A triumph of story telling
Amitav Ghosh's second part of the Ibis trilogy reveals a passion for words and their strange journeys
RIVER OF SMOKE: Amitav Ghosh; Pub. by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 699.
In this multi-layered second novel of the Ibis trilogy, we catch up with characters we've met before as they catch up with each other. Amitav Ghosh skilfully weaves a rich brocade from what in lesser hands may have remained a series of narratives. In terms of the richness and diversity of the narrative, River of Smoke is even better than Sea of Poppies. Ghosh gets into his characters' mind, speaks with their voice and sees with their eyes. As a result, we experience their world — the foreign merchants' quarter of Canton, the windswept cliffs of Mauritius, the inner sanctums of walled-in Chinese gardens or life on a seafaring vessel — from a 360-degree perspective.
The story is set against the backdrop of the Manchu Empire waking up to the economic and social damage caused by the opium trade, and trying to ban import of the drug, while the western powers, who owed so much of their wealth to it, resist the move in the name of ‘free trade.' To read the specious arguments of the traders and the occasional oblique remark of the Hindustanis, who too were becoming increasingly aware of exploitation, is to hear echoes of the present. A century-and-a-half later, material profit still propels nations to attack others, while talk of ‘freedom' fills the leaders' speeches.
It is not necessary to have read the first book to enjoy the second. What is necessary perhaps is an appetite for detail, a taste for complexities, and a love for words and their strange journeys. But those who have read Ghosh know he doesn't allow erudition to hamper an engrossing story. We are hooked, from the moment we join “La Fami Colver” (Deeti's clan) marching in ritual procession to her “Memory-Temple”, picnicking on parathas and daal-puris with “bajis of pipengay and chou-chou, ourougails of tomato and peanut, chutneys of tamarind and combava fruit”, and read hungrily on. Never was it more delightful to be tossed from wave to crashing wave, island to island, crossing paths with the passengers of the Ibis and other storm-tossed vessels, who, though frequently lost to each other, seem guided by the omniscient force of the cyclone's eye!
That thread of mysticism, to which we were introduced in the first novel with Deeti's prescient drawing of the Ibis, runs through this one too. In Deeti's case, the mystery is accompanied by an unwavering faith in a higher power. As for the merchant, Bahramji Modi's supernatural visitations, his responses are marked by fear and pathos.
Rather than trip you up, the uncommon expressions used describe the scene better than any others. For example, we may not find ‘bedoling' in a regular dictionary, but when Fitcher is “suddenly aware of a strange bedoling in certain parts of his body,” we can see him rocking in grief.
If the narrator's voice transcends the boundary between the verbal and the visual, his characters' speech is audible. We hear the musical lilt of Deeti's “strange mixture of Bhojpuri and Kreol that had become her personal idiom” as she relates events on the Ibis that fateful night: “I thought vreman I'd lost my sight. It was so dark nothing was vizib except when lightning flashed — and tulétan the rain [...] and the thunder, dham-dhamak-dhamakaoing as if to deafen you. [...] you can't imagine how difisil it was...”
Robin Chinnery's conversation transports us to Jane Austen's England. And we are charmed by the sing-song of pidgin as Chi-mei sympathises with Bahram: “Mister Barry trouble have got? Blongi sad inside?”
But not everyone is a linguist like Ghosh. Useful therefore is that the author's website includes the “Ibis Chrestomathy” which he attributes to Neel — a kind of lexicon of commonly used pidgin words. The creation of a detailed history enriches the telling in ways the ordinary reader would never know — precisely why few would make the effort. Compiling the Chrestomathy — along with the rest of Ghosh's extensive research — is reminiscent of Tolkien's detailed maps and histories of the peoples in The Lord of the Rings. The difference, of course, is that Tolkien's was an imaginary world, whereas Canton, in the years preceding the Opium Wars, is a part of history, even if nearly lost.
As for pidgin, a mode of communication that is at once direct and poetic, and certainly more musical than SMS shorthand and Hinglish, it reminds us of the communication needs of a world where commerce brings differing cultures together. With everyone demanding things quickly (chop-chop), why can't this be revived too? Some readers, at least, might blongi happy inside!
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