The Way of Heaven in Amitav Gosh’s River of Smoke

“Our longing for the imagined health of the past must be a sign of the sickness of the present” (Bate 2). Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke looks back at a time in the past that is important as it is the site of contest for two ways of life, two different ways of looking at culture and nature and two very different set of peoples. The past it looks at is not totally free of rot. Yet, it has its moments of glimpses to a health that is not imagined but real. There are two pasts of China when one looks at the narrative: the reader’s past and the narrator’s past. The reader’s past includes the narrator’s past and present and the time between the opium wars and today. The narrator’s present is full of the physic-moral sickness induced by opium but his past is glorious, with a balance of yin and yang and oneness with nature. That’s not all, because there is an array of possibilities to be explored. When seen through the twin lenses of ecocriticism and postcolonialism the novel presents a wide and interesting vista. These two ways of looking at the world have been yoked together, not unnaturally or violently, but because they have a common denominator of questioning the exploitative nature of humanity, and demanding equality: for humans and for all the elements of nature respectively. Ghosh’s novel is informed by his critical gaze at the anthropocentric, Eurocentric and materialistic human beings in general, and the West in particular. The suffix –centric that is used in the previous sentence is quite dangerous. It is true, particularly in the case of this paper, that this suffix is generally attributed derogatorily in an ex post facto manner to an object that has been conclusively proven to be ridiculously, clearly and absolutely wrong. Copernicus et. al. proved the Aristotelian geocentric view of the universe wrong. The German High Criticism proved the absolute theocentric certainty of the Bible wrong. Ecocentrism challenges the humanist and Biblical anthropocentrism to prove it wrong, while ironically leaving the curse of –centrism free to work on it. The troika of Bacon, Descartes and Leibniz, and after them, the Enlightenment thinkers established it firmly (and anthropocentrically) that the human mind is the medium though which the world is created using reason and sense experience as guides. The modern scientific method of observation leading to hypothesis, experiments and formation of theories that are universally valid, even eternally so, was invented in the seventeenth century. That method seeped into the realms of knowledge now called sciences, including social sciences, critical theory etc. Very characteristically, one of the latest progenies of the method- ecocentrism – happens to be one of the most perceptive and harshest critics of the myth of the objective scientific method and of the grand narrative of the Enlightenment scientific progress. River of Smoke (henceforth RS) yields rich dividends to a logical ecocentric analysis but it must be kept in mind that it does the same from a postcolonial perspective too. In fact, it is a fictional work in the postcolonial post pastoral mould that keeps defying definition all the time. Curiously the writer/narrator attempts only to critique the exploitative free trade system of the Raj on a historico-economical basis. Yet, there are a plethora of critical possibilities that open up in the text and contain strands intertwined with the post pastoral convention and the (in)human exploitation of the earth and of the less powerful. In contrast to the characters that have power and exploit nature, there is a circle of people centred on nature. It contains Commissioner Lin, Pauline and her father, Penrose and Robin. Those closer to the centre – like Pauline and her father – worship nature, but the points on the periphery look at it as a substance for human consumption and utilization with aesthetic and economical advantages. People outside the circle have no time to think about a thing as unimportant as nature. People in the novel, except Commissioner Lin, generally view nature anthropocentrically. Commissioner Lin, one of the very few persons portrayed as totally devoid of the taint of evil, speaks axiomatically about the “Way of Heaven” asserting that people choose life over death and good over evil asserting their free will. The Commissioner, who may also stand for the Chinese wisdom that sees yin and yang or the opposing forces composing the universe, also strengthens the post pastoralness of his part of the novel in his recognition of the “creative–destructive universe equally in balance in a continuous momentum of birth and death, death and rebirth, growth and decay, ecstasy and dissolution” (Gifford 153). It is the way of heaven from which those who are out of the circle have strayed. They are the blind and mindless destroyers of nature. There is a complete continuum of positions taken inside the circle of nature: from its cognizant and sustainable users that are all anthropocentric to its worshippers qua nature, deep ecological to the core. The stream of anthropocentric knowledge that has been highlighted in the novel is horticulture, one of most refined branches of agriculture. All –cultures in agriculture, the science of sustaining human life on this earth through plant products are strongly anthropocentric. For instance, they neatly classify plants into weeds and non-weeds and instill in humanity the hatred of weeds, converting them into deadly and committed weed killers, although weeds are but plants, whose products have no mass demand in markets. Mr. Penrose was a devoted horticulturalist who had made fortune through his innovative and bold utilization of the natural resources of the world. He looked upon nature “as an assortment of puzzles, many of which, if properly resolved, could provide rich sources of profit” (RS 47). His practical approach towards nature can be judged rightly through his response to the wilderness that the Botanical Gardens of Port Louis had turned into. It was irksome to his eyes that the symmetrical beauty of an English garden was no more, in its place was nature’s plenty in all its varieties of vegetation from various continents. “In Nature there existed no forest where African creepers were at war with Chinese trees, nor one where Indian shrubs and Brazilian vines were locked in a mortal embrace. This was a work of Man, a botanical Babel” (RS 23). It was this man-made storehouse of botanical riches that had forced Penrose to include Port Louis in Redruth’s itinerary. Even while “mourning” for its fallen state Penrose was forming schemes of benefiting from whatever he could lay his hands on, as it had no owner. It was the same mentality with which the white races had always colonized and snatched lands from others. He was intensely and intelligently immersed in his work of making profit from plants, and this made him invent whatever made his work easier. The process of making technological advances so that nature can be exploited more easily was repeated in his case too. It was his purely egocentric gaze on nature that had enabled Penrose to extract a fortune from it. What troubled him the most was that the changing times had increased the number of competitors in the market of exotic flora; hence the extent of exploitation of nature too must have increased. Imperialism and colonization were the bringers of death and destruction of native flora, fauna, cultures and human beings. As Lenin had rightly pointed out in his “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, capitalism in its crassest and most dangerously exploitative form was called imperialism. So, it sucked the marrow out of nature’s bone after having fed on its flesh heartily. It had an insatiable appetite for profit and was essentially anthropo-, and generally, Eurocentric. For the Penroses of the world, the natural world around them aroused just a sense of curiosity, never awe. They are genuinely interested, but they don’t see any mystery in the phenomena of nature. In other words, they don’t fit in the scheme of the temple of nature as its priests. That role is left for the people like Pierre Lambert. To know better about the way he looked at nature and its majesty, one has to have an entirely differently cast mind. For him “the love of Nature had been a kind of religion, a form of spiritual striving: he had believed that in trying to comprehend the inner vitality of each species, human beings could transcend the mundane world and its artificial divisions” (RS 47). He was a botanist for whom horticulture was a form of spiritual communion with nature, nay, with the spirit of the earth. Paulette, trained by her father had inherited a worshipful love of nature. Lambert was her biological and intellectual father at the same time and she was made in his image, although not as purely ecocentrally and selflessly as he. She did find Penrose, her quasi-father with his resolve to extract a living from what nature had in it, a better fit in the order of nature than her father. Robin, with his artist’s sensibility and trained eyes that saw aspects of nature’s beauty missed by others, still remained atavistically ensconced in the Renaissance humanistic anthropocentrism. Penrose’s sons disappointed him because they had no interest in botany and plants were just like any other item of merchandise for them. Yet, he was different only in according nature comparatively more importance than them while remaining firmly anthropocentric. He was, after all, a western man and an imperialist too. In the beginning, “the cultures of most primal societies throughout the world were permeated with Nature-oriented religions that expressed the ecocentric perspective. These cosmologies, involving a sacred sense of the Earth and all its inhabitants, helped order their lives and determine their values” (Sessions 158). With the passage of time, amongst the religions and philosophies of the world, various eastern or pagan religions stayed close to nature while the western philosophy and religion became anthropocentric from the pagan ecocentrism and animism. It was Aristotle who had firmly established a geocentric universe with man at the top of the Great Chain of Beings: as Nature made plants for the use of the animals and both for man’s use. Penrose is a man, and for him nature is a source of things that he uses for his benefit. His ship is made in his image, with nothing fanciful and his eyes were always on profit that was huge. The plants he had chosen for the Chinese connoisseurs were handpicked from the Americas. antirrhinums, lobelias and georginas… the ‘Mexcian Orange’ and a beautiful new fuchsia… Gaultheria shallon, a plant both ornamental and medicinal, and a magnificent new conifer… Shrubs were not neglected either: the flowering currant, in particular, was a species for which Fitcher had very high hopes. (RS 47) He had planned to exchange the plants never seen in China for those never seen in the west, making neat profit in the process. All his inventiveness and his spirit were devoted to his own self and not to any other entity. He is just one of the many imperial explorers, horticulturalists and botanists who saw nature especially that of the colonies, as something to be acquired and exploited for profit. As is made clear in the novel, Holland and France were also making similar ventures in the field of horticulture. Sir Joseph Banks, the Curator of the King’s Garden at Kew, had collected plants for display from the remotest parts of the world. Only China, “– a country singularly blessed in its botanical riches, being endowed not only with some of the most beautiful and medicinally useful plants in existence, but also with many that were of immense commercial value” was not equally represented as it was not so heavily exploitable (RS 61). The reason behind it was that the Celestials were clearly aware of the value of nature and they did not allow the western barbarians to invade and destroy their nature. Even when some success brought them in possession of the much yearned for plant specimens, it was very difficult to transport them across the seas as the seamen who were in charge of the plants on board looked at the plants as some kind of “threat”, as their competitor who had eyes on the water that was essential for their existence. The imperial explorers/exploiters of nature had devised ingenious ways of doing their work. Explorers in the eighteenth century couldn’t take any live specimens with them, so they took dried specimens (seeds) with them. They even devised a “painted garden”, i.e. painted pictures of the specimens, some kind of a catalogue, to plan future exploitative excursions on. They finally did succeed in bringing the Chinese flora to enrich the European landscape. “Hydrangeas, chrysanthemums, flowering plums, tree peonies, the first repeat-flowering roses, crested irises, innumerable new gardenias, primroses, lilies, hostas, wisterias, asters and azaleas” were all Chinese imports (RS 73). To top it all came Cunningham’s find – the horticultural Holy Grail, the Golden Camellia – that was reputed to be the eternal font of youth. It is the search for this flowering plant that makes the most important sub-plot of the novel, with two of the five central characters involved. The novel focuses an ecocritical glance on the nineteenth century human exploitation of nature. In addition to showing how those who ruled, the imperial powers and the dominant human races, exploited fellow humans and nature, the novel also shows that nature is the voiceless and powerless entity that is exploited even by the most powerless humans. When Paulette looks at the island of Kowloon, what she saw is proleptic of modern man’s mindless destruction of the life sustaining nature: The vegetation was sparse and lacking in interest: such trees as there may once have been had been hacked down by the people who lived in the impoverished little villages that were scattered around the island’s rim. They had done a thorough job of it too, for almost nothing remained now but a few stunted trunks and wind-twisted branches (RS 120). She finds the sparsely populated Hong Kong more attractive. From where Redruth was anchored, the human habitations couldn’t be seen. Rice fields were everywhere and the mainlanders were not interested in such an island. Nature offered clean drinking water in abundance in the form of streams and the ships were drawn there because of the same. Even Paulette is not a nature worshipper in a totally egoless manner. The thrill one got in wandering in the forests of china and “be to botanize in these vast and beautiful wilds” attracted her a lot. It is ironical that the nurseries run by the professional gardeners on the island of Honam were the place from where all the plants introduced to Europe came, and not from the forests. The civilized barbarians were not allowed to come in contact with nature in China. They are denied this opportunity because the Chinese know their real intentions. One of the greatest power someone may have over something is the power to name them. it was this power that man had over nature and the power was exercised to its fullest when Linnaeus gave it the scientific format of classification and binominal nomenclature. It was the same power that made Penrose exclaim that she had found something new, and Paulette “discovers and names” Diploprora penrosii. Robin’s letter contrasts the crowded Canton with Honam, which is compared to a huge, green and wooded park. The tone clearly conveys his preference. He is there on his quest for the Holy Grail of Cunningham and Penrose. He is full of praise for the way in which the pots were “skilfully grouped to create an impression of a landscape… these natural features… endlessly mutable… reconfigured with the passing of the seasons, or perhaps even to suit the daily moods of its custodians” (RS 182). His praise is an epitome of self-contradiction. It is given to a heavily artificial panorama of nature that is changed according to the aesthetic choices, wishes and fancies of humans. The point is, that they intensify the effects of seasons and generate a concentrated kind of “artificial/pseudo” season in themselves. It is his celebration of the unreal that a Baudrillard would find very interesting. His mindset finds a correlative in the European’s taming of the wilderness, yet maintaining the pretense of nature in designing gardens, landscapes and improved “views”. Ironically, it is the same person talking about the possibility of the transfer of the Redruth consignment to an island: “plants were not meant to grow on ships, were they, Puggly dear? and it does seem cruel to deprive them of their natural element when it lies so close at hand” (RS 260). In the very next instant his anthropocentrism reasserts itself and he suggests that a nursery should be set on the same spot as it’d yield rich future dividends. The enigmatic painter has a visionary’s capacity to throw surprisingly accurate analyses reached through his intuitive sight. His connecting opium and flowers and equating the relation to the abstract ideas of evil and beauty is one such case. The city of Canton had gifted the western world with the choicest of the flowers and also changed the way it viewed gardens and nature. What it had got in return was the permanent curse of slavery to opium. He prophesys that one day, when everything else is forgotten, Canton will be remembered for its flowers that are “immortal and will bloom for ever” (RS 320). Ah Fey’s story is the point where the novel’s postcolonial concern meets the ecocritical one. The man who tells his story as a boy is known to Robin as Mr. Chan. The Eurocentric, anthropocentric men of the Western money making machines can only give contempt, mistreatment and hatred to a fifteen year old Chinese gardener. Although his had been the driving intelligence, success was attributed to a white man, Mr. Kerr. In contrast to Robin’s praise for the gardens of China, Ah Fey hates the best one of Britain. After the kind of treatment he received, to his eyes, Kew is “not a garden but an untended wilderness” (RS 265). Here, it is true, anthropocentrism is clearly discernible. Yet, in an ecocentric character like Ah Fey, for whom plants are more important than his own self, it is not a blemish. In fact, it acts as a medium to make the west’s “taming” and exploitation of nature and of the colonized peoples clearer. Works Cited Bate, Jonathan. The Song of the Earth. Picador: London, 2007. Print. Ghosh, Amitav. River of Smoke. 2011. n.d. Web. DOC. 27 November 2011. Gifford, Terry. Pastoral. Routledge: London, 1999. Print. Lenin, V.I. “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”. May 1997. Web. 22 March 2012. Sessions, George. “Ecocentrism and the Anthropocentric Detour”. Deep Ecology for, the Twenty-first Century. Ed. George Sessions. Shambhala: London, 1995. Print.


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