Setting sail from India to China on ‘River of Smoke’ (IANS Book Review)

August 6th, 2011 - 11:29 am ICT by IANS  

Book: “River of Smoke”; By Amitav Ghosh, Publisher: Penguin Books, Price: Rs.699, Pages: 558

“River of Smoke” is the second book in Amitav Ghosh’s trilogy that began with the story of the gathering of indentured labourers and convicts for their journey to Mauritius. “The Sea of Poppies”, the first in the series, ends as the ship, Ibis, sails to Mauritius and gets caught in a terrific storm.

“River of Smoke” takes the action from India to Canton. The 19th century was an era of sea voyages, when people travelled to new places to seek their fortunes. It is a story that stretches across the sea routes of the Indian Ocean, linking the new trading ports of Singapore, Macau, Malacca and the still windswept wilderness of Hong Kong till it reaches Canton.

Three ships arrive at Canton, the Ibis from Mauritius, the Anahita from Bombay carrying a shipload of opium, and the Redruth that brings horticulturist Fitcher Penrose and his new found assistant, Paulette, on the trail of an elusive golden camellia.

“River of Smoke” is not a sequel to the first book though some of the characters make a reappearance as they reach Canton on different ships. There is Neel, the zamindar convicted for forgery who escaped from the Ibis and Paulette, the daughter of a botanist. The new lead character of the engrossing novel is Behram Modi, the Parsi opium merchant who faces disaster for staking his fortune on the largest consignment ever of opium.

Ghosh uses the same patois, slang, Creole, etc., to draw an evocative picture of Canton, the port town where traders from around the world gather to trade with China. Many of the words are difficult to understand, but Ghosh is unrepentant.

As he says there were many words like mince pies and rhubarb in English literature that “we did not follow in English books but we managed to understand the drift.” The floating shanty town of boats is described as “a rooker of bandits - of bonegrabbers, sotweeds, bangtails and scumsuckers of all sorts”.

But it is opium that is the mainstay of the trade - opium grown in Hindustan and sold in ‘Maha Chin’ by Western traders; it is a trade that the Chinese emperor seeks to ban. Ghosh vividly paints the scenes of Canton’s market, the boat people, the opium dens, the trading posts or factories of the foreign merchants called hongs, the taipan and its myriad characters. Fanqui-town is the foreign enclave in Canton, where no foreign women are allowed.

There are plots and sub-plots galore; the sub-plots provide the historical discourse on subjects as esoteric as plant collection and preservation, Western influence on Chinese painting and other topics.

Ghosh lists one of the surprises of Fanqui-town - a great number of its denizens were from India. They came from Sindh and Goa, Bombay and Malabar, Madras and the Coringa hills - they were all known as ‘Achhas’ from their habit of saying achha. There was even a factory known as the Accha Hong and its young residents learn to play cricket during the blockade of the trader town - the first Indians to do so as the natives were not allowed to play the game in India.

In the first two books of the trilogy, Ghosh brings back two colonial events of great significance that are lost to the mists of history, indenture and the opium trade. “River of Smoke” leaves the reader eager to know where Ghosh will take them on the third part of the journey.

(Shubha Singh can be contacted at

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