River of Smoke: As the Ibis trilogy progresses

The second book in the Ibis trilogy is named “River of smoke” and it turned out to be much more interesting than sea of poppies. To catch the story line, refer the older posts. This book is probably named river of smoke for the river, Pearl River, and the port city alongside, Canton which was the destination of opium being shipped from Calcutta. The smoke refers to the fumes of opium – the trade of which is the theme of this trilogy.


“The Pearl River lay ahead, and the fumes from the cooking fires, on the thousands of vessels that lined the shores, had melted into the fog that was rising off the surface of the water. Bahram allowed himself to drift along, on the river of smoke.”

This contains picture of the book.
River of smoke by Amitav Ghosh

The book again starts with Deeti and her stories from Mauritius. She has grown old and established a shrine of hers where she has engraved the images of Kalua, Paulette, Zachary Reid, Neel, Ah Fatt and everyone else from the crew. Her shrine attracts a little festivity every year. This book further covers the stories of Paulette, Neel, Ah Fatt only and they later cross their fates with Baboo Nob Kissin and Benjamin Burnham, the opium trader.

Neel and Ah Fatt depart together to go to Malacca where Ah Fatt’s half sister lives. On their way, they meet Ah Fatt’s father, Seth Bharamji Naurozi Modi , known as Barry Moodie in Canton. Bahram belonged to a pauper Parsee family and his fortunes took a turn after he persuaded his father-in-law to start opium exports to China.  

To persuade his father-in-law, he argued

“Today the biggest profits don’t come from selling things that are not of any real use; look at China –this thing they call ‘cheeni’. Is it any sweeter than honey or palm-jaggery. No, but people pay twice as much for it or even more.”

He makes a good name in Canton with his opium trade and comes out from the shadow of being a ghar-jamai (house husband). While in Canton, he consummates a relationship with a boat-woman, Chei-Mei and has a son from her named Ah Fatt or Freddy, as known in Canton. Ah Fatt is spotted by Bahram’s man and is invited back to his father’s ship, Anahita. Neel as taken as Munshi in Bahram’s crew and they all leave for Canton, leaving Ah Fatt behind.

Paulette finds a shelter at another ship, named Redruth with a botany enthusiast named Frederick ‘Fitcher’ Penrose and they both leave for China in search of Golden Camellia. They are helped by a long lost friend of Paulette and son of an exemplary painter, Robin Chinnery. Fitcher and Paulette handover the work of finding the Camellia to Robin.

Hard times loom over the opium trade as Emporer of China is planning to impose a blanket cover on the opium trade and to free the Chinese citizens from a life of addiction and misery. Opium for China is a poisonous drug, brought from foreign countries that raises animal spirits and prevents lassitude. It injures the lives of the addict and the dependents alike. For England, opium is equivalent to free trade for which they have permission of God. The clash of interest of fanquis (the foreigners) and Chinese authority forms the ground of the entire book.

This book has illuminated the deep ties between India and China which is deeper than trade, 1962 war and rivalry for Asian supremacy. Little things like tea, chai garam, soups, cheeni, porcelain, ketchup etc which have become elementary part of Indian lifestyle.

Ghosh has created a beautiful world of Canton, which has vivid expression of the city in 19th century. The explanation of the city is so elaborate that one cannot help but yearn to visit Canton and live the city.

One very gripping narration in the book is when Bahram and Zadig, Bahram’s friend meet Napolean Bonaprte in St Helena islands where Napolean was exiled. The fictional crossover makes Bahram discuss about his religion, trade with China, opium and the Armenian origin of his friend, Zadig.


Ghosh has rightly chosen to elaborate over the botany of China as China has been endowed with nature’s gift for medicinal, ornamental, commercial and all other types of plants. Such detailed is the work of Ghosh that he even mentions the intricacies of Botany, the species, the manures, the soils.

“Some soils were ‘hot’, Fitcher said, and some were ‘cold’, by which he meant that some types of earth heated up quicker than others and some tended to retain to retain their heats over long periods.”

Amitav Ghosh commands equal mastery in depiction of finery of art.

“If you could see how it is done I warrant you would declare it an astounding sight; he holds not one but two brushes in his hand, the first being thick enough to hold a droplet of color. The second is so fine that it has no more than a singe hair and flicking this against the other brush he transfers the paint to the paper- in such a manner as to create filaments of paint that are scarcely visible to the eye!”

He uses a lot of creativity in naming Puggly (Paulette) in the letters of Robin. Phrases like Pugllagola, Principessa Puggliogne, Puggli-billi, and Countess of Puggleville are quite humorous. He also used a tinge of humor with Behram when he does not understand the puns.

Chamber of commerce has received an edict from the newly arrived Commissioner who demands that traders surrender all the opium with them and sign bonds which prevents them from trading opium in future. A meeting has been called of the Chamber, of which Bahram is a member.

“From the older ox the younger learns to plough” says Slade referring to the people in Chamber who oppose him to which Bahram replies “My goodness! Time is running out and they are ploughing and all?”

Will the Chamber give up and stop the opium trade? Or the crown of England will interfere to continue the spirit of free trade?

Where will the characters of the trilogy converge again? What has the fate in store for Bahram, Neel, Paulette, Fitcher, Jodu, Deeti, Robin?

We will find in the third book of this trilogy, “flood of fire”

“To gain, you must yield; to grasp, let go; to win, lose…….”

Stay tuned!

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