Amitav Ghosh's second part of the Ibis trilogy reveals a passion for words and their strange journeys
The best teacher never lets you know you are being taught. Similarly, perhaps the best storyteller lets a tale spin itself. Reading this second part of Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy, you realise — though the narrator holds all the tellings and retellings together, for the most part — the characters recount their own story.
In this eagerly awaited novel that follows “Sea of Poppies”, we catch up with characters we've met before, as they catch up with each other. But, since Ghosh is no ordinary writer, it is his skill that weaves together into a rich brocade, what in lesser hands might have remained a series of narratives. In this respect, “Smoke” is even better than “Poppies”. Take the way Ghosh gets into his characters' mind, speaks with their voice and sees with their eyes. The result is, we experience their world — be it the foreign merchants' quarter of Canton, the windswept cliffs of Mauritius, the inner sanctums of walled-in Chinese gardens or life on a seafaring vessel — from a 360-degree perspective.
Comparisons apart, to have read the first book is no pre-condition to enjoy the second. What is perhaps a pre-condition is an appetite for detail, a taste for complexities, and a love for words and their strange journeys. But those who have read Ghosh know he doesn't allow erudition to hamper an engrossing story, and we are hooked, from the moment we join “La Fami Colver” (Deeti's clan) marching in ritual procession to her “Memory-Temple”, picnicking on parathas and daal-puris with “bajis of pipengay and chou-chou, ourougails of tomato and peanut, chutneys of tamarind and combava fruit”, and read hungrily on.
Never was it more delightful to be tossed from wave to crashing wave, island to island, crossing paths with the passengers of the Ibis and other storm-tossed vessels, who, though frequently lost to each other, seem guided by the omniscient force of the cyclone's eye! That thread of mysticism, to which we were introduced in the first part with Deeti's prescient drawing of the Ibis, runs throughout this novel. In Deeti's case, the mystery is mellowed by unwavering faith in a higher power; in the case of Bahramji Modi, the merchant, fear and pathos mingle. Others, like Neel, the eccentric Baboo Nob Kissin and the deep-seeing Ah Fatt, are yet to reveal their destinies. Unlike Deeti, granted a glimpse from the ‘eye', we must wait for the trilogy's concluding portion.
Since unpretentiously exercised, the author's vast vocabulary, rather than tripping you up with rare usages, helps you see that no other word would have sufficed to describe the scene — and that he is a master of description need not be reiterated. When, for example, Fitcher is “suddenly aware of a strange bedoling in certain parts of his body” (page 60), we may not find “bedoling” in a common dictionary, but we can certainly see Fitcher rocking in grief, and the bereaved father has all our sympathies.
If the narrator's voice transcends the boundary between the verbal and the visual, his characters' speech is audible: We hear the musical lilt of Deeti's “strange mixture of Bhojpuri and Kreol that had become her personal idiom” as she relates events on the Ibis that fateful night: “I thought vreman I'd lost my sight. It was so dark nothing was vizib except when lightning flashed — and tulétan the rain [...] and the thunder, dham-dhamak-dhamakaoing as if to deafen you. [...] you can't imagine how difisil it was...”
Robin Chinnery's conversation transports us to Jane Austen's England. And we are charmed by the sing-song of pidgin as Chi-mei sympathises with Bahram: “Mister Barry trouble have got? Blongi sad inside?” But not everyone is a linguist like Ghosh. Useful then, that the author's website includes the “Ibis Chrestomathy” that he attributes to Neel — a kind of lexicon of commonly used pidgin words. The creation of a detailed history enriches the telling in ways the ordinary reader would never know — precisely why few would make the effort. Compiling the Chrestomathy — along with the rest of Ghosh's extensive research — is reminiscent of Tolkien's detailed maps and histories of the peoples in “The Lord of the Rings”. The difference, of course, is that Tolkien's is an imaginary world, whereas Canton in the years preceding the Opium Wars is a history, yet one nearly lost. Perhaps that adds to its mystical charm.
Apropos pidgin, a mode of communication at once direct and poetic, handy but not dry, and certainly more musical than sms shorthand and Hinglish, it reminds us of the communication needs of a world where commerce brings differing cultures together. With everyone demanding things quickly (chop-chop), why can't this be a revived trend too? Some readers, at least, might blongi happy inside!
Keywords: Book review