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Book Review: River Of Smoke

Jui Navare

Ghosh is a master of character portraits. Along with the main characters there are numerous supporting characters whose personalities are brought out with great flair. It is recommended to read both the novels not too apart  each other as one can easily forget the links between the two. That being said, one can even read these novels in isolation. It is not necessary to read Sea of Poppies before one reads River of Smoke however the enjoyment will certainly be heightened if the reader is familiar with all the finer nuances of each character. In Sea of Poppies the main protagonist was Deeti. However in River of Smoke the focus in on Barry Moddie, a Parsi opium merchant from Bombay.  In spite of being in this filthy profession he is shown as a man of integrity, loved by his employees, a capable businessman and a fair friend. He is shown in a very different light from Burnham, an opium merchant in sea of poppies  whose sole concern is profiteering. In the beginning pages Barry Moddie is shown drowning in opium sludge on his own ship. The reader is prone to speculate whether the opium merchant will meet his maker by ironically drowning in the very substance he makes his living from!

Another interesting character is Fitcher, a passionate botanist. Fitcher puts devotion before passion and makes sure that he completes his familial responsibilities before undertaking a voyage with the goal of botanical discoveries.  Ghosh paints each character using a multitude of shades but sometimes too much description takes away from the main plot. It must be mentioned here that certain descriptions are so beautiful that the reader is transported to China in his mind and feels that one is an active participant in the proceedings. There is a chance meeting with Napolean in the first half of the book which seems a little farfetched in the context of the novel but the dialogue between Napolean and the Opium merchant is very intriguing.

The latter half of the novel is narrated in the form of letters from Robin Chinnery to Puggly and those are delightfully descriptive for the most part but on occasion tend to be long ramblings which leave the reader a little impatient for things to move on.

One beautiful sentence goes," Everywhere you look there is something utterly strange and ever so singular, a storm of chirruping approaches you and at its center is a man with thousands of walnut shells hanging from shoulder poles; on closer inspection you discovers that each walnut has been carved into an exquisite cage — for a cricket!"

A striking quote is,"Really there was no language like English for turning lies into legalism"

In River of Smoke the reader is presented the intricacies of the opium trade and how systematically it is carried on in China by the foreign merchants to the ruination of the Chinese people. The factories or the •Hongs' , the foreigners, their way of living in a foreign land — almost a dual life- one back at home and one in China — everything is portrayed in a picturesque fashion.

It is a fascinating journey that Ghosh takes you on; providing you with every little detail that you could wish for and more about the life, customs, habits , mannerisms, food, way of talking and most importantly the thought process of the people who lived in those times. One will be compelled to pick up the next tome when it comes out — one cannot help being addicted to the ibis trilogy. One who has devoured the first two books cannot stay away from the third.

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