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Sep 15, 2012

Ghosh' Earlier Novels & The Ibis Trilogy

Article From Dr.Ratan Bhattacharjee

Dr.Ratan Bhattacharjee is at present the Chairperson of the Post Graduate Dept. of English and is also associated with teaching in the PG Dept of English of Rabindra Bharati Univesity , both in regular and distance.He is the Executive member in the International Advisory Board of International Theeodore Dreiser Society, USA. His articles and poems are published in numerous journals and magazines in India and abroad. He was associated with the Indian Association of American Studies (IAAS) as a member of the Executive Body and now he is the Founder Director of the newly inaugurated Dattani Archive and Research Association (DARA) , Kolkata. He edits the Journal Voice of Indian English Writers (VIEW). He is our special contributor in English Literature Section. email-

Amitav Ghosh  , in spite of his fixed home is an itinerant. By nature he  is a traveller, in his mind he is a voyager and he divides his time between Kolkata, Goa and Brooklyn.

Being one of India's best-known writers , he had to write for many publications. including the Hindu, The New Yorker and Granta, and he has served on the juries of several international film festivals, including Locarno and Venice. He has taught at many universities in India and the USA, including Delhi University, Columbia, the City University of New York and Harvard . Amitav Ghosh is a rare breed.He bade adieu to teaching long back.He is now busy in reading and learning.  Every book means  a lot of research for  Amitav Ghosh. He studies the place. What he did in his youth is important. But even in his old age he gives equal importance to hard work  and research for writing a book. Just imagine, for writing the book, River of Smoke  at the age of  55 he  took nearly three and a half years  travelling and reading. It is to write the second book of his Ibis trilogy he spent several weeks in Guangzhou and learnt some Cantonese to depict the background of the novel which is set in Fanquit town. This explains why Amitav Ghosh  writes history and fiction equally well. In his novels  he creates an entire world out of an even a small village. In the same way he wrote book after book. His books include The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, In An Antique Land, Dancing in Cambodia, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace, Incendiary Circumstances, and  The Hungry Tide. His first  novel, Sea of Poppies, is the first volume of the Ibis Trilogy and his recent one is River of Smoke

Amitav Ghosh's debut novel The Circle of Reason is an indication of great things to come. The novel does not have much of a story. It has great characters, won the Prix Medicis Etranger, one of France's top literary awards, Portrayal of memorable characters and to  weave a neat plot out of them  is now the forte of Amitav’s novel, but it was his Achiles’s heel in The Circle of Reason. He has created memorable characters and situations in that  debut novel, but has failed to string them together in a meaty story .The storyline veers around a local would-be scientist who is in love with phrenology and goes around measuring all the villagers' heads, and a small boy .It  turns tragic, hilarious, and profoundly philosophic . True to Amitav's style, his characters are well etched, although he has tended to stretch the uni-dimension that he fixates on a little more this time. His attention to detail was immaculate as in his later novels, though occasionally distracting. The  boarder town hosting refugees  serves as seting for this  vivid and magical story.  The novel traces the misadventures of Alu, a young master weaver in a small Bengali village who is falsely accused of terrorism. Alu flees his home, travelling through Bombay to the Persian Gulf to North Africa with a bird-watching policeman in pursuit. This is a strange novel. In fact in this magical realism  Amitav makes a claim on literary turf held by Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie.

Amitav’s narrative represents a prodigious feat of research and the novels that follow are excellent examples of it. With a Calcutta background, Amitav who studied in Dehra Dun, New Delhi, Alexandria and Oxford and his first job was at the Indian Express newspaper in New Delhi developed a broad minded progressive anti-colonial  approach . His scholarly self mingled with the writer’s self in him.  He earned a doctorate at Oxford before he wrote his first novel, which was published in 1986.The Shadow Lines and The Glass Palace, which deal movingly and powerfully with post-imperial dislocations in Bengal and Burma. The characters are delineated  with integrity and dignity. He makes historical perspectives  real and yet the fictional depiction  of  reality has about it a contemporaneity. The Shadow Lines won the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Ananda Puraskar. Incendiary Circumstances,and  The Hungry Tide also earned a great critical acclaim. The Calcutta Chromosome won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 1997 and The Glass Palace won the Grand Prize for Fiction at the Frankfurt International e-Book Awards in 2001. The Hungry Tide won the Hutch Crossword Book Prize in 2006. In 2007 Amitav Ghosh was awarded the Grinzane Cavour Prize in Turin, Italy.

But the shift in Amitav Ghosh’s writing occurs with his master plan of writing the Ibis trilogy.The Sea of Poppies,  the first in his Ibis trilogy has great characters and an interesting plot. The novelist focuses on the British traders’ hypocritical and self-justifying espousal of the doctrine of free trade .The theme is based on  the opium trade down the Ganges to Calcutta and towards Mauritius. The  novel  is ,however, written upon a much larger canvas than ever before, with a multitude of characters and an epic vision.There is a  colourful array of seamen, convicts and labourers sailing forth in the hope of transforming their lives. Apparently it seems that the characters are his targets. The Brits whom he depicts are basically scheming, perverse and ruthless to a man , but Ghosh has portrayed them not as  round characters who grow. They are  largely caricatures. At the end of The Sea of Poppies, the clouds of war were seen looming, as British opium interests in India pressed for the use of force to compel the Chinese mandarins to keep open their ports, in the name of free trade. Symbolically , the novel thus ends  amidst a raging storm, rocking the triple-masted schooner, the Ibis.

River of Smoke is essentially self-contained, its narrative not needing familiarity with what has gone before. The author’s sympathies are largely with the Chinese In the River of Smoke , the writer’s focus  is now shifted to the opium trade with China, centred on the coastal port of Canton. As in The Sea of Poppies, two other vessels have also been caught up in a similar storm.The Anahita, a sumptuously-built cargo vessel is here shown as  owned by the Bombay Parsi merchant Bahram Modi . Bahram Modi is the successful entrepreneur with the best view from his office, the only Indian member of the Committee of the Western-led Chamber of Commerce in Canton and the lover of a Chinese boatwoman, Chi-Mei, through whom he has fathered a son he cannot acknowledge.The ship called Anahita is  his biggest shipment of raw opium for sale in Canton. The other vessel is Redruth, a Cornish vessel with a cargo of unusual flora . The Cornish botanist who looks for rare plants ,particularly the mythical golden camellia in China is also there in the vessel. The  rounded  portrayal of characters is most  interesting aspect of the novel while in the earlier novels there is a tendency towards caricature.

Ghosh’s purpose is clearly both literary and political. His descriptions are vivid and  a lost world is revived to life. There is the air of a Victorian epistolary novel when we find the chatty letters of the gay Eurasian painter Robin Chinnery. At times, between the vivid descriptions of a riot on the maidan and the delightfully chatty letters of the gay Eurasian painter Robin Chinnery. At the same time there is the flavor of Conrad’s story especially reflected in the  stunning reversal of perspective.The author’s fine feel for nautical niceties, reminds us of the romanticised vision of writers like  James Clavell, but those writers, placed the white man at the centre of their narratives. Amitav deliberately relegates his colonists to the margins of his story.

The focus is entirely on the colonialism’s impoverished, and usually non-white, victims.They are given the central position, not the white masters. Amitav Ghosh took nearly three and a half years to write the second book of his Ibis trilogy. He spent several weeks in Guangzhou and learnt some Cantonese to depict the background of the novel which is set in Fanquit town. Most of the action occurs in Guangzhou .  Like the Sea of Poppies ,the novel which deals with opium trade in China  is also not a single linear .Like Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, the relationship  between Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke  is a ‘tangential one’ as Amitav Ghosh himself describes it.The  mash-up of fact and fiction works, coalescing into a narrative shaped by cataclysmic historical events but inflected with small-scale personal drama beautifully works here in the novel.

Amitav Ghosh is particularly good at representing the distinctive voices of his characters; what sometimes seemed forced in the earlier book is natural and convincing in River of Smoke, He exquisitely reproduces the new hybrid language resulting from the mongrel mating of tongues.For this he learns Cantonese with arduous efforts. Sometimes he does go overboard with his Hobson-Jobson; his prose is littered with words the average reader has rarely encountered, “swadders”, “buttoners”, “mumpers” and “mucksnipes”, all heard on the Canton maidan. Terms like “cumshaw”, “gubbrowed”, “girmitiyas”, “mudlarking” and “linkisters” are used so often along with words used by Indians in diverse contexts , chuck-muck as any in the city, with paltans of nokar-logue doing chukkers in the hallways and syces swarming in the istabbuls. There is even an Indian restaurant in Canton, run by a boatwoman who had grown up in Calcutta’s Chinatown. She utters  Achha  to ensure that  it would contain neither beef nor pork. River of Smoke is deliberately  written in an almost old-fashioned style, its prose straightforward and unadorned, its emotions deeply affecting. Despite the varied nationalities of his characters, the Indian reader can be left in little doubt about the author’s basic allegiance. This is an Indian novel, but one written by a 21st-century Indian, one who is both cosmopolitan and conscious of his heritage. “Democracy is a wonderful thing”, Bahram observes to a British merchant. “It is a marvellous tamasha that keeps the common people busy so that men like ourselves can take care of all matters of importance. I hope one day India will also be able to enjoy these advantages — and China too, of course.”

This is the realistic tone of Amitav in the two novels of his  Ibis trilogy, Ghosh has come a long way from the magic realism of his first novel. After  Song of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh’s second novel The River of Smoke is going to be one of the masterpieces of twenty first century Indian English literature. He is now keen on writing the third part of his Ibis trilogy. 


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  2. Really the development of the much acclaimed writer has been traced very beautifully.The article is so very self explanatory that one can understand and follow the story line even with out reading it.At the same time kindles the reader to read the novel.

  3. Thanks so much Madhuramani.. for your appreciation .. you may send me query if any to my mail...

  4. You can also find me at
    I am the Editor in Chief of both these two journals


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