It is difficult to watch the fall of your hero. I have been a devoted fan of Amitav Ghosh for long and until recently it has been an immensely satisfactory voyage with him. As an erudite novelist he reached a certain creative height with The Glass Palace (2000) and then continued to enthrall us with The Hungry Tide (2005) and Sea of Poppies (2008). But River of Smoke – his latest and the second book in his promised Ibis trilogy after Sea of Poppies – is an absolute disaster.
Sea of Poppies traces the journey of opium from the poppy fields of a remote village in North India to Calcutta via the famous Ghazipur Opium factory. There is a rich cast of characters starting with unfortunate but strong-willed house wife Deeti. She escapes from immolation at her husband’s funeral pyre with the help of a lower caste man, Kalua. Fear of persecution forced the couple to run away and finally sign up as indentured labourers bound for plantations in faraway Mauritius. They reach Calcutta to board Ibis, commanded by a black American, Zachary Reid or malum zikri to his crew – who is fighting his own battle for identity. Then there is the former Raja (actually a large zamindar) of Rashkhali, Neel Rattan Halder. Accused of forgery, Neel has been sentenced to indentured labour in Mauritius. He is joined in the prison cell of Ibis by a half-Chinese, half-Parsi Ah Fatt. We meet evangelist opium trader Benjamin Burnham and his colourful agent Babu Nobokissen. Burnham is also the man behind the sham trial of Neel. Then there is the orphaned daughter of a French botanist, Paulette and her Bengali brother Jodu. Midway through the voyage, Ibis faces a severe cyclonic storm. When the storm subsides it comes to light that Kalua (who was accused of some misdemeanour and made a prisoner onboard), Neel, Ah Fatt and Jodu are missing along with some of the crew members.
At the beginning of River of Smoke, we find an ageing matriarch Deeti presiding over her brood in a trip to her “temple of memory” in some corner of Mauritius, where every significant incident and character of her life have been drawn in charcoal sketches. After this till the very end, where she makes a brief re-entry, there is no trace of Deeti or for that matter, other passengers of Ibis. But the reader stumbles here at the very beginning itself – the author empties out entire Hobson-Jobson on the hapless reader and then garnishes it further with Creole and patois.
The real story of River of Smoke is actually that of a Parsi merchant, Bahram Modi, father of Ah Fatt. Bahram, poor son-in-law of an illustrious family has now risen to become the pre-eminent Parsi merchant in China trade. His ship Anahita is handcrafted by his father-in-law, the leading ship-builder of Bombay – here is a side story clearly inspired by the real life story of famous Wadia master-builders of Mazagaon (today’s Bombay Dyeing family). Anahita in this journey is carrying the largest ever opium consignment from Bombay to Canton. After much trial and tribulations, Bahram manages to meet his son Ah Fatt in Singapore, learns about the unfortunate death of his Chinese “wife”, takes Neel as his new Munshi and reaches Canton. Paulette is the only other passenger of Ibis to feature in the main narrative. She manages to get a botanist’s job on board another ship Redruth, which is also headed towards China but its aim is limited to botanical diplomacy. Finally the story reaches an amazing place called Fanqui town on the riverbank of Canton – it is actually a very small enclave of foreign merchants, which over time has built up its unique and vibrant business culture and social custom.
In Ghosh’s writing, Fanqui town comes alive in all its vivid hues and sing-song pidgin language. This is perhaps the most enjoyable part of the novel. The narrative is set against the growing tension between foreign opium merchants on one hand and the Chinese authorities on the other – this would soon lead to the first Opium War. Dark clouds of that impending disaster hang ominously over the Pearl River as we get to see the world of Fanqui town through the eyes of Bahram, Neel and Robin Chinnery, a bastard son of a famous British painter. The book ends with the death of Bahram after all the opium consignments are seized by the Chinese authorities and burnt.
But the book as a whole implodes – crumbling under the weight of Ghosh’s formidable scholarship on every possible subject, from botany to Parsi religious practices, from minute aspects of dress design to ingredients of Chinese cooking. So far in most of his novels, his research has added depth to his narrative but not overshadowed it. Here he loses the balance completely. The other major problem is of course language. In his previous book also, there was a fair bit of laskars’ language – spoken by the mixed crew in ships in and around India-South East Asia. Here in addition he uses pidgin, Creole and patois and then totally unnecessarily writes a large number of Hindustani/Bengali words in strange spelling, which even an Indian reader would struggle with. A fatal combination of over-information and jerky language completely saps the reader’s energy.
Amitav Ghosh has been a master story-teller but here he finds an exotic backdrop, does more than adequate research and then forgets that he is writing a novel and not a work of non-fiction. With the sole exception of Bahram other characters are not properly developed. Even in case of Bahram, one gets the feeling that extraneous details like the geography of Singapore or his chance meeting with Napoleon assume more importance than the character itself. Not only other characters are neglected, worst still at times you do not even know why they are there and what is the story. He undermines his own power as a narrator by employing an amateurish technique of story-telling through (lengthy and at times downright silly) letters from Robin to Paulette.
It is not like a typical second book in a trilogy, where often the story meanders through to build an appropriate climax for the final book because here the deviation is so much that it deserves to be treated more as a stand-alone novel rather than a sequel of Sea of Poppies. No writer can stay at the zenith of his creativity forever. Yet this fall of Amitav Ghosh is more difficult to bear because such basic flaws should have been apparent to him and his editor. Were these overlooked because of demands of deadline and market forces? I am also dismayed to find that most of the reviews published in well known newspapers and magazines do not actually tear it apart – when the author’s brand name becomes bigger than his creativity then it is a serious loss for literature.