuit, are recorded in the form of his long, gossipy letters to her about his time there.

The inclusion of these letters is a less-than-successful attempt to vary the novel’s structure as well as sneak in background information on “this crowded, noisy, noisome, voluptuous place we call Canton”. Written in a breathless, exclamatory style, they’re suffused by historical arcana, making the narrative run aground. This is heightened by the inclusion of even more missives towards the end, such as the actual document written by Canton’s zealous, newly-appointed High Commissioner to Queen Victoria.

The patois with which Ghosh packed his earlier novel is in evidence here too; however, it is more controlled and efficient this time around. The characters’ distinctive, disparate speaking styles serve to illustrate both the polyglot nature of the novel’s universe as well as their individual backgrounds. It’s through their dialects that the “sepoys, serangs, lascars, shroffs, mootsuddies, gomustas, munshis” and more are brought to life.

With the avidity of an explorer chancing upon uncharted trails, Ghosh takes the novel off into numerous digressions, some of which are more absorbing than others. These even include a chance meeting between two of the characters with an exiled Napoleon in St Helena: the conversation with the erstwhile emperor serves to bring us up to date with the context of the period, one that was to end, as the novel does, with the imminent outbreak of the so-called First Opium War between Britain and China.

River of Smoke, then, is a novel of some import for its delineation of how the trade in opium served to fuel colonial ambitions – the view from the other side, as it were. Its eddies and swirls are for the most part satisfying to navigate, even though its many tributaries do tend to drain it of energy. As one of Ghosh’s Cantonese characters would have said, this is a book with plenty-big cargo-la.

My earlier review of Sea of Poppies is here. And that of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is here.

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