Why do we call sugar “chinee” in Hindi? How did we ever land up with “post-cards” and ketchup? Did you know that we Desis were called “Achhas”? Achha, so the origin of the word chinee is because in the late 1700 and early 1800 the Dominion of India imported sugar exclusively from China. Ketchup, brace for this, is apparently a Chinese export from the 1800’s. At least the concept of Ketchup. And well, post cards were more or less a manifestation of Europe’s questionable obsession with “authentic” Chinese porcelain. Mr. Ghosh peppers his vivid description of the events in Canton (now Guangzhou, China) leading to the opium war in China with these pearls of “wisdom”. Speaking of pearls, do you want to know why the murky and definitely pearl-less river flowing through Guangzhou is called Pearl river? Haha, I won’t tell.
Mr. Ghosh starts his narration on the islands of Mauritius, which, if you’ve read the Sea of Poppies will recall was the final destination of the Ibis. The scene rapidly shifts to the South China sea where the script erupts into apparently disconnected, yet gripping threads of parallel narration. Very Pulp-fictionsque. The vivid narration effortlessly transports the impressionable reader back in time to Canton of 1838 and lets him experience the unraveling of the story as an active participant.
One thread features Neel, disguised as a Munshi of an Indian Tai-pan. One takes the form of the colourful correspondence of a gifted and seemingly gay Anglo-Indian artist looking to step out of the shadow of his famous father. Yet another takes the form the Indian Tai-pan stumbling in an opium laced haze of his own creation, or perhaps he attempts to navigate through his own river of smoke. The threads converge towards an event which sows the seeds of the opium war, and in this convergence I suspect Mr. Ghosh has planted the seeds of the next volume. Perhaps cricket and theater. Perhaps.
Mr. Ghosh makes a statement which could as well reflect today’s state of the economy:
That is correct, Your Majesty. Since the middle years of the last century, the demand for Chinese tea has grown at such a pace in Britain and America that it is now the principal source of profit for the East India Company. The taxes on it account for fully one tenth of Britain’s revenues. If one adds to this such goods as silk, porcelain and lacquerware it becomes clear that the European demand for Chinese products is insatiable. In China on the other hand, there is little interest in European exports – the Chinese are a people who believe that their own products, like their food and their own customs, are superior to all others.
Except that these days the Chinese people have an insatiable appetite for all that is remotely European.
If you have read James Clavell’s Tai-Pan, then I must urge you to read the River of Smoke. As an impressionable teenager I read Tai-Pan, and fell instantly in love with Hong Kong. And the two times I’ve been to Hong Kong, those feelings clouded my judgment and yours truly could not help but warming up to the place. (Forget that it is humid and hot like my other beloved city – Bombay) I confess, I don’t remember the story anymore, but this book reminded me why I was fascinated by Hong Kong. Tai-Pan narrated the story of the south china sea territories post the opium wars, and the river of smoke the story before.
I have never waited so eagerly for a book as I have for this one, that I was surprised by my own behaviour when I was presented with the opportunity of picking up a copy in Hong Kong earlier this year. I must admit, I was caught unawares of its publication, until I accidentally saw it on the book shelf. Having seen it on the bookshelf, I resisted temptation with the logic that I could pick up a copy as easily on my return to Bangalore. It was at best misplaced prudence, for on returning to Bangalore, I discovered to my utter dismay that the book was yet to be released in India and that the bookshops were very cleverly allowing eager readers to “pre-order” the novel. What is with that? huh? Anyways, I got lucky, and could finally lay my hands on the much awaited book a couple of weeks ago. The other book I was reading was unceremoniously retired to my ever increasing backlog of “to-read” books and this book received my undivided attention. I swear, I didn’t keep it down unless I absolutely had to. My one regret, is that now in hind sight I wished I had picked up this book in Hong Kong. It would have been a little bit more special than it it is now. However, now I eagerly await the last of the trilogy, whenever it is published – my bet sometime in 2014 or late 2013.