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THE OPIUM CLERK by Kunal Basu Kirkus Star


by Kunal Basu

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-75381-339-4
Publisher: Phoenix/Trafalgar

The complex effects of the Eastern opium trade on three generations of an embattled Anglo-Indian “family”—all painstakingly traced in this elegant first novel.

The tale begins in 1857 with the birth of its protagonist Hiran(yagarbha)—on the very day when his soldier father is killed in action during “the Mutiny” against British occupation. This fateful collision of events influences Hiran’s introspective, meditative nature, particularly after he discovers his ability to divine other’s futures by reading their palms. Basu’s elaborate plot follows Hiran through his early life in Calcutta, employment at an Auction House where transactions relative to the production and distribution of opium are made, and adventures in (the primary market of) China, where he’s caught up in the siege of Canton and barely escapes alive. The plot twist is Hiran’s “employment” by his Deputy Superintendent Jonathan Crabbe to “convince a mother to give up her child” and thus fulfill the vagrant maternal longings of Crabbe’s disoriented, opium-addicted wife. The dynamic of Western exploitation and manipulation of Eastern resources—and a consequent refusal to shoulder responsibilities thereby incurred—is thus echoed in global and personal relations alike, as the British attempt a dignified retreat from the mess they’ve made, the Crabbes abandon their half-caste “son” Douglas, and Hiran, who “inherits” the boy, survives into old age, still bound to obligations long since undertaken, and able at last to decipher “the mystery of the two Life-lines on his [own] palm.” Basu interlards his story with nuggets of wisdom from such classic Indian texts as the Upanishads and Panchatantra. And in the climactic pages, Douglas Crabbe’s helpless reenactment of the familiar patterns of appropriation, evasion, and withdrawal reinforces with powerful irony the lessons learned and not learned by his predecessors—as a young century, and further conflict and conflagration, beckon.

Superbly researched, quite beautifully written: a formidable first novel.