Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 13, 2011

River of Smoke (2011), by Amitav Ghosh

River of SmokeIf the rest of the longlisted books are in the same league as Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, I predict that we will have a tough time choosing a winner for our Shadow Man Asian Literary Award, and so will the official jury.  It’s a great story by a master story-teller, and like the great 19th century novels it is said to resemble, it offers thought-provoking issues to ponder long after the book is finished.

For most of my adult life, de-regulation and free trade has dominated our globalised economics.  What Ghosh exposes in River of Smoke is the concept of ‘market failure’ in the globalised economies that occurred under colonisation, that is, he explores what happens

  • when business fails to self-regulate,
  • when individuals’ self-interest leads to outcomes that are inefficient from a societal point-of-view, and
  • when government intervention becomes necessary in order to benefit society but is restricted in what it can achieve because of the actions of other economies.

In the context of the Global Financial Crisis and the emergence of India and China into the modern economy, I can’t think of a more relevant issue for ordinary people to explore – but economics is dry stuff for most of us.  Ghosh’s achievement is to turn this issue into a riveting story with unsettling moral issues at its heart.

Sea of PoppiesRiver of Smoke is an historical epic, second in the trilogy after Sea of Poppies.  (See my review. It’s not at all necessary to read the first book, but since it’s such fun, I recommend that you do).   River of Smoke begins the story with Deeti, now the matriarch of a large clan which once a year gathers on the island of Mauritius to celebrate its amazing history.  Miraculously, having been parted in a spectacular storm, the motley collection of characters from Sea of Poppies survived and were reunited.  How they got to Mauritius in their disparate ways is recorded on a series of decorative panels in Deeti’s shrine, and this ‘memory temple’ allows Ghosh to provide their back stories from Sea of Poppies, providing just enough of the plot and characters to make sense, without being a re-telling.

The first panel is Deeti’s.  It shows The Parting, when Kalua escaped an unjustified sentence of death by fleeing from the Ibis (a shipload of indentured labour).  In the lifeboat with him are the lascars Jodu and Serang Ali and two convicts: Ah Fatt (from China) and Neel (from Bengal).  Still aboard the Ibis are Paulette Lambert escaping marriage; Baboo Nob Kissin the overseer; Zachary Reid, the second mate; and Deeti, pregnant with Kalua’s child.

Paulette’s panel depicts her subsequent meeting with the botanist Mr Penrose from the ship Redruth and her rescue from a derelict botanic garden.  Deeti asks Neel to draw a panel which records his part in the clan’s saga, and he takes over the story.  He draws Seth Bahramji (Ah Fatt’s father) and his ship the Anahita, and so begins the story of the opium trade in Canton, side-by-side, and eventually intersecting with Paulette’s quest to find the elusive Golden Camellia.

There is a huge cast of characters in River of Smoke and the narrative is carried by a number of voices that show the author’s sophisticated command of dialogue: Deeti’s engaging Kreol; Neel’s English which is so good that it irritates Bahram (his eventual employer);  the naive, frivolous voice of Robin Chinnery, a gay artist who writes gossipy letters to Paulette that provide an artist’s view of Canton; and an omniscient narrator.   At the end there are also two fruitless letters in what is now quaint formal English, one to Captain Elliott of the British navy beseeching him to act with integrity, and the other to Queen Victoria asking her to do the same.  Ghosh isn’t heavy-handed about it, but it’s clear that the British Empire is the culprit in the Opium Wars.

Anyone who has travelled in developing countries soon comes to admire the initiative of the everyday people they meet – the tour guides, the stall-holders, the ones offering transport, the Mr Fix-its who always know where and how a problem can be fixed.  Most often these people have had little or no education, but their energy and ambition suggests that great things will be achieved when universal education allows the full potential of these countries to be realised.  Ghosh’s most endearing characters don’t have the opportunity to have a formal education; instead, they are self-taught. They have mentors, guides, books and heaps of initiative. Bahram comes from nothing to become a successful trader by watching and learning; Paulette, denied education because of her sex, becomes an expert in botany.  Robin becomes the kind of artist he wants to be despite the discouragement he gets from his father (though *wink* the lessons he takes from Jacqua are not all about brushwork).   Neel transcends his personal history to become a valuable employee and trusted confidante who plays a crucial role in Bahram’s redemption.

Nearly all of them are multilingual – because they have to be, in a multilingual environment that is as natural to them as the variety of cuisines they enjoy.  But language can be a barrier too, for when things get nasty the Chinese merchants drop the pidgin that’s used for intimate conversations with English-speaking members of the Chamber of Commerce.  Tragically, to convey the importance of their plea and the dignity of their position, they communicate in formal written Chinese which must be translated, and perhaps this formalism contributes to the betrayal of what they thought was friendship.

Everybody needs to get ahead in River of Smoke.  No one wants to be dependent, especially not the orphaned Paulette who is sick of charity, and especially not Bahram who wants to impress the family he has married into with his brains and talent.  But since the novel is about the opium trade, that’s what some of the characters deal in, and what an interesting, complex character Seth Barhamji Rustamjee Mistrie turns out to be – we ought not to like him but we can’t help it!  He’s a drug dealer after all, and few societies don’t demonize them as heartless exploiters of human weakness.

Bahram has other flaws too.  He’s an unfaithful husband.  He’s as indifferent to Shireenbai as she is to him, and in the interests of his own ambition he abandons both her and his concubine Chi-Mei for long periods of time.  He’s not interested in his legitimate daughters at all but in his latter years feels a belated interest in Chi-Mei’s adult son.  He bullies his staff – especially his secretary and news-gatherer Neel – and he’s vain, he’s greedy and he’s a bit of a snob. Worst of all, he risks the security of those who are dependant on him, in the service of the ambition that drives him to get ahead and achieve the luxurious lifestyle a successful businessman can enjoy.

And yet there is something very engaging about this man and we follow his fortunes with great interest.  No reader will want to see him captured by the authorities when they clamp down on the opium trade.  As Neel says much later in the story, ‘it is his misfortune to come from a land where it is impossible even for the very best men to be true to themselves’ (p454).   What Bahram wants is what the others want too: the freedom to realise his potential  – but always he is blocked by circumstance – by storms, poverty, exploitation, colonialism and racism and by great powers in the world that are not interested in little people like him.   At crucial moments, he makes decisions that are disastrous for his peace of mind.  He is a superb creation.

As Bahram’s story begins, his shipment of opium has limped into harbour after a storm and lies offshore from Canton (now called Ghuangzhou) while he waits for the latest crackdown on the trade to fizzle out.  For years India under British control has been supplying opium to China in order to balance the terms of trade. Isolationist China had more goods to sell than they wanted to buy and so an artificial ‘need’ was created by a cartel of foreign traders in Canton who made opium so widely available that it has become a social problem for the population.  In the bustling maidan alongside Chinese and Indians, traders operate under the flags of Denmark, Spain, Sweden, and France but the opium trade is dominated by Britain and America.  Bahram is the outsider, an Indian trader trying to compete with these long-established traders to supply the drug. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s out of his depth.


Initially the Chinese authorities turned a blind eye to the opium trade but by the 1830s the well-being of the people and the local economy were clearly compromised.  Steps were taken to try to put a stop to the importation of opium, but these were hampered not only by corruption, but also by the strange practice of exempting the foreigners from having to submit to Chinese law.  The Chamber of Commerce is led by Lancelot Dent – a disciple of an ‘obscure doctrine called The Wealth of Nations’ (p202) – and they scorn these futile Chinese attempts to control their activities, secure in their belief in the God-given superiority of free trade.

But this crackdown is not like all the others.  The Chinese are fed up.  All  trade is suspended and under pressure from his creditors back in Bombay, Barham succumbs to the temptation to use disreputable dealers to fulfil his contracts.  In accordance with longheld tradition which renders foreigners immune to prosecution, the authorities arrest not James Innes, the dealer, but Punhyqua, a Hongist, (i.e. a local merchant).  To pressure the Chamber of Commerce into expelling Innes from Canton, they force Punhyqua into the humiliation of wearing the cangue (like a pillory, but fastened around the neck and carried by the prisoner).   Not only that, they intend to do the same – and worse –  to other Chinese merchants unless Innes leaves the city.

And here lies the moral heart of the novel: the English merchants (Barham is just a token Parsi on the Chamber of Commerce) are committed to free trade without hindrance of any kind. Though they despise Innes and have all used Punhyqua to further their own interests, they set aside their differences to declare that

… the Chamber is powerless in this matter.  As it happens Mr Innes is not even a member of this body…it must be noted that the Chamber has no jurisdiction over him.  Mr Innes protests his innocence of the charges levelled against him.  As a British subject he enjoys certain freedoms and we cannot make him leave the city against his will. 
Bahram smiled to himself as he listened: the arguments were marvellously simple yet irrefutable.  Really, there was no language like English for turning lies into legalisms.  (p326)

Bahram, of course, is no disinterested observer.  His position is perilous: it was his shipment that was intercepted and he is relying on Innes’s silence.  The mutual racism which underpins relationships between the English on the one hand and the Chinese on the other serves to discriminate against everyone else, one way or another.  As a Bombay trader Bahram is highly vulnerable: the high and mighty principles of British justice would not apply to him and he would not enjoy the exemption from prosecution that the Cantonese authorities reserve for White Men.   Like the other respectable members of the Chamber, he is – as Innes declares after the departure of the shocked Hongists – an almighty hypocrite.  The difference is that he knows it.

Things come to a head when a new High Commissioner is appointed.  Things escalate, and lives become part of the bargaining process.  The Chamber of Commerce is exposed for what it is: a self-interested, amoral group of traders who have made vast profits but are too greedy to compromise.  Bahram thinks of democracy as a system that keeps the common people busy so that matters of real importance are dealt with by elites like this, and he hopes that India and China will have it one day.  Readers wonder whether this is Ghosh’s critique of contemporary Indian politics or a plea for China to join the modern world in allowing its people the same political freedom as India’s.

Alongside this compelling drama runs the sub-plot of Paulette’s quest to find the elusive plant that could make Penrose’s fortune.  Handicapped by not being allowed into Canton, she uses Robin Chinnery in Canton as her emissary, one often side-tracked by events in Canton and his own personal quest for love.  He represents the common man, oblivious to the structures of the society that he lives in until cataclysmic upheavals force him to take notice.  Along the way, Ghosh has fun with scorned proposals to set up a trading state free of Canton’s restrictions on some unclaimed island such as Hong Kong – and he also jokes about the Chinese origins of plants now commonly associated with the English cottage garden.

What I see in Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, is a sophisticated work of literature that is distinctively Asian. It embodies qualities that I recognise from my travels in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Singapore. The book celebrates the entrepreneurial life, the primacy of political freedom, the importance of learning, and a refusal to be dependant on anybody.  It has a spirit of optimism and a sense of the future that seems to be lacking in the post 9/11 landscape elsewhere, and it’s also quite different to the gloomy dissident literature I’ve read from China. I think it’s very exciting.

What next for volume three of this trilogy?  Well, there’s Compton’s prophecy that ‘all who are close to Bahram will suffer for what he has done’ – and (on pg 90) there’s a teasing allusion to Krakatoa which erupted in 1883, some forty-odd years after this story ends.  I happen to know that the sound of the explosion was heard 5000km away in Mauritius and the shockwaves were felt around the world.  I guess we’ll have to wait and see!

Update 27/12/15

Click here to see my review of the third book in the trilogy, Flood of Fire.

Author: Amitav Ghosh
Title: River of Smoke
Publisher: John Murray, 2011
ISBN: 9780719568992
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $27.95

Availabilty: Fishpond River of Smoke


  1. […] Rahul BHATTACHARYA The Colonel – Mahmoud DOWLATABADI River of Smoke – Amitav GHOSH (Lisa) 1Q84 – Haruki MURAKAMI The Folded Earth – Anuradha ROY Please Look After Mother […]


  2. I do have this on hand — was intending to read it if it made the Booker longlist, but it didn’t. I was impressed with Sea of Poppies — your thoughtful and extensive review has me looking forward to River of Smoke. What I have admired in previous books from Ghosh is his ability to deal with complexity and he certainly seems to accomplish tat with this one.


    • I’d be so interested to see your review of it, Kevin – it seems to me to be so rich in themes that 20 bloggers could review it and each one would be different.


  3. Definitely one writer I’d like to get into – although, knowing me, it’ll have to wait until the trilogy is done and dusted! I haven’t heard a lot about this prize, but the longlist this year does seem very impressive…


    • Hi Tony, part of the reason why we’re doing this Shadow Jury is to help promote the prize and the writers featured on its longlist. It deserves a wider audience IMO.


  4. It’s great, sometimes, to read something that’s optimistic I think. I have an earlier Ghosh, The Glass Palace, on my TBR pile, so must read it.


  5. This sounds magnificent–I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I’ve never read Ghosh before. I must remedy this!


    • Hello, Stephanie, welcome to ANZ LitLovers:)
      Don’t feel ashamed – there are so many wonderful books out there that it is impossible to read them all!
      But I’m glad if I have persuaded you to try this author…
      Best wishes


  6. I feel that this is one I may read at a later date Lisa as I haven’t read sea of poppies yet ,so thanks for your review giving a insight into it for shadow man ,all the best stu


    • Thanks for dropping by, Stu!


  7. A very fine review – you have obviously discovered a gem here. I am not sure whether I would have time to read it at the moment but its definitely one marked for “download a Kindle sample”.


    • That’s great, Tom, I owe you so many good recommendations, it’s good to give one back!


  8. […] Amitav Ghosh’s River of smoke (ANZLitLovers) […]


  9. Sounds like an amazingly rich novel! I studied modern Asian independence movements so this sounds like my cup of shai!


  10. Lisa, another great review. I agree that the idea of the Shadow Man Prize is a great idea. You’ve definately whetted my appetite.

    I’m looking forward to your reviews for both the Murakami and Yoshimoto novels. These are authors that I’ve read and enjoyed in the past and I’ll be intrigued to see what you think.

    Thanks again and keep up the good work.


    • Thanks, Rebecca – I’m reading all the short ones first, so Murakami will be last, sorry!


  11. I, too, haven’t read any Ghosh. I have The Hungry Tide on my book shelves but my enthusiasm took a hit in the face of some quite negative but unspecific comments made by an acquaintance. Positive comments carry more weight, so I have enjoyed your Ghosh post and find myself re-enervated.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. […] There’s good reviews among a group of bloggers who are tackling the longlist for this prize here and […]


  13. […] Rivers of Smoke (Amitav Ghosh) – Thanks to a review by Lisa of ANZ LitLovers LitBlog. […]


  14. Great review Lisa, thank you. Must read.


  15.[…] isn’t necessary to first read Sea of Poppies (see my review) or River of Smoke (see my review), but if you like grand storytelling, well, why wouldn’t you want to read them all?  If you […]


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