Conventional wisdom has it that in the age of Twitter long striders in the world of fiction are doomed to extinction. Attention spans have dwindled, the pundits say, brevity is all, and the grand narrative is to be consigned to the trash heap. Well, thank God, Amitav Ghosh hasn’t been paying attention to the so-called experts but has decided to go where his inclinations have led him.
Sea of Poppies, the first novel in his Ibis trilogy, published a little over three years ago, was immodestly large in its ambition and narrative span and was, in a word, a masterpiece. Ghosh has always had an appetite for the big and the spectacular, and writing at the height of his powers, he gave us a book that was chock-full of memorable characters and set-pieces, dialogue that was pitch perfect, and learned yet compelling disquisitions on subjects that ranged from the best way to harvest an opium poppy to how new prisoners were admitted to Alipore jail a couple of centuries ago. The best thing about that novel was how lightly it wore its learning, its grasp of the politics and trade and people of the nineteenth century. It was thrilling, funny, tragic, insightful and fun, and it moved at the speed of a ban—the rogue wave that is to be encountered in the waterways of Bengal.