by Aditya Desai
Bengali-born South Asian writer Amitav Ghosh was in D.C. recently for a reading at Politics & Prose, a local bookstore. He discussed his new novel, River of Smoke, the continuation of his 2008 tome Sea of Poppies, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
River of Smoke is the second in a sweeping epic of his proposed Ibis trilogy (named after the trader/slave ship that the character’s lives are linked to) takes place during the 19th Century, plotting the rise of the East India Company over opium trade across South Asia.
Similar to the portrait in his book jacket, of a whispy, silver-haired, scarf-wearing cosmopolitan, Ghosh adopted an introspective nature as he read a small portion of his new novel. As the local Washington readership, of all ethnicity and age, listened to his temperate but emphatic narration, it was clear he had a genuine love of these characters and the world. The sequel was an inevitable need to live a while longer in this world far removed from him and his audience.
After the reading, the floor was open to Q&A. Over the course of discussion, Ghosh described his initial hook into the novel as being the opposite of the more common migrant narratives that seem to dominate Indian American or Indian English literatures. He said, that instead of the “moment of arrival” to the new land, he instead wanted to look at the “moment of departure” from home.
It was during this era in which the company’s trade routes doubled as the journey trails of the first Indian migrants West – resulting in the diverse Indian communities across Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean today. The wide cast in the novels include not only Indian and British characters, but also American, Chinese, and French, making it a global conscious piece of fiction.
Though the two novels don’t depict this actual rise of migration, they provide a fresh flipside to thinking about how Indians have spanned their presence across the globe. As the works posit, India’s fertile soil and supply of indentured servants allowed the East India Company to efficiently harvest poppy and produce of opium, which became one of the great economic and political commodities of the time.
Even though Ghosh’s books attempt to draw parallels to today’s global situation (i.e. Western financial stakes in China and India,) Poppies and now Smoke are ultimately works of fiction, and engrossing reads at that. Though, I personally have not gotten around to River of Smoke, the first novel was a wonderful panorama of the men and women whose lives became caught up in these sweeps of power. Ghosh goes to great lengths as a writer to render each character vividly, as well as the time period, employing pidgin Hindoo-English dialogue and lush portrayals of Calcutta and the Ganges basin.
Functioning on many levels—from historical fiction, to adventure epic, to anthropological ensemble—the novels are rich in discourses that can apply to wide net of readers. For the Indian American community, Ghosh’s work certainly seems an apt extension of the grander history of South Asians crossing borders beyond the subcontinent. Don’t worry about reading the Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke in order—Ghosh states they are both distinct, separate works—a “Calcutta book” and a “Bombay book” respectively.
Here’s to the third, Mr Ghosh; perhaps bringing us the rest of the country in the same vibrant prose?
Aditya Desai is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park.