Thursday, March 8, 2012

*River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh

John Murray, 2011 (UK)
517 pp
(Hard cover edition)

"Look there, he said, pointing upriver. You'll see a big fort, down by the water, right at the river's mouth. The lascars call it 'Sher-ka-mooh,' the Tiger's Mouth; the Angrez call it the Bogue. It was built just a few years ago, to defend the river, and to look at it you would think no one could ever get into such a stronghold. But at night you or I or anyone else could walk in, without anyone stopping us. The soldiers are all lost in smoke, and their officers too. This is a plague from which no one can escape."

River of Smoke is book two of Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy, so named for the ship introduced in book one, Sea of Poppies.  In book one, set in 1836, the British colonial powers had changed the rich fields of Indian farmland into a veritable "sea of poppies," and had economically hogtied the people who used to raise their own food crops to the opium industry. Opium often forced farmers into debt and into leaving their homes, causing many of them to make voyage to plantations in Mauritius and other places where the abolition of slavery left a great demand for indentured workers. Now two years later, River of Smoke follows the opium from its origins in India to its final destination in China, where in thirty years the amount of the "black mud" penetrating throughout the country has increased "tenfold," and where
"...thousands, maybe millions of people ... have become slaves to it -- monks, generals, housewives, soldiers, mandarins, students,"
and now, in 1838, the Emperor has had enough, and he's sent an emissary to Canton to force the issue.

Despite what may be expected of the second novel of this trilogy, River of Smoke does not actually pick up where Sea of Poppies left off.  Although some answers as to the respective fates of the characters from Sea of Poppies are partially revealed, and although some familiar characters continue on in River of Smoke, Ghosh sets the action in Canton and brings in new faces, most notably that of Bahram Naurozji Modi, a wealthy Parsi merchant from Bombay.  He had married into a family of famous shipbuilders who had made their fortunes after being awarded a contract from the East India Company;  he decided that he would like to get into the export business. At age 21, he made his first trip to Canton, where he was "stripped of the multiple wrappings of home, family, community, obligation and decorum," and became a different person altogether, even taking on a mistress who gave him a son.  Known there as Barry Moddie, he has returned after a three-year absence, sailing in his beloved ship Anahita, with a hold full of opium, "possibly the single most valuable cargo that had ever been carried out of the Indian Subcontinent." He is banking on making enough money to satisfy his investors, make a fortune for himself and prove something to his wife's family.   Now that he is in Canton just as the Emperor has decided to crack down and start enforcing the longstanding ban on opium imports, his ability to sell his cargo is on hold; in the meantime he is appointed to "the Committee," which runs the Canton Chamber of Commerce, "the foreign enclave's unofficial Cabinet." Bahram has his appointment because he is the longest-standing merchant from India, not because of any feelings of equity from the other members of the Committee. It is there that the merchants' battles over the opium trade will be fought, and where Bahram, as the member from India, will be caught in the middle of the debate between free trade as a God-given right of imperialistic nations and the morality of the opium trade as well.   With this role comes great responsibility, as his friend Zadig reminds him:
 "You will have to ask yourself: what of the future? How do we safeguard our interests in the event of war?...And if the Chinese manage to hold off the Europeans, what will become of us, and our relations with them? We too will be suspect in their eyes. We who have traded here for generations, will find ourselves banned from coming again."
But it is not just the future of trade that Bahram must contemplate: first, he must acknowledge his own role in the opium trade currently devastating China, since

"almost all the 'black mud' that came to Canton was shipped from your own shores; and you knew also that even though your share of the riches that grew upon that mud was minuscule, that did not prevent the stench of it from clinging more closely to you than to any other kind of Alien."

and this truth will have ultimately have devastating implications for Bahram as a human being. 

There is a great deal of use of the term "civilized nation," and it is ultimately up to the reader to decide what this means.  River of Smoke also presents the flip side of relations with China, in which cultural exchange has benefits for all nations: in art and poetry as represented by the character of Robin Chinnery and in the exchange of plants, carried out by Mr. Penrose, a wealthy man whose nurseries in Britain were famous for their wide variation in imported plants, and Paulette Lambert,  one of the original passengers of the Ibis from Sea of Poppies. While Paulette sort of sits on the sidelines of all the politics since as a woman she cannot enter the foreign enclave in Canton, she and her patron work to collect and trade plants with the Chinese, but even their work is interrupted by politics.

If you read Sea of Poppies, you will remember the fast-paced action of that story; don't expect the same here. I have to admit to being skeptical of this novel at first because the action in River of Smoke is slow to build, but once the story got to Singapore, the pace picked up and I found myself  in the role of observer of events leading to a critical moment in China's history.  I often use the phrase "I couldn't put the book down," meaning I was absorbed in the pages in front of me, but this time I literally did not stop reading until I had come to the very end and I have the dark circles under my eyes to prove it. This book put me in the skins of the main characters and I was caught up in the all of the political and  moral debates, felt the tensions rising in the foreign enclaves, and then became ultimately saddened by knowing what's in store for the Chinese within the next year or so and where it's all going to lead.  And in today's global geopoliticking, the same old songs are being heard again and as in the past, the big powers aren't listening. 

Although tempered by humor, especially in terms of language misunderstandings, River of Smoke is an intense novel that rises above the ordinary to tell an incredibly devastating story while offering a glimpse of what could have been if greed and nationalistic pride hadn't interfered. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it is an excellent book, and I recommend it very highly.

fiction from India


  1. We listened to the first half of the book on audio but haven't finished it as yet. Well worth it though.

  2. Well worth it it is, and as I'm sitting here it just came to me that the imperialist powers seemed to specialize in substituting one form of slavery for another. Of course, they were also slaves in their own right if you consider money and greed to be their masters. I can't speak highly enough about this book and I hope you get to finish it soon!


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