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River of Smoke

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by Katrina Gulliver



Amitav Ghosh (Photo by David Shankbone, released under CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Licence/Wikimedia)

River of Smoke follows Sea of Poppies, as the second instalment of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy. We arrive on the eve of the Opium Wars in a story that began not in Canton, but in India, where the poppies were grown. Sea of Poppies showed us the world of the growers in Bengal, and the social order built upon its profits. Local landowners profited by keeping the growers in a state of indebtedness, and the British traders ran factories and shipped the drug to China.

Ghosh illustrated the rich details of opium production, from its harvest to its packaging in earthenware balls for shipment. The sailors transporting it introduced us to life at sea, and to their other cargo: the people who had been sold (or offered themselves into) indentured servitude. The characters were all connected by the ship Ibis, having been on board during its voyage from Calcutta to Mauritius—as crew, indentured servants, or in the case of two characters: as convicts being transported.

River of Smoke begins perhaps fifty years later, then backtracks to take up where Sea of Poppies left off. Two of the primaries in the first novel, Deeti and Zachary, are barely mentioned in this book: I hope they return in the third (and there are hints that they will). In this volume, Neel, the deposed-raja-turned-convict of Sea of Poppies, comes to the fore, along with a new character—a Parsi trader from Bombay. But the maelstrom of characters means that there is no single protagonist.

This second book follows the path of the opium to its trade in Canton. The heterogeneous world of the Indian Ocean trading community is again clearly illustrated, with discursions into botany, painting, and the varied food available in each port. The subaltern can indeed speak in these books: characters who are of the “elite” are not the focus, rather those lower on the ladder, more directly affected by all aspects of the drug trade.

In River of Smoke, Ghosh’s style is varied, with some of the narrative in epistolary form. These changes of register are a little odd at times, and seeing only one half of a correspondence (for reasons that are explained in the narrative), still leaves the recipient, Paulette (a major figure in Sea of Poppies) little more than a cipher here. (With the changes of viewpoint and language, I was reminded of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas).

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Opium smokers in China, c. 1900. Illustration from Mrs. Archibald Little (=Alicia Bewicke): The Land of the Blue Gown, London 1902. Reproduction: Wikimedia/public domain.

In Canton, we see the politicking of the traders on the brink of the First Opium War, in which some of them come off as unapologetic drug pushers, like those on The Wire. (They even talk the same way as those dealers, with at one point, a character saying “It’s all in the game”). In the previous sixty years, demand for opium had skyrocketed in China, indeed doubling just between 1800 and 1820. In the late 1830s, the Chinese authorities decided to start enforcing the laws against opium trade in the country, and banning its importation. Faced with their trade being shut down, the traders included men of conscience willing to abandon the trade as well as blatant profiteers. Caught in the middle were the smaller traders, who —whatever their misgivings—were bound to their investors and would be ruined if unable to sell their narcotic cargo.

Ghosh also highlights the (suggested) homosexuality of the male-only world of foreign traders in Canton (since foreign women are not permitted into the city). The men dance together at parties, and gay relationships seem to be acknowledged if not widely accepted. Of course, these men also form relationships with local women, or flower-boat girls. Long-distance trade that could keep men away from home for months at a time also resulted in more serious liaisons than prostitution: a mistress and children in one city with a wife and family in another seems to have been a common arrangement.

In Sea of Poppies, the fate of almost all the women seemed to involve sexual violence or enslavement, and scenes of cruelty were particularly affecting. The sadistic exploitation of the disempowered was perhaps a parallel of the exploitation of the opium trade and colonial system as a whole. In the second book, female characters are less prominent, and we see fewer examples of brutality, which was something of a relief.

We do encounter the details of opium intoxication, which seems to be indulged, furtively or openly, by members of all races and classes. Indeed, people at all stages of the trade seem to be enslaved to the drug. Opium had developed its own culture, its rituals—the fancy pipes, the varieties of opium, the techniques of ingestion. As Julia Lowell, in her new book The Opium War, (Pan MacMillan, 2011), comments, “A way of burning money, smoking was the perfect act of conspicuous consumption” (p.23).

As Lowell points out, the rulers of British India, through their monopoly on the production of opium in Bengal, had enforced quality control: consumers were getting a pure product. A product that was fashionably illicit. By the time of River of Smoke, opium use had shifted from being an elite pastime to one reaching all layers of society.

In an accurate depiction of the cosmopolitan diversity of colonial ports at this time, the white characters are much in the minority. Paulette Lambert the only “European” of the principals in this book, and she is somewhat unusual. She represents the cultural go-between position of the European child raised in India, speaking as her first language the Bengali of her wet-nurse. She—and her childhood friend, Robin, who appears in this novel—are members of a kind of empire culture that was fading by the 1830s. That period, which was described in William Dalrymple’s White Mughals (Viking, 2003), was marked by cultural assimilation, with some European men (whether colonial officials or private traders) adopting local costume, and taking local wives.

This changed, however, with the “arrival of the Memsahibs”—when white women started arriving in significant numbers in colonial Asia. Once the British men started taking their white wives and families to live in their colonial postings, the goal was to maintain an image of respectability, and a European life-style. The idea of “going native” was regarded with disdain. The British started dressing as they would in England, and more crucially abandoning the local wives/mistresses that had been tolerated by the East India Company. But that could not erase the Eurasian community that had developed, and the liminal position of such individuals is a recurrent theme among Ghosh’s characters.

As in Sea of Poppies, much of the dialogue is in various dialects—in this novel the pidgin of the Canton trading port. A glossary was provided at the back of the first novel, which may still be required to understand much of the what is said. (I would also have appreciated a list of dramatis personae to keep track of some of the more peripheral figures). But even without fully understanding them, the rhythms of the language evoke the whirl of life in a trade port. The narrative is so absorbing, that here Ghosh builds too on the hints at the supernatural that first appeared in Sea of Poppies: these characters are all linked socially, by blood, or by an apparent psychic force. They experience reincarnation—literal and metaphorical—as they take on each other’s roles in the social hierarchy.

Some of the coincidences add to the almost fairy tale element of this novel. Two characters wind up explaining the Canton trade to Napoleon, when their vessel happens to pass St Helena and they are granted an audience with the exiled emperor. Paths cross and lives are entwined, just as romantic encounters seem to take place when characters get tangled in unfurled turbans or saris.

The many descriptions of sumptuous clothing had me reaching for an encyclopedia to identify the various garments:

‘In Zadig’s case, these consisted of a sumptuous burumcuk caftan, trimmed with ermine, and an embroidered Yerevan waistcoat; for Bahram they were a silver-grey ‘Mughalai’ pyjama with an ornamental izarband drawstring; it was worn with a knee-length outer garment, worn in the fashion of a coat—a choga of blue silk, with a raised collar made of strips of golden kinkhab ribbon.’

Through their clothing, Ghosh tells us much about these figures and their lives, which is not explained in the narrative. We come to know them by their costumes, and what these costumes mean, socially and culturally.

At two volumes, each of 500 pages, this trilogy will indeed be an epic. I do not know if the intention with the final volume is to focus on opium’s end consumers, but I look forward to seeing how these intertwined lives are resolved.

Amitav Ghosh: River of Smoke
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2011.
ISBN-13: 9780719568985
Hardcover, 528 pages, US$28.00 

Katrina Gulliver is a cultural historian and postdoctoral research fellow based at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. Her current project examines the development of four colonial port cities, Malacca, Havana, Pondicherry and New Orleans, from the early sixteenth century to 1900.

(c) 2011 The Berlin Review of Books.