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The Washington Post
Amitav Ghosh’s ‘River of Smoke’: Stormy sequel doesn’t disappoint
Shashi Tharoor / September 27, 2011
Read the review here:
Chris Patten / June 24, 2011
Read the review here:
The New York Times Book Review
Fashioning Narrative Pleasures From Narcotic Ones
Chandrahas Choudhury / October 7, 2011
Read the review here:
Donna Seaman / October 15, 2011
Spellbinding and astute, Ghosh continues the nineteenth-century historical saga about the opium trade that he launched with Sea of Poppies (2008). This is an even more fluid and pleasurable tale, however dire its conflicts, and stands firmly on its own, though readers shouldn’t miss the first installment. After escaping misery and danger in India, Ghosh’s seductive, motley crew of struggling characters has found some semblance of sanctuary in China. Paulette is discovered living in the ruins of a botanical garden by the famous plant-hunter, Fitcher Penrose. They join forces to search for a rare camellia with help from Robin, who finally finds happiness as a gay man in Canton’s industrious art world. Neel, the disgraced intellectual raja, is working for Bahram, a well-meaning, wealthy, now-imperiled Indian merchant with an illegitimate Chinese son and a doomed opium business. Ghosh’s fascination with the multicultural ferment of Canton inspires thrilling descriptions of everything from local cuisine to the geopolitics of the opium wars. And his delight in language, especially the inventiveness of pidgin, further vitalizes his canny and dazzling tale, which, for all its historical exactitude, subtly reflects the hypocrisy and horrors of today’s drug trafficking.
With one more novel to go, Ghosh’s epic trilogy is on its way to making literary history.
Ananda Bazar Patrika (Bengali)
Supriya Chaudhuri / July 23, 2011
Indian trilogy writer strikes 'black gold'
Chitralekha Basu / 22 July 2011
Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke: A history reclaimed
Shashi Tharoor / 10 July 2011
James Grande / 2 July 2011
‘River of Smoke succeeds through its compelling central character, Bahram Modi, who comes to represent the ethical complexities of opium, empire and trade…he is an enthralling hero, of Dickensian vitality and pathos’
1 July 2011
‘Ghosh’s expertise in assembling surprising facts has been notable since his early books, such as The Circle of Reason (1986), and In an Antique Land (1992). In this trilogy, he has found a voice that fuses research and strong characterisation into a compelling story... Ghosh's language flows with elegance through a wide variety of registers, from dialect to nautical vocabulary to the free indirect style in which he narratives the crisis that is the core of the action...The inventive language lends the characters a life that surpasses mere information; the portrait of India and China as natural allies is highly provocative. Like a shrewd merchant, Ghosh understands that confluences of money and power bring people together in ways their masters could not have expected’
‘This epic saga is an absorbing, magical tale’
Chris Patten / 24 June 2011
The indian express
Write of Passage
India’s most cerebral and celebrated author Amitav Ghosh on his new book, the personality of words and resurrecting lost worlds
Nandini Nair / 19 June 2011
“Words are like toys to me. They are interesting, pleasurable things. They are almost like friends,” says author Amitav Ghosh. In the recently released River of Smoke (Penguin), Ghosh once again does what he does best, resurrecting worlds and reviving languages. While the Ibis sailed down the Hooghly towards the Indian Ocean and headed for Mauritius in Sea of Poppies (2008) , his new book, set in the 1830s, sails out to the Pearl river in Canton, China.
This second volume of the Ibis Trilogy tells of Parsi trader Bahram Modi, whose personal fortunes depend on China’s decision to ban the illegal import of opium, which brings slow and certain ruin to its citizens. Aboard the Anahita as Bahram battles with the ethics of opium trade, onboard the Redruth, Paulette, a feisty French orphan, who travelled in disguise on the Ibis, hopes to find a rare kind of flower. Most of the older characters have silently slipped away but a few like Neel, the erstwhile maharaja, appear with renewed vigour, as he becomes Bahram’s munshi in this volume. Through intimate stories of people, this book provides a larger exploration of cross-cultural influences, inter-national politics and free trade.
Ghosh believes he shares similarities with Neel, as together they ponder over the “kismat of words”. In The Ibis Chrestomathy, which Neel pens late into the night, he tracks the fate of words that have sailed from the east and have been naturalised into English. Ghosh explains, “Neel is someone who I know deeply — his love for words, his interest in etymology. We share the same pleasure in discovery.”
Ghosh revels in words like a child frolicking in the snow. He marvels at their shape, throws them in the air, tastes them on his tongue and sculpts them into different forms. Deeti, a leading character in Sea of Poppies, a village woman from Bihar, who escaped on the Ibis, speaks a mixture of Bhojpuri and Kreol. “Bon-dye! Are you a fol dogla or what? Don’t be ridikil: the whole thing, from start to fini took just a few minits, and all that time, it was nothing but jaldi-jaldi, a hopeless golmal, tus in dezord,” she cries in indignation in River of Smoke. Bahram speaks a strange diction of pidgin with Chi-mei, a Chinese washerwoman and his lover. In one of their first meetings, Chi-mei asks him, “Mister Barry? Catchi, no catchi sing-song girl?” He replies, “Mister barry no wanchi sing-song girl. Wanchi Li Shiu-je.”
Even while admitting to reading dictionaries for pleasure, Ghosh clearly doesn’t believe in them. “Words, like the lives of people, are lived in context,” he says, “each word has its own personality.” With context providing meaning, Ghosh has forfeited glossaries and the italicisation of “foreign” words. He opts instead for an authenticity where people speak a mishmash of languages, governed by the heat of emotions and the sounds of their environment rather than the rules of grammar.
If Ghosh enjoys performing sleight of hand with words and juggling grammar, he carries a similar sense of play within him. At 54, he takes his work but not himself seriously. His halo of white hair and black-framed glasses add gravitas to his rubicund face and ready laugh. Embarrassed easily, the red rises quickly in his face. When, first a rope, followed by a window cleaner suddenly slide down the glass pane of a seven-star Delhi hotel, he immediately takes out his phone and shoots a photograph. “This place is surreal,” he says, enjoying the interruption.
The pleasure Ghosh derives from life around him and worlds long lost, wafts through River of Smoke. Set up as historic fiction, it recreates China and the traders of the early 19th century with the precision of a figurative painter. Detailing the heady fragrance of wisteria blooms, the grandeur of the “palace-boat” (Anahita) or the products at the “Clothes Market”, where everything from penis sheaths to Sulu skirts to Bengal saris were bought and sold — Ghosh creates cinematic shots for his reader.
The acknowledgment section provides only a preview of the countless collections of Chinese state papers, accounts of the opium war, and encyclopaedias on gardening that he pored over to create this realism. His sources stretch to bibliophiles who contact him through his website, offering help with maps and ledgers. As an author who writes with the eye of an anthropologist, does he worry that the breadth of his research and the multitude of details could overwhelm the story? “I am worried now,” he says, breaking into a merry laugh, “Maybe my books should come with a blurb reading, ‘This is not a happy romp in the playgrounds of culture.’” Waiting for the chuckles to cease, he adds, “I just put in the stuff that interests me. In a sense, the world I’m writing about doesn’t exist anymore. I have to assemble it brick by brick. When you write fiction, you have to persuade your readers that this place existed in the sounds and smells. That can’t be done by only staging the plot.”
In a small, delightful section in River of Smoke, he describes an encounter between Bahram and Napoleon in 1816. Bahram is on his way to England on the HCS Cuffnells and crosses paths with Napoleon Bonaparte who has been exiled. “...Bahram took the opportunity to observe the General closely. His build reminded him of one of his mother’s Gujarati sayings: ‘tukki gerden valo haramjada ni nisani — a short neck is a sure sign of a haramzada.’ But he noted also his piercing gaze, his incisive manner of speaking, his sparing but emphatic use of his hands, and the half smile that played on his lips.” While Ghosh might take a few liberties in conjuring the General, he does so within the confines of facts. While researching at the Greenwich Maritime Museum, he came across the diary of a trader, who sailed on the Cuffnells, from England to Canton, and arrived at Cape Town, there he heard of Napoleon’s exile. Much of the Napoleon scene draws from that diary. “You can’t think up such stories,” says Ghosh with a twinkle in his eye.
As an author of more than 10 books who wrote his first novel before 30, he has grown accustomed to the hoopla that follows the release of his books. But he is no veteran of it. Nor is he a regular at the numerous literary festivals, where authors go to be seen. Even while admitting these events form a part of the world that he belongs to, he says, “I would much rather not go.” He seems happier drinking cups of Darjeeling tea and sitting directly in the draft of the air conditioner.
He obliges the requests of photographers and mediapersons, but given the slightest chance, he slips his hands back into his Nehru jacket and retreats into a spot of shade. When asked to strike an artificial pose, he retorts “What will my readers think?” When a fan appears with a bag of six books authored by him, he willingly autographs each one. The admirer leaves and Ghosh says to no one in particular, “What would one do without one’s readers?”
While he studied at Delhi University and worked at the Indian Express in the late ’70s, Delhi has fallen off Ghosh’s map. He now divides most of his time between the waterfronts of Goa and the alleys of Brooklyn in New York. He still remembers his apprenticeship at the Indian Express, where he read proofs in the print room and covered the higher education beat. He would be told to make an article from a municipal councillor’s press release. “It makes you inventive,” he says warmly.
Belonging to a middle-class Bengali-speaking family, India has been the essential terrain of Ghosh’s literary works. However, India, which provided the anchor to his early books like The Circle of Reason (1986) and The Shadow Lines (1988), has become a subterranean presence in his later works, which he says maps his own life as he spends longer and longer periods away from here.
But for Ghosh, India is not merely a geographic shape on a map. Instead, India is an entity changed by Indians outside. He explores this through the role Indians in South East Asia played in India’s freedom struggle in The Glass Palace (2000). While the writings of many Indian authors, especially those from the diaspora, are awash with issues of identity and belonging, Ghosh’s characters are seldom perplexed by their in-between position. “I do not understand what identity means. I don’t have a single identity. People in India have multiple identities. Identity is not what it’s about,” he explains.
Taught the alphabet by his mother, Ghosh has been reading ever since he remembers. Living in his private universe of books and writing, he keeps a distance from the numerous reviews and essays on his work. He feels that engaging with those voices takes away from his autonomy. His wife, fellow author Deborah Baker, reads the first draft of all his books, but he doesn’t want other critics’ voices buzzing in his head. “When I feel my writing days are over, I will read everything the critics have said,” he says, breaking into a smile, “Yes...I hope that day is very far away.”
The second part of Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy mixes historical insight with terrific storytelling
Tim Adams / 19 June 2011
Amitav Ghosh conjures plotlines out of trading routes, which, in his supple and compulsive imagination, come magically alive as the conduits for human history; they effect the exchange not just of silk and silver but of language and love and enmity. Perhaps the only element lacking from this second book in the "Ibis Trilogy" which, when complete, will be a peerless account of the mixing of peoples in the lands that border the Indian Ocean during the years of the opium wars, is a map on which you might trace the various ill-fated voyages and personal quests and commercial ventures that form the cat's cradle of the novel's structure.
It begins as all seafaring tales should, with a raging storm. Three very different vessels have been caught up in it: the Ibis, a slave ship of convicts and labourers en route from Calcutta to Mauritius; the Anahita, carrying the biggest ever shipment of raw opium west to Canton; and the Redruth, a Cornish brig with a crew of plant-hunters and cargo of rare flora. The stories of these three ships run first in parallel before intertwining in unexpected and intriguing ways. The first part of this trilogy, the Booker-shortlisted Sea of Poppies, mostly followed the opium trade down the Ganges to Calcutta; here Ghosh shifts most of his focus to Canton, the floating and ephemeral city in which the covert opium market fuelled British colonialism and brought China reluctantly into the emerging politics of the world.
We see Canton's network of alleys and harbours and islands through many eyes, but it is first brought to life by Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium merchant out of Bombay, who is using the destructive and illegal trade to both emphasise his independence from his wife's overbearing family and to pursue his passion for a young woman who lives on a sampan in the floating city. Canton's Fanqui-town, where Bahram establishes a waterfront house, is the home of adventure and possibility, the place where men go to reimagine themselves. Ghosh has a gift for both establishing this long-forgotten excitement and for exposing its implications. At their best his tales marry the storytelling brio of something like the Hornblower books with an acutely nuanced sense of historical detail and cross-cultural insight.
This latter quality is embedded in the perfectly pitched use of dialect and language. One of the many byproducts of the opium trade was the spread of English across the subcontinent and beyond. Ghosh allows you to witness the birth of local variants of language, in the sudden desperation to communicate of lovers and traders (the word "pidgin" itself, we are reminded, comes from a Cantonese mishearing of "business"). These literal Chinese whispers furnish the novel with its richness and invention, and much of its comedy. The plant-hunter Fitcher Penrose, on a typical journey both for wealth and knowledge, brings his Cornish vowels into the mix as a way of describing the world but they compete for attention with the miscegenated cadences of all Ghosh's other inventions. Sometimes Bahram Modi, or his estranged son Ah Fatt, seem lost for words, but circumstances force them into articulation.
This twisting of tongues energises all of Ghosh's writing. It allows him to engage with quiet irony in the official rhetoric of the British Chamber of Commerce in Canton and to pass it off as one style among many. The book in this way engages with the broader sweep of history, in particular the complex chain of events that led to the first Anglo-Chinese opium war of 1838, without ever allowing you to forget the ways in which these headline facts had myriad and tragic consequences for millions of individual human lives. What begins, for the likes of Bahram Modi, in possibility and freedom, ends in chaos and embargo, with the trade stalled by the Chinese emperor's determination to rid his country of an opium plague and British desperation to defend the financial engine of colonialism. On one level, the novel that arises from this formative geopolitics is a remarkable feat of research, bringing alive the hybrid customs of food and dress and the competing philosophies of the period with intimate precision; on another it is a subversive act of empathy, viewing a whole panorama of world history from the "wrong" end of the telescope. The real trick, though, is that it is also fabulously entertaining.
18 June 2011
Chasing the dragon.
‘Mr Ghosh conjures up a thrilling sense of place’
John Harding / 17 June 2011
‘Ghosh’s novel is a tense, compelling account… The accumulation of minutiae puts the reader so firmly in the time and place that the whole thing becomes as hypnotic as an opium dream and pretty unputdownable’ – John Harding
The Telegraph - UK
A richly detailed panorama of the Opium Wars
David Robson / 16 Jun 2011
Amitav Ghosh’s novel is over 500 pages long and comes without a glossary. Yet, in the first four paragraphs alone, readers are expected to make sense of “pus-pus”, “palki”, “paltan”, “bonoys”, “belsers”, “bowjis”, “salas”, “sakubays”, “bandobast” and “gardmanzes”. How many are going to make it as far as the fifth paragraph?
The sad thing is that, once Ghosh has stopped looting the dictionary for words that time forgot, he tells a fascinating human story with some skill. River of Smoke is a sequel to Sea of Poppies, Booker-shortlisted in 2008, and the second instalment of a trilogy focusing on the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century.
After a muddled opening in Mauritius, most of the novel is set in Canton and anatomises the power struggle between the Chinese authorities, determined to stamp out the opium trade, and the British and other merchants whose opium-laden ships have converged on the city. The cynical pursuit of self-interest by the British who, when not organising cricket matches or lavish banquets, are making vast profits out of drug-trafficking, places the novel squarely in the anti-colonial tradition. But Ghosh is too intelligent a writer to get on his moral high horse. His novel is not a rant, but a panoramic history, rich in period detail and peopled with plausible characters.
The most complex is Bahram, a genial Parsee merchant from Bombay who is keen to flog his last consignment of opium before the prohibition takes force. He has a half-Chinese son, from whom he has become estranged, and an occasional weakness for opium-enhanced sex; but in his fundamental decency, is a far more sympathetic character than his fellow traders.
The orphaned Paulette, who is accompanying a Cornish botanist to China on an expedition to track down the mythical golden camellia, provides another interesting strand.
His taste for obscure words aside, Ghosh can be a rather ponderous storyteller. Far too much of the book is taken up by windy letters from an English painter. But there are some nice comic touches, mainly involving characters talking pidgin English, and moments of real lyricism.
Best of all, Ghosh, through the depth of his research, lightly worn, has captured the many cross-currents of a fascinating historical period.
Radio New Zealand
Tina Shaw reviews 'River of Smoke' by Amitav Ghosh.
15 June 2011
John Thieme / June 2011
‘For those who like to see history bought alive through the deployment of wave upon wave of plausible detail, River of Smoke should prove a marvellous read’
Mariella Frostrup / 12 June 2011
Mariella Frostrup talks to the award-winning author Amitav Ghosh about River of Smoke, the second book in Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy, set in the waterways around Canton during the events leading up to the start of the First Opium War in 1839.
Tessa Hadley / 11 June 2011
Amitav Ghosh's second part of his historical trilogy is a marvel.
Canberra TimesA lavish linguistic salmagundi
Language is clearly a glorious obsession for the author, considered by many to be one of the top Indian writers of the day. River of Smoke is the second volume of his Ibis Trilogy, following the successful Sea of Poppies, short-listed for the Man Booker prize in 2008. His highly successful historical fiction combines an exciting plot, historical accuracy and marvellous local colour. Delving into the Anglo-Indian dictionaries one discovers that the pidgin English spoken in Canton and other Chinese trading ports, contains many words that both emanated from, or later entered, Indian languages. Portuguese phrases and the French Creole spoken in Mauritius add to the salmagundi. As well as linguistic or philological observations, the author puts wry remarks into the mouths of his characters, such as, "Really there is no language like English for turning lies into legalisms".
Language is but one of the intriguing facets of the book, which is a rollicking tale set in tempestuous times in the first quarter of the 19th century. Ghosh paints brilliant pictures of landscape and interiors, costume, customs, plants, food and art. Whether listing the courses in extraordinary Chinese or Macanese banquets, describing the perfumed wisteria pavilion at a plant nursery or detailing the scene inside the atelier of a famous Cantonese painter, his vivid, often humorous prose transports the reader to salivating over the food, inhaling imagined scents or sighing at fascinating scenes.
Descriptions of art techniques are particularly good stencils used in Chinese paintings or the migration of a folk-art tradition from Bihar to the walls of a cave shrine in Mauritius; the accuracy seems faultless and the enlivenment a delight. The extraordinary coincidences which punctuate the story seem never contrived,
couched as they are in such rich narrative.
The novel's background is a storm at sea in the Bay of Bengal and the lives of some of those who survive it as passengers on three different ships. One vessel carries a cohort of indentured labourers, another, the largest consignment of opium ever to leave India for China, and the third, a nursery ship from England, has a plantsman passenger intent on collecting a return cargo of Chinese horticultural treasures. The voyages of discovery sail from Mauritius to Bombay and Calcutta, to Hong Kong and Canton, and even include a flashback vignette of St Helena and a meeting with its most famous resident, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Historical characters blend seamlessly with those invented, lending truth to fiction and the novel is one long, discursive and delightful history lesson. The letters to his friend Paulette, written from Canton by Robin Chinnery, the supposed son of the famous artist George Chinnery, are amusing and gossipy and a foil to the more serious accounts of meetings of the foreign merchants. They live in an all-male society; foreign women are not allowed to enter the port. Some find solace, in fact true love, with Chinese women; others resort to dancing with each other when the fiddles strike up after dinners at the Chamber of Commerce. The livelihoods of the taipans as importers of opium is threatened by the arrival in 1838 of Commissioner Lin, newly appointed by the Emperor, with the express purpose of putting an end to the trade.
Not to put too fine a point on it. the foreigners are smugglers of the drug which threatens China as it ruins tens of thousands of lives, and one is not allowed to forget these important facts. Commissioner Lin's 1839 open letter to Queen Victoria on the subject is quoted. In this tinder-box atmosphere, where free trade and Christianpiety are the hypocritical watchwords, the letter had no effect whatsoever. One feels no sympathy for the greedy traders in their turmoil but the character of Bahram Modi, the Parsi Seth, has real warmth and charm. He, like other personalities, real and imagined, has risen from humble origins to an important role in history but, like others, he will suffer a great reversal of fortune.
During the blockade of Fanqui-town, the foreign enclave of the town, some of the young Parsi members of the Achha Hong or Indian trading house are introduced to cricket and vow to start a "native" club on their return to Bombay. In fact, the Parsi community were the earliest enthusiasts and the first official cricket match played by Indians in India was between a Parsi side and a European one in 1877. Details, such as the improvised Canton cricket match, lend a personal realism to the book with links to the present day. Its a cracking good read.
In another life Claudia Hyles would like to have been a 19th-century plantswoman in China and India.