Amitav Ghosh writes big, sprawling novels that encompass gigantic swaths of history. Characters in his books are fictional, but he is also comfortable inventing moments for historical figures; for instance, in River of Smoke, the second volume in his projected Ibis Trilogy (which he says might grow to four or five books before it’s over), two young Asian men on their way to England end up conversing with Napoleon during his final exile on St. Helena. But most of the history that shapes Ghosh’s fiction is the history of Asia–India, Burma, China–and of British colonialism in that half of the planet.
The Ibis Trilogy explores the people and the moment that led up to the Opium War, that mid-nineteenth century conflict between the British and the Chinese empires that was a cynical, and successful, effort to protect the British opium trade in China.
It’s a history seldom discussed in the United States, but much of the rest of the world understands Western colonialism in this context. For more than a century the British forced Indian farmers on the Gangetic Plain, perhaps the most fertile region of the subcontinent, to cultivate only opium poppies. The British East India Company processed this opium, then smuggled it more or less openly into China, where they encouraged what became an epidemic of addiction. When the Chinese emperor tried to outlaw this incredibly lucrative and destructive trade, the British went to war. They succeeded in continuing their addictive business for another half century and, incidentally, getting a century-long lease on the island of Hong Kong.
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.