In the middle part of River of Smoke, the second novel in Amitava Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy of novels, we are in Canton, China. The time, to remind my readers here, is late 1830s; and Canton is the Chinese city serving as the most critical node for the all-important opium trade. The opium-wary Chinese are circumspect of foreign presence, and owing to that strict restrictions are in place about foreginers’ movements within the city. Outsiders are only allowed inside what is called the fanqui town. There, trading depots called factories have been set up; these serve as living quarters, offices, places of congregation. The British one is of course the biggest, but an important one that we are concerned with is the Achcha Hong. The word ‘achcha’—meaning ‘good’ in Hindi and ‘cunning’ in Chinese—is being loosely used for Indians.
But what was this thing called ‘Indian’ in the late 1830s? Ghosh deliberates over the same question in the book after pointing out a strange bond among the achcha people in the Cantonese district. Kachhi, Muslim, Brahmin Catholic, Parsi — merchants of all backgrounds are presented as feeling connected to each other, and it is indeed a tug at the heart to perceive a nearly-national feeling among those whom we can now call Indians.
But Ghosh is also quick to point out that the source of this kinship wasn’t one to feel proud of. In his own words: “…the paradox was that these ties were knotted not by an excess of self-regard, but rather by a sense of shared shame.” This shared shame is of being colonized, of being identified as a subjugated people outside their own land Ghosh’s deftness in pausing at this observation is remarkable. The hypothesis that emerges is that he views Indian nationalism not as an organic thing but an outcome of this ‘shared shame,’ experienced most by the cosmopolitans who had the misfortune of being ‘nearly equal.’
An important character in the Achcha Hong for us is Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium merchant from Bombay who, having brought in a ship full of opium, and having to keep it in waiting off the coast of Macau (because of the opium embargo imposed by the Chinese authorties), is keenly interested in way the geopolitical standoff between China and the World pans out. If there is a war, Bahram stands to lose a lot. But the exercise Ghosh is set on is Bahram’s transformation from being a businessman with the requisite instincts to being a person besieged by his own culpability in being a profiteering participant in something that is made bare as an inherently evil activity.
Ghosh also invents an interesting literary device to massage the essayistic nerve in him: a gay painter who writes long descriptive letters about Canton to another character. These letters become places where the reader, too, discovers Canton along with its sights and smells. It does become a real place for readers.
(The writer’s first novel ‘Neon Noon’ is now available)