The continuing saga of the history of the Opium Wars, which had its genesis in the poppy fields of India. The tide of history is poised to deposit a new commercial landmark on Asian shores, namely Hong Kong. An old regime struggles to maintain its sovereignty against a determined adversary even as we attempt to decipher the portents. The narrative, with its numerous strands of story, is as engaging as any of Ghosh’s earlier novels of which The Glass Palace with its tragic theme of dispossession remains my favourite. Once again Ghosh sketches a tale of the relentless onslaught of imperialism, with its main impetus sheltering behind the righteous shield of Free Trade. He balances this rapacity with the gentle tale of the plant collector involved in a different kind of exchange, which promises pleasure rather than destuction.
It is the figure of Bahram Modi that looms largest among the motley cast that throngs olf Canton. Bahram, the once impoverished lad, caught up in the game of making more and more money, of proving his business acumen to his disdainful wife and in-laws. Like any businessman whose dharma is to reap profit, he struggles against the stirrings of conscience.
Ghosh handles the variety of dialect more comfortably this time, at least that’s what I felt, than in The Sea of Poppies. The rich embellishment of detail whether of food or clothing creates a complete picture but palls occasionally, as do Robin Chinnery’s letters to Paulette. One walks away with great sympathy for Bahram, which is exactly as it should be after reading any great work of fiction.