River of Smoke : -“…of Greed,of Corruption,of Broken will and of Tales that would last Centuries”

River of Smoke

3.5/5 Stars Goodreads Rating System

“The flowers of Canton are immortal and will bloom forever”  ~Amitav Ghosh

And so i hope they shall, as long as they are not Opium poppies of course. The second installment in the Ibis Trilogy, had a lot to live up to. Understandably so, as Sea of Poppies had set the bar impossibly high. But to me at least, it delivered almost everything that was expected of it. The Opium Wars both 1 and 2, have had a very profound effect on the world, so much so that its ripples could still be felt even now, not only for China but also for India and for most of south east Asia. They can be felt in the Chinese anti west stance, or in India’s struggle to boost up its economy. But this event so critical to history is often neglected, as to the questions of, why it happened? could it have possibly been avoided? Did diplomacy play no part? this story provides ample answers. Opium harmed both the producer and the consumer, only the seller, as it seems profited from its trade.

And its traders are the people that we follow in this story. In Sea of Poppies, we traveled across Bihar to Bengal, in India, the regions abused by the Honorable (Ahm! Ahm!) East India Company for Opium production (against the wishes of the farmers, against any basic human decency), until finally the Ibis traveled down the Ganga to the Bay of Bengal and into the Indian Ocean. Investors and producers of Opium were, primarily, the people we dealt with. In, River of Smoke we travel eastward still, though not on the Ibis, to the Nicobar islands, to Malacca, Singapore, Macau and finally Canton. And who better to travel these waters and ports with, than the traders and traffickers who made this route famous in the first place. And so we reacquaint ourselves with “Paulette” our french orphan on her journey from ‘Mauritius’ to ‘Hong Kong’ in search of a fabled flower, With “Neel” our doomed raja and his life as a freeman. In addition , to a host of new characters, like “Behram Modee”  father of our opium addict “Ah fatt” , “Robin Chinnery” an old artist acquaintance of ‘Paulette’. And see the world of Canton from their eyes, one a Parsi opium trader of renown from Bombay and the other a ‘bastard’ painter from Calcutta. Some of the old characters from the first book are passingly mentioned, or make brief appearances without ever taking the center stage. Their stories I suspect have been saved for book 3 which I think would focus on soldiers and the actual armed Opium conflict. This book however gives you the build up to it. To the events in ‘Fanqui Town’ and the 13 factories.

13 factories
Canton Harbor and the 13 Factories with their respective flags 

This book too like the previous one, is, exceedingly well researched and written. Without taking too much liberty with history, a lot of historically accurate events and people play a central part in the story. The use of these authentic characters gives the story a life of its own. But unlike the previous one, this tale was a slow burner, you feel no rush to reach the end as quickly as possible. On the contrary, you live through the journey, basking in the author’s very detailed descriptions of the landscape of our various destinations, a glimpse into their societies, even the fl-aura and fauna these places had. More than once, I went online to read about a particular flower or shrub (like the Golden Camellia), or researched about a historical figure mentioned in the book (Lin Zexu obviously, but many others as well like George ChinneryCharles Elliot etc etc). The point is, the book used a LOT of information which seems quite obvious, it being a Historical fiction and whatnot, but it used it in such a way as to make you curious about them. The bulk of the tale takes place in Canton, the single entry point available to foreigners for trading with China. The city fascinated me, more so ‘Fanqui Town’ and the 13 Factories, these places, the focal point of the story, were amazingly detailed.

The plot as I mentioned, was not as exciting as the first book but the charm of the book lies in its rediscovery of forgotten worlds and lives. And the best part, the book doesn’t leave you hanging, you could gobble it up and rest with contentment before you feel hungry again. I was impressed by Mr. Ghosh’s style of making the abrupt ending of the first book seem a proper ending during the first few chapters of the second one. His style of jumping between timelines before engrossing in the story is intriguing. The book deserves all the praise and nominations it has been awarded.  I recommend this series to any and all history buffs, these were exciting times, these are intriguing stories and to experience them with the pleasure of fiction makes it infinitely more fun.

Sea of Poppies : – “Darkly addictive as Opium itself.”

Sea_of_Poppies_Ghosh_amitav

4/5 Stars GoodReads Rating System

Amitav Ghosh, to my shame was a name that I knew only as the receiver of the ‘Padma Shri’ the 4th highest civilian Honor in India. Despite the shower of awards and recognition bestowed upon his famous works, specially in my beloved genre of Historical Fiction, I had not read any of his books before this. THAT, I assure you is surely gonna change because I have never seen Justice done to history as intricately as in “Sea of Poppies”.

This saga, being the first of three, initially tests your patience, you have to give it time which is not the easiest thing to do in a book spanning close to 500 pages. It introduces you to a host of characters in 1838 India, when the British gluttony for the opium profits knew no bounds, and in Bihar and Bengal where once the farms were green with rice or gold with wheat, there now resided a Sea of poppies. And thus our band of misfits consist of a village woman victim to such harvest in every sense possible, a mulatto American freedman who by a chance of fate finds himself among Gentleman of the empire, A raja reduced to nothing, a french orphan with an Indian heart, a Young boatman with dreams of the sea, an eccentric ‘munshi’, a half Chinese half Parsi opium addict and others as diverse and interesting as the era itself. The character building in this novel is phenomenal, Mr. Ghosh takes his time with each and every single one, shaping it page by page, this sometimes feel a bit cumbersome as you restlessly wait for the journey to begin aboard the ship, as you know it will. But no, he makes you pay attention, to invest in the characters before they do anything of note. This book sets the board for the coming story and thus as I have said earlier demands a bit of patience. But the wait is ultimately rewarding. Mr.Ghosh’s attention to detail is commendable,  his research I believe would have been quite extensive and it shows in the book. The language used by many of the characters is a mix of Hindustani and English, With each character having their own style and way with words, from the Irish laced sailor slang of the first mate to the Bhojpuri of ‘Deeti’, the village woman, though being an Indian I had considerably less trouble following what was being said but to a foreign audience that style of writing might take some getting used to,  though the author has I believe tried to ease this issue by cleverly including “THE IBIS CHRESTOMATHY” at the end of the book , providing a glossary of words used in the tale, their meaning and origins. But even so, it could sometimes hamper the reading experience, but the thing to appreciate even in this, is the writer’s total dedication to the authenticity of the era , and the characters. This I believe adds an extra quirk to the story and takes nothing away.

The only issue that bothered me was the abrupt end of the book, after my initial “What the..” reaction, some restless moments were spent feverishly searching my kindle and laptop making sure that I have the next installment ready for consumption, much like an “afeemkhor” (opium addict) I imagine, confirming I have the means for the next fix. As I have read this in 2017 and all the three books are out, this again was not much trouble, but to a reader in 2008, the exasperation level would have been quite high. So, yes, that cliffhanger ending was a bit uncalled for, nothing was resolved, nothing was even close to closure. But it is what it is.

The book overall is splendidly written, the hypocrisy of the raj has been portrayed as is. No watering down, the narrative from a third man’s perspective as we experience through ‘Zachariah’, our mulatto freedman, adds substantial clarity and effect to the story. It is a great historical fiction in all aspects, checking every box essential for an epic tale and series. I will be moving on to the next one immediately, out of compulsion, curiosity or admiration I cannot say, maybe all three and why not, as William Styron aptly said  “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading”. This book fits that description to a T.