In River of Smoke, the Indian author Amitav Ghosh banishes one of his characters, a French orphan, to a ship anchored near Hong Kong, then just a "wild, gale-swept" island off the coast of Macau. Paulette spends nearly the entire novel waiting there for news of a rare flower, the Golden Camellia, from a friend in Canton's foreign quarter "threshold of the last and greatest of all the world's caravanserais."
In the 19th century, these South China Sea ports bustled with people on their way to someplace else, and Ghosh meets me in the 21st century equivalent a New Delhi airport-hotel bar called Savannah. He has a few hours en route from Goa to New York City, the two places he calls home, so we drink Indian sauvignon blanc, eat American potato chips and chat about common acquaintances on three continents.
Though trained as an anthropologist at Oxford, Ghosh now scrutinizes humankind as a writer. With thick, white hair crowning an unlined face, he seems at once distinguished and boyish and, at nearly 55, hasn't lost his enthusiasm for discovery. River of Smoke follows 2008's Sea of Poppies as the second volume in the Ibis Trilogy, which covers the Opium Wars. In researching it, Ghosh stumbled across the forgotten history of India's involvement in the sale of opium to China. "That's an aspect of the Indian past that we simply do not know about," he says. "It was kind of a revelation for me."
The Ibis Trilogy began as a story about migration, a subject Ghosh has chronicled since 1986 in six novels and one exquisite memoir-history. His characters used to come across as improbable bit players of history Englishmen in Bangladesh, Indians in Egypt, Burmese in India. But they are, in fact, the future harbingers of a global diaspora that is larger and more important than ever.
River of Smoke spills over with startling first encounters and worlds within worlds (like the abandoned botanical garden on Mauritius "where Indian shrubs and Brazilian vines were locked in a mortal embrace"). For this material, Ghosh draws on his own experience of travel and dispersal. Some of his relatives trace their roots to colonial Burma; his father was a diplomat. Ghosh was born in Calcutta but spent parts of his childhood in Colombo and Dhaka.
He left India for Oxford in 1978, never really expecting to return, and is amazed to see how fluid notions of place and identity have become. "Today, people can go to America but they don't have to be totally American," he says. "They can continue to be Arab, Chinese or Indians because they can come back anytime ... That consciousness of the nation-state being the defining aspect of your experience, I think that is profoundly dissolving."
His work bears that out. Ghosh is often clubbed with Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth as one of the best Indian writers of English, but he transcends the label. He is less interested in India or Indians than he is in uprooted people who share the experience of remaking themselves in a new place. His characters move between worlds, propelled by commerce, revolution and curiosity. In the Ibis Trilogy, they are jahaj-bhai, "ship brothers," united by their common journey.