Details of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile at St. Helena, the intricacies of Parsi-Gujarati slang, and the wonders of the ancient Guangdong province of China.
The recent launch of Amitav Ghosh’s “River of Smoke,” the sequel to his bestselling “Sea of Poppies,” covered almost as much ground as the epic seafaring tale itself. Anyone in the packed audience at the Ballroom in Taj Coromandel who’d not already read the book was left in no doubt of the sheer scale of the story, which travels from Mauritius to China and from India to Europe, and the remarkable breadth of Ghosh’s research in recreating an all but forgotten time.
Former Governor of West Bengal Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who was in conversation with the author, opened the evening by saying in his lyrical way that this was a book that could be read over and over again, and analysed for its language, characters and plot, but “couldn’t be mastered.” “Not because it’s heavy or because it’s long, but because it makes you encounter, hold and behold, and witness the enormous canvas that goes beyond the book,” he said.
Set in the 19th Century, “River of Smoke” tells the story of Bahram Modi, a wealthy Parsi opium merchant from Bombay, his half-Chinese son Ah Fatt and others, and traces the period immediately preceding The Opium Wars, an event which Ghosh believes is of far greater historical significance than previously realised. “In the future, I believe people will be taught that their modern world began with The Opium Wars, and not the French Revolution, as we were told,” he said.
It is a time about which very little is known today, which is why Ghosh had to reconstruct it “brick by brick”, unearthing fascinating old documents such as the Laskari dictionary, outlining the forgotten pidgin language used by the seafaring Laskars and their European commanding officers (“I combed through the Harvard library and hey presto! There it was, written in 1812 and published in Calcutta!”). Then there’s the 1940s treatise on Parsi-Gujarati that he found, and the time he spent travelling around the “miraculous” 2000-year-old province of Guangdong…
How did he do it? That was the question posed to him by Gandhi and by the members of the audience. Did he feel weighed down by all that research? “Not at all,” Ghosh said. “The work is endlessly rewarding, whether it’s the pleasure of finding out new things or travelling to new places. I don’t know what I’d do without it!”
“Young authors are told to write about what they know,” he added, “but I feel one should write about what nobody knows. These are vanished, evanescent worlds that you have to rebuild, and to me, that’s very exciting.”
His long, detailed reading from the book gave the audience a feel of the world of “River of Smoke”, as he took them onboard a sailing vessel with Bahram, then into Bonaparte’s home when in exile at St. Helena, all the while making them chuckle at the engaging dialogue marked by his unique use of language.
Not surprisingly, Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin India called “River of Smoke” Penguin’s biggest fiction book of the year. “It’s been launched to wide acclaim in the U.K. and is already topping the charts in India — all in just three weeks,” she said, speaking at the launch.
It couldn’t happen at a more meaningful time, as general manager of Taj Coromandel, N. Prakash noted: “This is the 25th year since Amitav’s first book, ‘Circle of Reason,’ was published, which makes this evening all the more special.”