Exhilarating narrative

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh; Hamish Hamilton; Rs.699; 558 pp

Few recent novels have received as much praise as Amitav Ghosh’s latest oeuvre River of Smoke, the second of a planned trilogy on the opium trade between India and China — hitherto a shameful secret of Indian history. The first book in the trilogy was Sea of Poppies (2008) which focused on the opium production and processing centres of the Gangetic plain and Kolkata. This book follows the ready-to-smoke opium to China. Both have been bestsellers, in India at least, and deservedly so.

River of Smoke starts with the Ibis — a ship carrying convicts and indentured labour to Mauritius in the early 19th century — being hit by a storm. When the storm subsides, five men from the ship are missing: two lascars, two convicts and a passenger. One of the missing convicts is the illegitimate son — from a Chinese mistress — of Seth Bahram Nauroz Modi, a Bombay Parsi, and central character of the book. But Modi is on another ship, the Anahita, at about the same time.

The Anahita is also struck by a storm, though whether it’s the same storm is unclear. It is, however, sailing in the opposite direction, from Bombay to Canton, China, loaded with 3,000 crates of opium, valued at the equivalent of 40 tonnes of silver bullion.

Coterminously, a third ship Redruth, is on an entirely different mission, a botanical one. It is carrying plants, flowers and shrubs from Britain, in the hope of trading them for exotic species of flora from other lands, particularly China. Redruth first docks in Mauritius and then in Canton, with legitimate cargo almost as valuable as opium. The voyages of these three ships — and the simultaneous docking of two of them in Canton — form the basis of Ghosh’s widely acclaimed novel.

But it is the opium trade that dominates and looms over the narrative. The river in the title of the book refers to the Pearl, at the mouth of Canton, and the smoke is the huge cloud of opium haze over the city.

Just how valuable this trade was to the East India Company — indeed, to Britain as well — can be gauged from the fact, as mentioned earlier, that just one shipload of the opiate could generate sufficient income to purchase 40 tonnes of silver. And there were scores of such ships regularly dumping their nefarious cargo on the Chinese public, from the very rich to the very poor, tearing the fabric of a proud and cultured nation which was being literally drugged into helplessness and impotence, in what must rank among the worst crimes of human history.

The poppy plants, from which raw opium is extracted and processed were specially grown in extensive areas of north India, specifically for export to China. Ironically, trade and consumption of the drug was otherwise banned in the British Empire and opium smugglers faced a death sentence if they dared take it to any of its colonies. China, however, was open house. The hypocritical justification doled out by the British authorities was that this was in the noble pursuit of ‘free trade’.

In reality, as ghosh explains, there was insatiable demand in the West for Chinese goods, notably tea, silk, porcelain and lacquerware, whereas the Chinese were not interested in what Europe had to offer. How was this export-import imbalance to be bridged? The easy answer was opium. “Really, there is no language like English for turning lies into legalisms,” says one of the characters, a biting indictment of how perfidious Albion clothed vile deeds in high-sounding homilies.

Of course, venal Chinese officials and merchants also played their part in this infamous saga. They were bribed and suborned by British and Indian opium-traders to either look the other way or participate in  smuggling operations. As consumption of opium by the Chinese population soared, alarm bells started to ring in some quarters, culminating with the Emperor in Peking sending a young, idealistic commissioner named Lin, to Canton, to halt the trade. If there’s a hero in the book, it’s him.

Lin succeeds, temporarily. The opium cargo lying in ships at anchor or in godowns in Canton, including the cargo of Bahram Modi, is forcibly expropriated and destroyed. But, as the book ends, British and American warships are already on their way to China to enforce ‘free trade’. This culminated in the First Opium War (which will doubtless be the start of Ghosh’s third book in this trilogy), when Chinese forces were humiliated — a humiliation which still hangs heavy on the Chinese psyche and perhaps explains, to some extent at least, China’s belligerent attitude to the rest of the world, including India.

Why India? Because the opium emanated mainly from here and many of the merchants and ship-owners active in the trade were Indians. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to discern a connection between India’s humiliating defeat in 1962 at the hands of the Chinese, and the Chinese humiliation during the opium trade, in which Indians played no small part. 1962 was China’s revenge on India.

Although River of Smoke is classified as fiction, it is firmly based on history and grounded in fact. In a Q&A session with Ghosh in which this reviewer participated, Ghosh made the point that there is much in Indian history that Indian writers haven’t bothered to research and ‘fictionalise’, as he is doing in his trilogy. Western writers, on the other hand, have extensively mined historical records to bring out memorable books which combine fact and fiction.

Ghosh is a magnificent storyteller, no doubt about that, and the book’s fast tempo and lush prose make it hard to put down. You have to know Creole (the popular language of Mauritius which combines French, English and African tongues), pidgeon English, Gujarati and Hindi to fully understand the words sprayed throughout the book.

The closest parallel to Amitav Ghosh is V.S. Naipaul, a writer whom Ghosh admires. Both are travel writers, as well as novelists. But comparisons end there. Ghosh is arguably a better wordsmith and a more rousing raconteur. There is nothing boring or laboured about River of Smoke. It is an exhilarating, racy read. The 558 pages of the tome are peppered with details and vivid descriptions, whether it is different types of cuisine, exotic flora, styles of dress or curious customs. One feels enriched by the experience.

Naipaul, on the other hand, is extremely sparse with words, yet deeply insightful of the characters he depicts and the “half-made” societies he writes about. He often hurts wounds that are still raw, but then the truth can be hurtful. He is more demanding and makes you read some of his passages again and again, so profound and penetrating are his insights. This profundity is still lacking in Ghosh, but he’s clearly a work in progress.

Rahul Singh

Timely warning

Hindutva and National Renaissance by Subramanian Swamy; Haranand Publications Pvt. Ltd; Price: Rs.595; 294 pp

Beneath his urbane exterior, Harvard-educated Subramanian Swamy, president of the Janata Party, former Union minister and currently an arch litigator and political loose cannon, is a die-hard advocate of the hindutva cause. This book, which encapsulates his political agenda, is a valuable guide to hindutva socio-political thought, and confirms the widespread suspicion that hindutva is committed to an uncompromisingly brahminical order in Indian society.

According to the author, India suffers from an acute identity crisis, and the only way forward is for it to recapture its distinctive Hindu identity. This requires that sanatana dharma is revived, and that hindutva, based on sanatana dharma, forms the basis of the Indian state. Echoing the standard line of hindutva champions, Swamy equates Indian nationalism with brahminical Hinduism, dismissing hundreds of millions of Indians who refuse to accept this imposition as beyond the pale. “Sanatana dharma is our nationalism and our nationalism is sanatana dharma,” he expounds.

Although he repeatedly prescribes sanatana dharma as the brilliant corrective for India’s ills, curiously Swamy does not elaborate the meaning of the term. Translatable as “eternal law”, it is actually a bundle of rules and regulations setting out the duties of various classes of people as conceptualised by ancient Brahmin law-givers. Its obvious purpose is to preserve the Brahmin-dominated social order, which is premised on the degradation of other castes or varnas.

Swamy’s twisted understanding of the Indian identity is clearly presented as synonymous with brahminism which he is obliged to whitewash beyond recognition. If Swamy is to be believed, India was Utopia until the beginning of the Muslim invasions. Vedic civilisation, he proclaims, revealing alarming ignorance of history, provided “prosperity and justice to all”. It is as if the brutal reality of brahminical hegemony and the continuous oppression of shudras and women, which long predate the Muslim period and were blessed by sanatana dharma, never happened or were of no consequence.

Yet Swamy is forced to confront the enormous dark spots of Hindu history, particularly with regard to Brahmin caste injustice. But his response is to blatantly falsify historical record. Thus, he denies the Aryan invasion theory, and insists, blind to historical evidence to the contrary, that the Aryans and Dravidians ever warred with each other. He denies that the latter were subjugated by the Aryans and forcibly transformed into shudras. This denial is necessary to portray Muslim invaders as the source of most of India’s ills, and to stave off Dalit critiques of brahminism.

In Hindutva and National Renaissance, Swamy spells out the economic order of hindutva society which should be “minimalist in regulatory interventions in social and economic matters” and “maximalist in the maintenance of law and order, particularly in opposing terrorism”. Interpreted, it means government must not interfere in the working of market forces, heavily skewed in favour of the dominant castes/classes. The main task of the state, according to him, is to be repressive — to crush challenges to the iniquitous status quo and to ruling caste hegemony.

Swamy’s opposition to state intervention in socio-economic affairs, his advocacy of market-oriented policies, and his deafening silence on the plight of the poor expounded in extenso in this hindutva manifesto, shows that India’s poor can expect nothing but further pauperisation and mounting socio-economic inequalities under right-wing hindutva rule of which the BJP is political muscle. Land reforms and redistribution of assets, indispensable for empowering the poor, are totally ruled out, in favour of “Hindu concepts of trusteeship of wealth, philanthropy and voluntary group action”. He praises the thoroughly discredited Gandhian “trusteeship” ideology, according to which the rich will continue to control productive resources as “trustees” for the poor. Unfortunately, the theory has never worked — and never will.

This book should serve as a timely warning that the struggle against hindutva needs to graduate from a struggle for secularism and minority rights (which is how mostly upper caste ‘secularists’, indifferent to the reality of caste oppression, conceive it) to a wider struggle for social justice from the tyranny of brahminical dominance.

Yoginder Sikand