It begins with a storm at sea. Three ships on three very different voyages are caught in the grasp of a terrible cyclone.
The Ibis carries a cargo of indentured servants destined for the island of Mauritius, The Redruth is a British nursery boat loaded with plants and trees gathered from foreign shores and the hull of The Anahita teems with hundreds of chests of raw opium bound for the Chinese city of Canton. The lives of those aboard these ships converge in fateful patterns that form the basis of Amitav Ghosh’s most recent novel, River of Smoke. The second installment in Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, River of Smoke was preceded by Sea of Poppies, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and won the prestigious Crossword Book Prize in India.
These works are set to the backdrop of the 19th century opium trade, in which the British East India Company exported vast quantities of the drug to be sold in China, but the real subject for Ghosh are the ways in which a diverse spectrum of human lives become ensnared by the encompassing force of this burgeoning market.
River of Smoke vividly captures a critical moment in the history of global trade, as the tensions between the Chinese monarchy and the British East India Company mount to a perilous crescendo that will culminate in the devastating violence of the Opium Wars. The foreign enclave of Canton, where much of the novel takes place, is a cosmopolitan array of various international interests all vying for their portion of the vast and unbridled opportunities for trade that flow from the markets of China. The characters in the novel represent this multiplicity of national origin and social status, from the opium dealers and “sing-song girls” of Canton’s river district to the wealthy and powerful Chinese merchants and foreign traders.
At the center of it all is Seth Bahram Modi, a Parsi merchant from Bombay who has staked his life’s work upon the precious and illicit cargo of The Anahita. Bahram has risen from a life of poverty to his position as one of the most influential foreign traders in Canton primarily by importing opium from India. However, as the future of the Chinese opium trade grows dim with the passage of increasingly severe and unequivocal prohibition laws, so do Bahram’s future prospects, having gambled his honor and the entirety of his wealth upon this single shipment.
The characterization of Bahram dramatically captures the moral and political ironies of this period in world history. Driven by a deep desire to provide for his friends and family, and to emancipate himself from the class into which he was born, he finds a measure of success in an industry that is predicated on greed, addiction and the destruction of lives. As his advances begin to whither around him, engulfed by powerful forces outside of his control, it is opium, the very thing upon which he has built his fortune that threatens to erase it all.
Ghosh’s rapt attention to detail anchors the reader firmly within the world of his story which takes place nearly two centuries ago and yet mirrors the contemporary moment in vital and uncanny ways. The rhetoric of free trade that is embraced with messianic fervor by the foreign traders in Canton could have been taken directly from current discussions of globalization. And the illusory ideals of liberty and freedom which were called upon to justify the Opium Wars remain with us today in the resurgent ideology of neoliberalism and the imperialistic military interventions of Western powers.
Ghosh’s novel is never didactic, painting a complex and multifaceted picture of this period in history, particularly through the character of Bahram whose life is an amalgamation of the various political and economic forces acting upon the individuals of this era. However, River of Smoke calls upon the reader, through its novelistic vision of empathy and compassion, to remember the tragic errors of the past. And it is an act of remembrance that is beckoned through the beauty of the words upon the page, words which span across a diversity of languages and idioms, that revel equally in the wild eyed vulgarities of debauched sailors, the boastful pontifications of free market mercenaries and the insatiable wonderings of artists and travelers.
This is Ghosh’s greatest gift as a writer, his ability to harness the properties of language as a means to gaze across a multitude of difference, revealing both the insidious workings of power and the scattered moments of beauty that define and unite us.