Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and made many a best book of the year list upon its release in 2008. Now, Ghosh delivers the follow-up, the second book in the Ibis trilogy, River of Smoke. Protagonist Bahram Modi is an opium shipper struggling to make it through a severe storm in the Indian Ocean to deliver his goods. Throughout the quest, Ghosh effectively introduces us to many characters with equally intriguing backstories, from lowly harbor rats to the emperor of China. Our review simply said, “Ghosh triumphs both through the clarity of his style and the sweep of his vision, and he leaves the reader eager for volume three.”
Read more new and notable fiction new for October.
Here’s a brief excerpt from chapter one:
Deeti’s shrine was hidden in a cliff, in a far corner of Mauritius, where the island’s western and southern shorelines collide to form the wind-whipped dome of the Morne Brabant. The site was a geological anomaly—a cave within a spur of limestone, hollowed out by wind and water—and there was nothing like it anywhere else on the mountain. Later Deeti would insist that it wasn’t chance but destiny that led her to it—for the very existence of the place was unimaginable until you had actually stepped inside it.
The Colver farm was across the bay and towards the end of Deeti’s life, when her knees were stiff with arthritis, the climb up to the shrine was too much for her to undertake on her own: she wasn’t able to make the trip unless she was carried up in her special pus-pus—a contraption that was part palki and part sedan chair. This meant that visits to the shrine had to be full-scale expeditions, requiring the attendance of a good number of the Colver menfolk, especially the younger and sturdier ones.
To assemble the whole clan—La Fami Colver, as they said in Kreol—was never easy since its members were widely scattered, within the island and abroad. But the one time of year when everyone could be counted on to make a special effort was in midsummer, during the Gran Vakans that preceded the New Year. The Fami would begin mobilizing in mid-December, and by the start of the holidays the whole clan would be on the march; accompanied by paltans of bonoys, belsers, bowjis, salas, sakubays and other in-laws, the Colver phalanxes would converge on the farm in a giant pincer movement: some would come overland on ox-carts, from Curepipe and Quatre Borne, through the misted uplands; some would travel by boat, from Port Louis and Mahébourg, hugging the coast till they were in sight of the mist-veiled nipple of the Morne.
Much depended on the weather, for a trek up the wind-swept mountain could not be undertaken except on a fine day. When the conditions seemed propitious, the bandobast would start the night before. The feast that followed the puja was always the most eagerly awaited part of the pilgrimage and the preparations for it occasioned much excitement and anticipation: the tin-roofed bungalow would ring to the sound of choppers and chakkis, mortars and rolling-pins, as masalas were ground, chutneys tempered, and heaps of vegetables transformed into stuffings for parathas and daalpuris. After everything had been packed in tiffin-boxes and gardmanzés, everyone would be bundled off for an early night.
When daybreak came, Deeti would take it on herself to ensure that everyone was scrubbed and bathed, and that not a morsel of food passed anyone’s lips—for as with all pilgrimages, this too had to be undertaken with a body that was undefiled, within and without. Always the first to rise, she would go tap-tapping around the wood-floored bungalow, cane in hand, trumpeting a reveille in the strange mixture of Bhojpuri and Kreol that had become her personal idiom of expression: Revey-té! É Banwari; é Mukhpyari! Revey-té na! Haglé ba?
By the time the whole tribe was up and on their feet, the sun would have set alight the clouds that veiled the peak of the Morne. Deeti would take her place in the lead, in a horse-drawn carriage, and the procession would go rumbling out of the farm, through the gates and down the hill, to the isthmus that connected the mountain to the rest of the island. This was as far as any vehicle could go, so here the party would descend. Deeti would take her seat in the pus-pus, and with the younger males taking turns at the poles, her chair would lead the way up, through the thick greenery that cloaked the mountain’s lower slopes.
Just before the last and steepest stretch of the climb there was a convenient clearing where everyone would stop, not just to catch their breath, but also to exclaim over the manifik view of jungle and mountain, contained between two sand-fringed, scalloped lines of coast.
Deeti alone was less than enchanted by this spectacular vista. Within a few minutes she’d be snapping at everyone: Levé té! We’re not here to goggle at the zoli-vi and spend the day doing patati-patata. Paditu! Chal!
To complain that your legs were fatigé or your head was gidigidi was no use; all you’d get in return was a ferocious: Bus to fana! Get on your feet!
It wouldn’t take much to rouse the party; having come this far on empty stomachs, they would now be impatient for the post-puja meal, the children especially. Once again, Deeti’s pus-pus, with the sturdiest of the menfolk holding the poles, would take the lead: with a rattling of pebbles they would go up a steep pathway and circle around a ridge. And then all of a sudden, the other face of the mountain would come into view, dropping precipitously into the sea. Abruptly, the sound of pounding surf would well up from the edge of the cliff, ringing in their ears, and their faces would be whipped by the wind. This was the most hazardous leg of the journey, where the winds and updraughts were fiercest. No lingering was permitted here, no pause to take in the spectacle of the encircling horizon, spinning between sea and sky like a twirling hoop. Procrastinators would feel the sting of Deeti’s cane: Garatwa! Keep moving…
Excerpted from RIVER OF SMOKE by Amitav Ghosh, published in October 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Amitav Ghosh. All rights reserved.