Sunday, 5 June 2011

Book of the Week - Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke

Some of the finest writing in English comes from Indian authors, who seem to me to value and champion an elegance of style which has become uncommon in native English writers. There are many fine young Indian authors, some of whom I have highlighted previously – Amitav Ghosh should now probably be considered a senior statesman among Indian authors writing in English, and has increasingly been recognised internationally as an important literary figure.

Many years ago, when I had a little more time, I taught a module on medicine and literature to undergraduate students which featured one of Ghosh’s earlier novels, The Calcutta Chromosome, which dealt with the tension between western and traditional Indian views of science. His previous novel, The Sea of Poppies, was the first in a trilogy set against the background of the Opium wars. It was a blockbuster of a novel, with a rich cast of characters, and was both an exciting and entertaining read. In addition, it managed to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a tribute to the elegance of the writing. The second novel in the trilogy, River of Smoke, is published by John Murray this week and will be high on my list for the summer. This is a simultaneous hardcover and paperback release – collectors should pick up the hardcover, signed as usual if possible.

Ghosh was born in Kolkata, India in 1956 and attended Delhi University and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he was awarded a D.Phil . in social anthropology.His first job was at the Indian Express newspaper in New Delhi. His wife, Deborah Baker, is a senior editor at Little, Brown and Company and they have two children, Lila and Nayan. He has been a Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. In 1999, Ghosh joined the faculty at Queens College, City University of New York as Distinguished Professor in Comparative Literature. He has also been a visiting professor to the English department of Harvard University since 2005. In 2009 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

“In September 1838 a storm blows up on the Indian Ocean and the Ibis, a ship carrying a consignment of convicts and indentured labourers from Calcutta to Mauritius, is caught up in the whirlwind. When the seas settle, five men have disappeared - two lascars, two convicts and one of the passengers. Did the same storm upend the fortunes of those aboard the Anahita, an opium carrier heading towards Canton? And what fate befell those aboard the Redruth, a sturdy two-masted brig heading East out of Cornwall? Was it the storm that altered their course or were the destinies of these passengers at the mercy of even more powerful forces?

On the grand scale of an historical epic, River of Smoke follows its storm-tossed characters to the crowded harbors of China. There, despite efforts of the emperor to stop them, ships from Europe and India exchange their cargoes of opium for boxes of tea, silk, porcelain and silver. Among them are Bahram Modi, a wealthy Parsi opium merchant out of Bombay, his estranged half-Chinese son Ah Fatt, the orphaned Paulette and a motley collection of others whose pursuit of romance, riches and a legendary rare flower have thrown together. All struggle to cope with their losses - and for some, unimaginable freedoms - in the alleys and crowded waterways of 19th century Canton. As transporting and mesmerizing as an opiate induced dream, River of Smoke will soon be heralded as a masterpiece of twenty-first century literature.”

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