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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Review - River of Smoke By Author Amitav Ghosh

The first word that may come to your mind when you see the book River of Smoke is ‘big.’ Literally. It’s a huge book, especially since it’s available only in hardcover right now, and it is 500+ pages thick, 553 to be precise.
If you have read the first in the Ibis trilogy, The Sea of Poppies, you are already aware of what the story is all about. But for those of you who missed out on the first one, here’s a quick recap of what happens before the ‘River of Smoke’ begins.
‘In September 1838, a storm blows up on the Indian Ocean and the Ibis, a ship carrying a consignment of convicts and indentured laboureres from Calcutta to Mauritius, is caught up in the whirlwind. When the seas settle, five men have disappeared – two lascars, two convicts and one of the passengers.’
The River of Smoke picks up from after this storm.
Written on the scale of an historical epic, The River of Smoke is essentially an interesting study in cultures, traditional practices, human character, history, geography and demographics, while of course being an entertainer of the first order, capable of keeping you engrossed in the many layers of story-telling that unfold with each page.
The book chronicles the different characters whom we already met in The Sea of Poppies. It follows their lives after the storm that led finally to the crash of the Ibis, the ship carrying labourers and convicts from Calcutta to Mauritius. While The Sea of Poppies was more about characters from India, especially Bengal and Bihar, the River of Smoke is mainly situated in China, around the crowded harbours and the markets that dealt in the opium trade. As we embark on this amazing sea-to-land journey, we are led into a world of boat-markets, flower-girls, women who run a restaurant on a basic boat, people who have come from different parts of the world and are now dealing in the opium trade, ceremonies and festivities celebrated in China, and in general, we are taken into a world whose sights and smells are sure to enchant any reader.
In these crowded harbours and markets of China, the traders defy the efforts of the emperor to stop the trade of opium, and ships from Europe and India continue exchanging their cargoes of opium for boxes of tea, silk, porcelain and silver. Whether it’s a wealthy merchant from India, or an amateur botanist out on a mission to find rare plants, a replica painter of half-blood who is looking to remove the stain of being born a ‘bastard’ and being abandoned by his ‘father’, or a wealthy landlord who is now on the run, all characters come together to create a world of charm, of magic and reality, set in an exotic land, in an exotic time. In pursuit of love, wealth, a legendary flower, and out there to reclaim what they have lost, these characters come together to create a story that will make you yearn for more.
Amitav Ghosh is a student of social anthropology, one of the branches of anthropology that studies contemporary human behavior in social groups. And this comes across very strongly in all of Ghosh’s works. His understanding of the history and culture of a place and its people is also of a professional level, and he leads us into the detailed historical and cultural events of a place that becomes a cultural melting-pot. Though the book is heavy and huge, its fairly easy to read through the pages, as the author manages to create a visual effect so strong you feel as if you are a live spectator in whatever is happening in the book, and this, according to me, is a very important part of being a writer, of being able to let your reader feel as much a part of the book as the characters inside it.
The River of Smoke is already out in the UK (June 2011), India (July 2011) and will be released in the US soon (October 2011). So make sure you grab your copy and set forth on this magical journey.

*Reading The Sea of Poppies, the first in the Ibis trilogy, will be of much help in understanding the River of Smoke, the second in the trilogy.

My rating: 4/5

Happy Reading!!!

- Debolina Raja Gupta