While in India, few weeks back, to promote River of Smoke the sequel of Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh said the questions youngsters were asking him at his book promotions suggested that they see him as a role model – and he felt privileged. I am reading his River of Smoke and the book offers many things to learn from to the budding writer. Ghosh has used varied techniques to lend authenticity to characters and locations and the period in which the novel is set. I am half way through the book and these are the things I have noticed.
The story starts from where its prequel Sea of Poppies had ended. Though the book has a mix of old (from its prequel) and new characters, the new introductions have occupied most of the space so far. I am already well acquainted with the new characters, and their actions and dialogs further the familiarity. Through how the characters react to situations, Ghosh brings out various facets of their personalities. Although Bharam Modi, the central character of the book, doesn’t want to reveal his filial relationship with Ah Fatt, Modi’s illegitimate son, to Neel, every now and then he ends up putting his hand around Ah Fatt with filial warmth - displaying that he is naturally a warm person.
Ghosh uses variations in language to convey the social background and circumstances of his characters. That he has used pidgin (a mix of Hindustani, English and Chinese which was used then by foreign traders coming to Canton) as the language in which his characters communicate to inject authenticity into dialogs is well known. But at a more nuanced level, he has also used change of accent to convey the change of circumstances in his characters’ lives. When Paulette hears Robin, now staying with his illegitimate English painter father for some years, for the first time in many years, she notices his accent has become rounded and English.
Similarly Ghosh describes locations with the help of historical, demographic and architectural details. He also uses food habits – and traces the origin of some foods, like Samsa being the ancestor of the Indian Samosha – to lend life and immediacy to the locations. You have to read the description of Fanqui town, a harbor town where foreign traders stay in community ghettos, to see the extent of detailing. And it’s very absorbing.
To give his reader an occasional breather from the narrative, Ghosh brings in historical figures and has his characters meet them through chance encounters. So far I have met two: Rothchild, a 19th century Jew financier in Britain, and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Letters have also been used to further the narrative. The letters are informative and fun to read and apart from presenting the details of locations and circumstances of the characters, they also show the intimacy between the addressee and the letter writer.
The key to detailing of course lies in Ghosh’s meticulous research. Ghosh’s background as an anthropologist and former professor would have certainly helped in his research and understanding of the times and forces – political and commercial – at work.