Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The River of Smoke - Amitav Ghosh

The first book of the Ibis trilogy, 'Sea of Poppies' was set around how Ibis - the ship, started her journey to Mauritius with girmitiyas and two prisoners as passengers. Having met with a storm near the Great Nicobar Islands, she continued sailing ahead - albeit with a fewer passengers. And that is from where the storyline of the second book begins.
'River of Smoke' is about the Opium trade in China, the Hongists, the Parsi merchant Seth Bahram Modi and Raja Neel Rattan Haldar aka Anil Kumar Munshi. Parallel to this, botanist Fitcher Penrose and Paulette Lambert make attempts to rediscover the illusive Golden Camellia in and around China. Interestingly, Amitav Ghosh seems to have dived deep into the history of the first Opium War and the parallel timelines around the world. The characters are a mix of reality and fiction. You may find references to some of them on Internet as well. Ghosh's focus on the details is intense, particularly the descriptions on the Canton trade and the language. Pidgin conversations were the portions that I loved reading - reminded of Serang Ali from the first book.
View of the factories in Canton | Image Source: Wikipedia

The two volumes of the Ibis trilogy are well connected, yet completely independent in story and context. 'Sea of Poppies' is not a mandate to begin with 'River of Smoke', it makes a good prequel to start with, and lets the reader soak into the air of the early 1800s in the British India. Both the books are a must read for a sea lover, and if you aren't - they might make you one.