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Sailing The Colonial Battleship

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Ghosh's Ibis, the ship of nightmares for some, of hopes and dreams for others, had made its way through the Bay of Bengal in Sea Of Poppies. Continuing the saga, River Of Smoke brings us some of the people of the Ibis: Deeti, Neel and Paulette.
 
The story in this work is focused on Bahram Modi, a Bombay-based Parsi merchant hoping to settle his debts through a sale of opium at Canton. The setting is the late 1830s, and Bahram's ship, Anahita, has arrived in Canton, only to discover that the Chinese, for too long plagued with its peoples' opium-addiction, have decided to end the evil trade. The English traders, whose fortunes have for over a century relied on the opium trade, are battling, through political and trading channels, this Chinese decision. Then the incorruptible Commissioner Lin, tasked by the Emperor himself to end the trade, has arrived on the scene. Watching the mercantile-political games from the sidelines, as Bahram's Munshi, is the former disgraced and criminalised Raja from the Ibis, Neel.
 
Elsewhere in the story is Paulette's, now an avid botanist voyaging with another constant gardener, Fitcher, in a quest for rare flowers and plants. There is also the story of Robin Chinnery, the illegitimate, mixed-race son of George Chinnery - who was a real-life person who painted South China - and painter, whose letters to Paullette constitute a large section of the book as well. The enigmatic Deeti from the Ibis appears only at the beginning of the tale as a matriarch of a large family in Mauritius.
 
Bahram is dealing with his business tension as well as memories of his Chinese mistress, Chie-Mie, now dead, and his son from that relationship, Ah Fatt. Events in Canton turn messy, with the English refusing to end their trade. Claiming that the Free Trade principle allows them to sell even opium, the English estrange their Chinese business partners as well. Some, like Charles King, of the Canton Chamber of Commerce, try to convince the other English that the trade must end, but the arguments are futile in the face of that deadly combination:
 
'Christianity and commerce' (a phrase popularised by David Livingstone, the famous missionary traveller to Africa). Commissioner Lin finally moves against the English factories. Arrests and embargoes are put in place, even as the English make token attempts at bribing and negotiating with him. Bahram, by now desperate to recover his losses and fearing humiliation, dies heartbroken. Soon after, the English bring in their ships and start bombarding the town. Enraged, the Chinese set fire to the English factories, and the Anglo-Chinese opium wars begin.
 
The wealth of detail, from plants to food habits and utensils that the ethnographic-novelist Ghosh thinks we should know, often detracts from the story. The portrait of Bahram Modi is exquisitely sketched, and one notes with pleasure that Ghosh's rich visual vocabulary which gave us Deeti, Neel and the Ibis in Sea of Poppies continues its good work. The extensive use of pidgin defiantly recreates the atmosphere of Canton's trading houses and alleys even as we are drawn to the cross-cultural negotiations even a simple conversation entailed in 19th century China. Ghosh's strength is, as always, his brilliant portrait of colonialism, complete with the human element (especially greed) and the inhuman. The hypocrisy of the English - pleading for Free Trade, refusing to acknowledge the evil nature of the opium they have addicted the Chinese to, and claiming that the Chinese rulers are pagan tyrants - recalls all the evils of colonial empires. There is an epic dimension to this historical saga. It is the kind of work that wins acclaim but is rarely popular except among those who like the three-decker realist novels that might give you a good story but run the risk of miring it, as Ghosh does, in horticultural history or the gluttonous colonial's culinary rituals.