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While ‘Sea Of Poppies’ focused on the opium trade, with Ghosh sailing the story across so many myriad, interesting characters brought together by that one single drug; ‘River Of Smoke’, the second book in the Ibis trilogy, zeros in on the merchants directly involved with the opium trade in China and how the Chinese Emperor’s strict rules to completely ban its trade affected them.

So, ‘Sea Of Poppies’ ended with the Ibis’ course upset by a storm which allows a few men-including two prisoners- to escape.

The ‘River Of Smoke‘ starts, like the first one, with Deeti in a very distant future(the exact date is not mentioned) in her shrine of images. Deeti reminisces about the images and how each one was drawn by many different people she had known aboard the Ibis. She remembers how Neel had drawn the picture of Ah-Fatt’s father with his ship,Anahita, behind. Ah-Fatt was one of the prisoner on the Ibis and his father was an immensely rich, Bombay Parsi merchant- Bahram Modi.Then the novel goes into flashback tracing Neel’s life after the Ibis. He ended up in Macao and then was able to procure a job as a munshi with Bahram Modi. So he sailed away to Canton where all the opium merchants had their quarters in.

From here on, ‘River Of Smoke‘ mainly focuses on the story of Bahram Modi-his predicament of not being able to sell his latest opium goods because of the tightening Chinese rules against its trade, his manners, his lifestyle, his position in a white dominated world, his desire to be independent economically from his rich in-laws,his love for a Chinese boat woman etc. The characters of the previous book make fleeting appearances such as Zachary Reid and Baboo Nob Kissin. Others characters’ stories like Paulette’s runs parallel to Bahram’s story. An equally more number of characters are introduced in the novel. The most vivid are the the numerous British merchants that are blinded by their contorted ideas of free trade and spend countless evenings arguing about the need for opium’s trade. The other memorable ones include-Vico who is Bahram’s purser, Fitcher Penrose-a botanist in search of the elusive Golden Camelia with Paulette on his ship, Redruth,Charles King-a British who opposes the opium trade vehemently and Robert Chinnery,a famous artist’s son whose letters to Paulette light up the narration every now and then.

Unlike, ‘Sea Of Poppies’, this novel does not meander a lot to other characters’ situations and circumstances but Ghosh weaves them together with Bahram’s problems and the Chinese crackdown on opium’s trade.  However, like the last one, ‘River Of Smoke‘ is suffused with ample of details that are a testament to Ghosh’s love for research in his novels. Canton, particularly the fanqui town, which is the center for the foreign traders but is outside the city limits of Canton itself, is vividly described. Nonetheless, the fanqui town is an animated enclave with all sorts of services available for everyone. It is a self-sufficient enclave. The reader will be left mesmerized by the variety of people, food, clothes etc. They will be caught up in the frenzy pace of its lifestyle and overwhelmed by such a unique, vibrant amalmagation.

River of Smoke‘ ends with the Chinese authorities being able to force the Canton traders to surrender their opium goods which are then burnt by the former. However, the British would not, owing to their colonial superiority, accept such humiliation. Thus the novel ends at a juncture when it is is poised for the opium wars. Infact, after the burning incident, the narration jumps back to Neel in Deeti’s shrine talking about how Kalua and Jodu fought in those very wars. This foreshadows what will perhaps be the focus of the third book in this trilogy.

River Of Smoke‘ is a a beautiful novel which brings together a history of the forgotten, of those who are on the fringes, who were despite their marginalized status affected by the opium trade. The trilogy effortlessly moves from the country of its production to the centre of its trade in China illuminating along the way the hundreds of lives it changed and tied together in a familial sort of manner.

 

 

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Deeti had never been anywhere near the sea. She lived all her live in Bihar, near to the holy river, Ganga. Yet not once did she doubt the cause of her strange vision of a ship-that it heralded a new, lucky destiny for her.

Zachary Reid had worked in a shipyard in Baltimore but had never thought that he would one day be voyaging to different parts of the world in ironically a slave ship, Ibis, that was to be refitted in Calcutta, India.

Raja Neel Rattan, zemindar of Raskhali, knew he was deep in debt but could have never dreamed it would result in his most humiliating downfall.

Paulette had not known any other religion apart from the natural world she was surrounded by.

Kalua, a Chamar, in Deeti’s village could not have foreseen how his life would forever change in one single, impetuous moment and get permanently entwined with Deeti’s.

Babu Nobokrishna Panda was a gomusta, someone who was in charge of transporting indentured migrants. No one could have guessed that he had a deep spiritual side to him as well and that he dreamed of building a temple for Ma Taramony, his spritual guide. He hoped one day she would manifest herself to him and in cherishing these two hopes he managed to secure a seat on the Ibis.

And Benjamin Burham, a self made man, owned the schooner, Ibis.

So what do the above and other many different characters from such a wide range of spectrum have in common? It is the rampant trade in opium during the British rule in India that ties the fates of so many characters together in the widely acclaimed book, ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ by Amitav Ghosh.

Ibis, the schooner mentioned earlier is to be refit for that exclusive purpose-to be able to transport opium from India to China-particularly Canton. It is this very ship whose vision erupted in Deeti’s head. It is this very ship through which all the characters in the novel are fated to meet, mingle and be irrevocably connected to each other.The ship, thus, too becomes a character in the book as important in its role as the opium which it has to carry.

The novel is divided into three parts: Land, River and Sea. In the first part, Ghosh establishes most of the characters’ lives and situations prior to their voyage on the Ibis, with the exception of Zachary who is from the start tied to the Ibis.  Thus we come to know of Deeti having the vision of the Ibis(she doesn’t know then that it is that particular ship) while bathing in the River Ganga. Deeti herself has a farm in which she is forcibly made to cultivate opium by the British. She has a daughter, Kabutri and a husband who is an opium addict and cannot do much work in the farm because of an injury he sustained as a solider. Similarly all the other characters’ backgrounds are quickly summarized along with the action of the plot. The second part follows Ibis’ journey from Ganga to the Black Water. While in the third part, Ibis is on the Black Water smoothly making its voyage across the ocean. There are not many hitches except for occasional rifts between Zachary and the first mate, the discomfort of the indentured labourers and not to mention the fierce storm that lashes the ship in the end.  While on the ship, several more characters are introduced particularly the indentured labourers and the numerous sailors and captains as well as a curiously monosyllabic prisoner addict. This division of the plot clearly shows the importance of the Ibis and fits in with the idea of it being a character in itself.

Going into detail about each and every character will be exhausting and tedious and will suck out the fun of exploring each character while reading the novel. It is suffice to say that ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ delves into the massive reach of the opium trade and how it brought together people that otherwise would have shunned each other because of caste, class, gender, religion and race. This opium is an indelible part of India’s history that ruined many farmers(just like indigo), trapped individuals in its addiction and obviously showered riches on all those who traded and invested in it. It is not different from today’s widespread trickling of drugs to all parts of society that creates drug lords. However, this aspect of our history is ignored and Ghosh does a good job of bringing it back from oblivion by weaving a story around it.

Like ‘Glass Palace,’ ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ too is a pretty much straightforward story with plenty of vibrant, quirky characters from all over the world. It is a compelling story,rich in detail and history, sequential in narration, building up various different situations that culminate on the Ibis. Ghosh’s research shines through in the novel. He enlightens the reader of the lifestyle of 19th century people. However, his tendency to deviate into lengthy unnecessary descriptions plagues this novel too. Apart from that, there are no cons to the story. He does a brilliant job of creating a colonial world obsessed with opium. One critic has even praised Ghosh for his sea/ship descriptions that according to the critic are on par with Melville’s. The profusion of characters does not mar the pace of the book but adds to its vibrancy.

Altogether, ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ is an awe-inspiring novel that throws light on how opium affected a large number of people either positively or negatively. It is massive in size and more so in its stellar story that is bound to enthrall all readers.

Note-‘Sea Of Poppies‘ is the first in the ‘Ibis Trilogy.’ The second book, ‘River Of Smoke’ was released in 2011. Its review is coming up next.

 

Taken from 43things.com

‘The Glass Palace’ written by Amitav Ghosh is a massive account of the lives of several unique, interesting people over the span of a century from about the late 1800s’ to the 1990s’.

The book’s size maybe daunting for many novella addicted readers but it is surely worth perusing. The book’s size should not be a deterrent for reading it because believe me it is one heck of an interesting read!

The story starts with an Indian, Rajkumar, who works in a food shop in Burma and parallel to this story runs the story of the King and Queen-Thebaw and Supalayat- of Burma and the latter’s maids, specifically Dolly. Rajkumar later on goes into the timber business along with Saya John, a close friend of sorts. Rajkumar tracks down Dolly, who had gone to British India with the exiled royal family of Burma. Rajkumar predictably finds her and they predictably get married. The story then superbly weaves itself around their lives as well as their children and other significant people of their lives like Uma Dey, who Dolly had met during her stay in India, Saya John’s son, Matthew; Uma’s sister’s kids-Arjun and Manju and Bela and many more myriad characters. Ghosh closely follows each person’s story but at no point does it get drab or boring. Ghosh takes us into the hearts and souls of each character, giving us intricate details of several emotions, several nuances and much more. The novel also deftly manifests how world events or incidents beyond one’s control affect individuals in a way that they can’t even imagine.

Ghosh uses simple short sentences and keeps it brief yet conveys the intensity of the  situation or the emotions quite marvelously. However at times he tends to run away with unnecessary descriptions that veers off from the actual story.

The best part of the book is that it is soaking, literally dripping with history/past. It brings alive an era gone by, how lives were interconnected even then, how even then the world was globalized! It is extraordinary to see the Burmese and Indian interrelations that operated at that time and how porous those borders were until the British took over.

‘The Glass Palace’ is a multicultural and family saga that stands out because of its beautiful depiction of human lives-their vulnerability, invulnerability, their courage, their emotions, their thoughts, their culture-with so much depth and sensitivity that is hardly seen in many books today. It draws the reader into the story, makes them feel like they are part of that era, that family, that life and culture.

One word that can best describe ‘The Shadow Lines‘ by Amitav Ghosh is-Nostalgia. The opening lines set the tone of the book. It seems less of a novel and more of an elaborate anecdote from a family’s history. Its narration is very lifelike. The reader feels as if the events in the book are being narrated right there orally by an actual person. The book has an old world charm to it and seems authentic.

The Shadow Lines‘ is set in Calcutta and takes one to places like Dhaka, Delhi, London etc. The narrator recalls the events of his life. He recalls Tridib, Ila, his parents, his grandparents. These recollections focus on 1 single event that possibly marred his life. These recollections seem random and purposeless but that is not so. The end of the book  is when these recollections start making sense and the reader understands why the narrator is talking about them. The nostalgia that the book evokes is incomparable to anything I have read. It has a curious sense of history, a tender love for the past and all things familiar in childhood and the good old days. The writing is simple, descriptive and beautiful.

The only con noticeable is the difficulty of establishing a chronology. The narrator jumps from one event happening in the present to another that happened 10 years ago to another that happened about 2 or 3 years ago. There are extracts from different time periods and about different people which can be difficult to piece together.

Other than that, ‘The Shadow Lines‘ is a good book suffused with nostalgia.

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