Amitav Ghosh re-peoples this history with an extraordinary cast of characters, from the widow of a poppy farmer near Banaras to a mixed-race American sailor to a wealthy Bombay merchant of Persian heritage to Cantonese traders who at that moment were likely the richest men in the world. It is good to be reminded, in our time of global hubris, that many of these people, even the poorest among them, were the first genuinely global citizens, forced by colonial trade to move across continents and languages.
Language, in fact, becomes one of the fascinating central moments of the Ibis Trilogy. The characters speak Cantonese and a number of the languages of India, as well as in the pidgins of both trade and navigation. Here's a sentence picked almost at random: "On reaching the enclave the lascars and lime-juicers had gone, as was their custom, straight to the shamshoo-shacks of Hog Lane, so as to get scammered as quickly as possible." If that sentence seems impenetrable to you, I can only try to reassure you that in the context of River of Smoke it is completely understandable and will not even slow you down. In fact, your easy ability to understand the language will be one of your pleasures in the book. And it allows a window into the rich and complicated lives of Amitav Ghosh's many characters.
Amitav Ghosh reads from his work at UMMA on December 6, and speaks at the Hatcher Library on December 7.