Some weeks ago, with rave reviews River of Smoke made an arrival similar to its prequel Sea of Poppies a year or two back. The book was much awaited by the ones who had read the first installment as Ghosh had left many an end untied: Neel, Ah Fatt, Deeti, Kalua etc, and the fate of the schooner Ibis. In River of Smoke, Ghosh deals with majority of those characters briefly, with the exception of Neel, giving them temporal conclusion; maybe to revive them again in the last and final part of the trilogy.
River of Smoke moves the location of the Ibis trilogy from India and the Ibis to noisy, chaotic Canton, bringing in a host of new characters and a whole new world.
Bharam Modi the central character is an opium trader who, like many others, brings his opium cargo aboard his ship, Anihita, with an entourage of retinues, from Bombay to Canton, dropping anchor in Hong Kong as the Chinese authorities have banned the import of the murky substance into mainland China, albeit, despite this ban, foreign merchants continue to bring opium into China aided by Chinese mandarins and commoners, enslaving swathes of its population (rich and poor, old and young) to the deadly substance, ruining their lives for good.
Bahram has made his fortune from opium and is content to overlook the immoral aspect of his business, like his co-merchants, most of whom are English, who justify their occupation by employing the principles of free trade.
The story moves along through a mosaic of plots, sub-plots and details creating the world of Canton and its various characters and their involvement in the main plot in varied capacities. It absorbingly details how the trade goes on under the blanket of ban through an efficient network of people and methods making its pursuers wealthier and greedier all the while. Similarly, Ghosh has described life in Canton with such detailing and skill that it feels like a city and world you know.
Another narrative runs parallel to the opium plot: the search of the golden camila, an elusive flower believed to be available in China and to have great aphrodisiac powers. This part of the story again displays Ghosh’s flair for description and skills with minutiae and shows the amount of research that has gone into writing the book. Belonging to this narrative strand is a character called Robin Chinnery, a young aspiring painter.
Robin often writes letters to another character in the book detailing the general goings-on in the town, bringing to the reader the perspective of a detached observer. As the plot tightens towards the later part, Ghosh effectively uses Robin’s letters to take the reader away from the middle of the action and give a panoramic view of matters. The letters are full of details and are very interesting to read. (Robin, by the way, is my favorite character apart from Bahram Modi.)
The book is a parable on free trade. A huge share of the British empire’s revenue came from opium trade, although the substance was banned in England and in other parts of Europe. When the Chinese authorities clamp down on the trade, the English merchants defend their right to trade opium employing the tenets of free trade and assert that, if required, Britain would not hesitate to declare war on China to defend that right.
But for all their free-trade bluster, the merchants would be forced out of Canton by the Chinese authorities, although the success of the Chinese authorities would be short-lived, attracting the wrath of British and French naval forces to force opium back on the country (the British and French retribution, however, has been briefly talked about by a character in the end and will hopefully be covered in the third book).
This is a book you don’t want to miss and even if you haven’t read the first part – Sea of Poppies – you can start with River of Smoke as it is like a standalone book for most part with very occasional references to the earlier book which hardly break the narrative flow.