An excerpt from Amitav Ghosh's novel River of Smoke, from The Ibis Trilogy.
Bahram and Zadig had their first glimpse of the General as they came around a corner: Bonaparte was standing amidst a copse of trees, surveying the valley below. He was a thickset man, a little shorter than Bahram, and he was leaning forward a little, with his hands clasped behind his back. He was much stouter than Bahram had been led to expect: his belly was a sizeable protuberance and seemed scarcely to belong on someone whose life had been so extraordinarily active. He was dressed in a plain green coat with a velvet collar and silver buttons, each imprinted with a different device; his breeches were of nankeen, but his stockings were of silk, and there were large gold buckles on his shoes. On the left side of his coat was a large star, emblazoned with the Imperial Eagle, and on his head he was wearing a cocked, black hat.
At the approach of his visitors, Bonaparte removed his hat and bowed briskly, in a manner that might have seemed perfunctory in another man, but which in his case seemed merely to indicate that time was short, and there was nothing to be gained by wasting it on superfluous niceties. It was his gaze, most of all, that Bahram was to remember, for it was as penetrating as a surgeon’s knife, and it cut into him as if to lay bare the flimsy nakedness of his bones.
Once he began to speak it was evident that the General, military man that he was, had been at some pains to inform himself about his two visitors: he clearly knew that Zadig was to be the interpreter for it was to him that he turned after the introductions had been completed.
You are named ‘Zadig’ hein? he said, with a smile. Is it taken from Monsieur Voltaire’s book of the same name? Are you too a Babylonian philosopher?
No, Majesty; I am Armenian by origin, and the name is an ancient one among my people.
While the two men were conversing with each other, Bahram took the opportunity to observe the General closely. His build reminded him of one of his mother’s Gujarati sayings: tukki gerden valo haramjada ni nisani—‘a short neck is a sure sign of a haramzada’. But he noted also his piercing gaze, his incisive manner of speaking, his sparing but emphatic use of his hands, and the half-smile that played on his lips. Zadig had told him that Napoleon was capable of exerting, when he chose, an extraordinary charm, almost a kind of magic: even the barriers of language, Bahram saw now, could not diminish the power of his hypnotic appeal.
Soon it became apparent that Bahram himself was now the subject of the conversation, and he knew, from the General’s darting glances, that he was going to be in for a lengthy interrogation. It was odd to be spoken of without knowing what was being said and Bahram was glad when Zadig turned to him at last and began to translate the General’s words into Hindusthani.
It was in the same language that Bahram answered—but Zadig was by no means a passive interpreter and since he was more knowledgeable than Bahram about many of the subjects that were of interest to Napoleon, the conversation was quickly triangulated. For much of the time Bahram was merely an uncomprehending spectator. It wasn’t until much later that he was to understand everything that was said—yet in retrospect he remembered it all, with perfect clarity, as though he and Zadig had been listening and speaking with the same ears and the same tongue.
Napoleon’s first set of questions, Bahram recalled, were of a personal nature and embarrassed Zadig a little: the scourge of Prussia had declared that he was forcibly impressed by Bahram’s appearance and could see in his face and beard, a resemblance to the Persians of antiquity. In his costume, however, he saw no such similarity, for it seemed to be of the Indian type. He was therefore curious to know what aspects of the civilization of ancient Persia had been preserved by the Parsis of the present day.
Bahram was well prepared for this question, having often had to deal with similar queries from his English friends. The General was right, he answered; his clothing was indeed mostly that of Hindusthan, except for two essential articles: his religion required every adherent, male and female, to wear, next to their skin, a girdle of seventy-two threads called a kasti, and a vestment known, as a sadra—and Bahram was wearing both of these, under his outer garments, which were, and the General had rightly surmised, no different from those which any other man of his country and station would have worn upon such an occasion. This adaptation in outward appearance, accompanied by the preservation of an inner distinctiveness, could also be said to extend to other aspects of the life of his small community. Where it concerned matters of belief Parsis had clung faithfully to the old ways, making every effort to adhere to the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra; but in other respects they had borrowed freely from the customs and usages of their neighbours.
And what are the principal doctrines of the Prophet Zarathustra?
The religion is among the earliest of monotheistic creeds, Your Majesty. The God of its holy book, the Zend-Avesta, is Ahura Mazda, who is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. At the time of Creation Ahura Mazda is said to have unleashed a great avalanche of light. One part of this aura submitted to the Creator and was merged into him; the other part turned away from the light and was banished by Ahura Mazda: this dark force came to be known as ‘angre-minyo’ or Ahriman—the devil, or Satan. Since then the forces of goodness and light have always worked for Ahura Mazda while the forces of darkness have worked against Him. The aim of every Zoroastrian is to embrace the good and to banish evil.
Napoleon turned to look at Bahram: Does he speak the language of Zarathustra?
No, Your Majesty. Like most of his community, he grew up speaking nothing but Gujarati and Hindusthani—he did not even learn English until much later. As for the ancient language of the Zend-Avesta, it is now the exclusive preserve of priests and others versed in Scripture.
And what of the Chinese language? the General asked. Living in that country, have the two of you made any attempt to familiarize yourselves with that tongue?
They answered in one voice: No, they said, they spoke no Chinese, because the common language of trade in southern China was a kind of patois—or, as some called it ‘pidgin’, which meant merely ‘business’ and was thus well suited to describe a tongue which was used mainly to address matters of trade. Even though many Chinese spoke English with ease and fluency, they would not negotiate in it, believing that it put them at a disadvantage in relation to Europeans. In pidgin they reposed far greater trust, for the grammar was the same as that of Cantonese, while the words were mainly English, Portuguese and Hindusthani—and such being the case, everyone who spoke the jargon was at an equal disadvantage, which was considered a great benefit to all. It was, moreover, a simple tongue, not hard to master, and for those who did not know it, there existed a whole class of interpreters, known as linkisters, who could translate into it from both English and Chinese.
And when you are in Canton, said the General, are you allowed to mix freely with the Chinese?
Yes, Your Majesty: there are no restrictions on that. Our most important dealings are with a special guild of Chinese merchants: it is called the Co-Hong, and its members bear the sole responsibility for conducting business with foreigners. In the event of any wrong-doing it is they who have to answer for the behaviour of their foreign counterparts, so the relationship between the Chinese merchants and the others is, in a way, very close, like a partnership almost. But there exists also another class of intermediaries: they are known as ‘compradors’ and they are responsible for supplying foreign merchants with provisions and servants. They are also charged with the upkeep of the buildings in which we live, the Thirteen Factories.
Zadig had said the last three words in English, and one of them caught the Generals’ attention: Ah! ‘Factory’. Is the word the same as our factorerie?
This was a subject that Zadig had inquired into and he was not at a loss for an answer: No, Your Majesty. ‘Factory’ comes from a word that was first used by the Venetians and then by the Portuguese, in Goa. The word is feitoria and it refers merely to a place where agents and factors reside and do business. In Canton, the factories are also spoken of as ‘hongs’.
They have nothing to do with manufacturing then?
No, Your Majesty: nothing. The factories belong, properly speaking, to the Co-Hong guild, although you would not imagine this to look at them, for many of them have come to be identified with particular nations and kingdoms. Several even hoist their own flags—the French Factory being one such.
Striding briskly on, the General gave Zadig a sidewise glance: Are the factories like embassies then?
The foreigners often treat them as such, although they are not recognized to be so by the Chinese. From time to time Britain does indeed appoint representatives in Canton, but the Chinese do not countenance them and they are allowed to communicate only with the provincial authorities: this too is no easy thing, for the mandarins will not receive any letters that are not written in the style of a petition or supplication, with the appropriate Chinese characters—since the British are reluctant to do this, their communications are often not accepted.
Napoleon laughed briefly and the sunlight flashed on his teeth: So their relations founder on the barriers of protocol?
Exactly, Your Majesty. Neither side will yield in this matter. If there is any nation that can match the English in their arrogance and obstinacy, it is surely the Chinese.
But since it is the English who send embassies there, it must mean that they need the Chinese more than they are themselves needed?
That is correct, Your Majesty. Since the middle years of the last century, the demand for Chinese tea has grown at such a pace in Britain and America that it is now the principal source of profit for the East India Company. The taxes on it account for fully one-tenth of Britain’s revenues. If one adds to this such goods as silk, porcelain and lacquerware it becomes clear that the European demand for Chinese products is insatiable. In China, on the other hand, there is little interest in European exports—the Chinese are a people who believe that their own products, like their food and their own customs, are superior to all others. In years past this presented a great problem for the British, for the flow of trade was so unequal that there was an immense outpouring of silver from Britain. This indeed was why they started to export Indian opium to China.
Glancing over his shoulder, the General raised an eyebrow: Started? Commencé? You mean this trade has not always existed?
No, Majesty—the trade was a mere trickle until about sixty years ago, when the East India Company adopted it as a means of rectifying the outflow of bullion. They succeeded so well that now the supply can barely keep pace with the demand. The flow of silver is now completely reversed, and it pours away from China to Britain, America and Europe.
Now the General came to a halt under a tree with strange hairy leaves: plucking two of them he handed one each to Bahram and Zadig. You will no doubt be interested, he said, to learn that this tree is called the ‘She-Cabbage Tree’ and exists nowhere else on earth. You may keep these leaves as souvenirs of this island.
Zadig bowed and Bahram followed: We thank you, Majesty.
They had come quite a distance from the house by this time, and the General now decided to turn back. For a moment it seemed—somewhat to Bahram’s relief—that his attention had wandered from the matters they had been discussing before. But once they began to walk again it became clear that he was not a man to be easily distracted.
So tell me, messieurs, do the Chinese perceive no harm in opium?
Oh they certainly do, Your Majesty: its importation was banned in the last century and the prohibition has been reiterated several times. It is in principle a clandestine trade—but it is difficult to put an end to it for many officials, petty and grand, benefit from it. As for dealers and traders, when there are great profits to be made, they are not slow to find ways around the laws.
Napoleon lowered his gaze to the dusty pathway. Yes, he said softly, as though he were speaking to himself; this was a problem we too faced, in Europe, with our Continental System. Merchants and smugglers are ingenious in evading laws.
Exactly so, Your Majesty.
Now, a twinkle appeared in the General’s eye: But how long do you think the Chinese will suffer this trade to continue?
It remains to be seen, Your Majesty. Things have come to a pass where a cessation in the trade would be a disaster for the East India Company. Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that without it the British would not be able to hold on to their Eastern colonies; they cannot afford to forgo those profits.
Quelle ironie! said Napoleon suddenly, flashing his visitors his arresting smile. What an irony it would be if it were opium that stirred China from her sleep. And if it did, would you consider it a good thing?
Why no, Your Majesty, responded Zadig immediately. I have always been taught that nothing good can be born of evil.
Napoleon laughed. But then the whole world would be nothing but evil. Why else par example do you trade in opium?
Not I, Your Majesty, said Zadig quickly. I am a clockmaker and I play no part in the opium trade.
But what of your friend? He trades in opium, does he not? Does he believe it to be evil?
This question caught Bahram unawares and he was temporarily at a loss for words. Then, gathering his wits, he said: Opium is like the wind or the tides: it is outside my power to affect its course. A man is neither good nor evil because he sails his ship upon the wind. It is his conduct towards those around him—his friends, his family, his servants—by which he must be judged. This is the creed I live by.
Napoleon directed his piercing gaze at Bahram: But a man may die, may he not, because he sails upon the wind?
The thought withered on his lips for Longwood had come into view, and an aide was seen to be hurrying down the path in search of the General.
Bonaparte turned to Zadig and Bahram and swept his hat off his head: Au revoir messieurs, bonne chance!
Amitav Ghosh is the author of eight novels. River of Smoke follows Sea of Poppies as the second of The Ibis Trilogy.
This excerpt is taken from Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011, 168–175).