Published in 2011, River Of Smoke
is a literary novel and the second book in the Ibis Trilogy
by author Amitav Ghosh. Set in 1838, the ship Ibis
carries convicts and indentured laborers across the Indian Ocean. Two of the convicts escape and travel to Canton (now known as the city of Guangzhou in China) where they attempt to join the opium trade. Ghosh was born in Calcutta in 1956 and is now one of India's most well-known authors. This novel was listed as one of the best historical novels of the year by NPR.
As the novel opens, a cyclone rages in the Bay of Bengal, where three ships are converging on Canton. One, the Anahita,
carries the largest consignment of Opium ever to come to the city from India. One ship carries "Fitcher" Penrose, a horticulturist who wants to study China's medicinal plants. The third ship, the Ibis
, carries indentured servants.
Among those fighting for their lives on the Ibis
are Deeti, a widowed poppy grower, and her lover, Kalua. Deeti is a returning character from the first book of the trilogy, Sea of Poppies
. Now the matriarch of a large family, she is fleeing her homeland because she is pregnant with Kalua's child. They secure a lifeboat and escape from the Ibis
with several others, including Ah Fatt, the son of a Canton opium merchant, and Neel, a raja who has been convicted of embezzlement.
Ah Fatt and Neel meet up with Ah Fatt's father, Bahram Moddie, a Parsi merchant who ships opium to China from his native land of India. Bahram joined the opium trade many years before thanks to his father-in-law, Rustamjee Mistrie. Although Rustamjee is a powerful shipbuilder back in India, as his son-in-law, Bahram is a lowly member of the family. However, Bahram manages to convince his father-in-law to fund several journeys to China to take part in the opium trade.
The venture is profitable and brings success to both Bahram and his in-laws, yet things are complicated when he has a son (Ah Fatt) with his mistress Chi Mei, a Cantonese boat woman—a fact of which his Indian in-laws are unaware. But when his father-in-law suddenly dies, the rest of the family attempts to muscle him out of the business. Bahram decides to ship one last huge consignment of opium on the Anahita
, hoping to earn enough to buy out his in-laws' business.
China finds itself in the midst of a crisis: opium addiction is sweeping its population, bringing fortune to the primarily European traders who deal in the substance. In an attempt to control the crisis, the government has begun cracking down on imports of the drug into the country. This essentially becomes a political conflict between the British (since they control India) and the Chinese. The British merchants believe in unrestricted free-trade, stating that "nobody, not even the Grand Manchu himself, can claim jurisdiction over a subject of the Queen of England," but the Chinese government is tired of bearing the consequences of opium addiction.
This conflict leaves opium traders like Bahram in limbo, with no choice but to wait and see if they will be allowed to sell their cargo. However, Bahram is also up against large, established traders from Denmark, Spain, Sweden, France, Britain, and America, and is thus fighting an uphill battle. He agrees to allow his son to join him in the opium trade. Neel, in disguise, finds work as Bahram's munshi
(a type of secretary).
A good deal of the novel describes the sights, sounds, smells, and customs of nineteenth-century China. At one point, Bahram is invited to join the Canton Chamber of Commerce as it was the custom of the time for there to be one Parsi on the Committee. The all-male Committee members greet each other with embraces, and Bahram comments, "Such exuberance might be looked upon askance in a European but in an Oriental of sufficient rank it was likely to be seen rather as a sign of self-assurance." Another subplot involving the all-male trading enclave details their romantic relationships with each other, and one pair (Matheson and Mr. Wetmore) are separated when Matheson must travel to England to be married.
Another subplot involves Paulette, the orphan daughter of a French botanist. Disguised as a deckhand, she accompanies Mr. Fitcher on his expedition in search of a rare plant, the Golden Camellia. During the expedition, Paulette receives letters from her friend Robin Chinnery, the illegitimate, homosexual son of artist George Chinnery. Robin's letters narrate certain sections of the book that reveal more of Canton life outside of Bahram's circles.
The book also covers much of the life of Bahram. He lives a dual existence: he is the dutiful, devoted husband when in India, but when in China, he becomes someone else, even using a Western name. He has children in both India and China but is not particularly interested in any of them until Ah Fatt joins the family business. The story details how his relationships with his wife, Shireenbai, and his Chinese lover change over the years; he abandons both for long periods of times, more or less re-entering each relationship only as he sees fit. At one point, Bahram and his friend Zahdig, an Armenia watchmaker, have a discussion over whether love is a factor in both of their decisions to acquire a second, foreign wife.
When a new High Commissioner, the incorruptible Lin Zexu, is appointed to the Canton Chamber of Commerce to put an end to opium trading, the Committee is unmasked as a group of self-serving hypocrites. An agreement is made wherein the merchants must surrender their opium to the British government for compensation, but Bahram is the sole dissenter. The novel ends with Bahram heartbroken, feeling as though he has sold his soul and gotten nothing in return.