Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Amitav Ghosh : The Quintessential Asian Novelist

I have always contended that one of the best ways to learn about a region -its geography, cultures, and history- is by reading well-written historical novels.  It was just three years ago that I first discovered one such author -Amitav Ghosh- and his book The Glass Palace.

Now I have come into possession of several more Ghosh novels and can highly recommend a triology that he is currently working on.

Sea of Poppies begins a triology now called The Ibis Triology, about an Indian-built and owned ship that is used to ship slaves from India to Mauritius.  Published in 2008, Ghosh followed it with the second in the trilogy, River of Smoke, choosing another ship the Anahita, and a few select characters from Sea of Poppies to follow to Canton, China, where the stage is being set for the Opium War.  River of Smoke was published in 2011 and will be followed by the as-yet-unnamed final book of the series.

Ghosh's strength is in his research into all aspects of life surrounding the time period that he is portraying.  In Sea of Poppies, he even goes to the length of introducing archaic language in use by common people of India at the time and explains it as chrestomathy on his website.  This makes for difficult reading at times -one has to keep referring back to the words' first usages, or else just give up and obtain the general meaning from the gist.

Sea of Poppies is a story about a group of people thrown together on the former slave ship, the Ibis, as it prepares to haul a load of bonded servants from India to Mauritius.  The story is set against a backdrop of the cultivation of poppies for the opium trade.  Indeed, a few of the main characters come from poppy farms and look forward towards a new life in Mauritius.  The end of the novel leaves you hanging, when you sigh and realise that it will be a couple of years before the second book gets published.  But that is no longer an issue because book #2 is now here.

River of Smoke portends to take up where Sea of Poppies left off, and it does, but with some new characters and a new ship, the Anahita.  The Anahita reaches Canton, China, where a foreign enclave clings to a small patch of land allowed them by the Emperor of China.  Here they distribute opium against the wishes of the Emperial Command, and the story unfolds with the foreign traders heading for a showdown against the Chinese.  Unfortunately, the story is not as compelling as in the Sea of Poppies, and it ends with a flash forward to a time around 30 years after the story and didn't really set the reader up for the third book.

As with his book The Glass Palace, these two give great insight into the history, culture, language, and ethos of the time periods here, the early to mid-1800s in this case. Since most books about European and American adventures in Asia have been written by westerners, it is instructive to read and understand the viewpoint of an Asian.  For example, Ghosh spares no words when describing the economics of opium and how foreign traders became extremely wealthy; nor does he mince words when describing the effects that opium has on the Chinese people and those of the Indians who grow the poppies.