Sunday, October 30, 2022

Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke: A Detailed Summary and Analysis

River of Smoke (2011), the second book of the Ibis trilogy, takes the readers to China between October 1838 and July 1839. As Sea of Poppies mostly takes place in India, River of Smoke takes place in various places up the Chinese Pearl River System, especially in Fanqui town, a settlement just outside of the vibrant international trading city Canton, “one of the most developed and populous cities in China in the early nineteenth century” (Batra). Like the previous book, River of Smoke is also divided into three parts: Islands, Canton, and Commissioner Lin. The protagonist of this book is a Parsi merchant from Bombay, Mr. Bahram Modi who sets off for Canton from Bombay with an enormous cargo of opium. Mr. Modi has come to that the Chinese government is shortly going to stop the opium trade in their country. But Mr. Modi believes that the Chinese government will not be able to do this and ultimately, the price of opium will go up and he hopes to make a huge profit on the market because he's done that several times before. So, he's on his flagship, which is called the Anahita, a very large trading ship built in the Bombay shipyard, which was among the best in the world. Apart from Mr. Modi, most of the other leading characters of the book come from the previous book, Sea of Poppies. The novel is narrated mainly from the perspective of four foreigners: Neel, Paulette, Robin, and Deeti. While the novel brings in many of the issues from the previous book, it introduces some new issues like the tension between the Chinese authority and the British and Indian opium traders, the British plant hunting in China, and the inner life of the traveling merchants. 

Islands: The novel begins with Deeti, the most powerful woman character that we find in Sea of Poppies. The section of the book initially narrates the parallel journey of three ships (Anahita, Redruth, and the Ibis) from India to China amid a cyclone that rages in the Bay of Bengal. In my discussion, I want to highlight the following issues from the first section of River of Smoke: memory as a narrative tool, connection with the past, narrative is taken over by Neel, rise of Bahram Modi (River 49), Neel and Ah Fatt meet in Singapore, dual life of Zadig and Bahram, hunting for native plants, Friendship between Bahram and Zadig, European plants hunters, Paulette and Robin friendship, etc.

The novel opens in Deeti’s shrine, which is “hidden in a cliff, in a far corner of Mauritius” (3). The time seems to be years after where Sea of Poppies ended. Now, Deeti has established a whole clan, which is known as La Fami Colver, after the name of their forefather Kalua. Soon Neel steps into the story. Amitav Ghosh uses two of his favorite narrative techniques in this section: memory and letter. The narrative is soon taken by Neel. The opium trade did not only help the British traders make great fortune. Many Indian also joined the trade and became rich overnight. Bahram Modi, a Parsi merchant, is one of them who made great fortune out of the opium trade in China. Bahram Modi lives a dual life: “his wife Shireen, in Bombay, and their two daughters; of his mistress, Chi-mei who had died some years before, in Canton; and of the son he had had with her” (River 29).

The narration also links Bahram with "Fitcher" Penrose, a horticulturist who wants to study China's medicinal plants. Though apparently both Bahram and Penrose have different missions, their aim is basically same because Bahram’s “opium trade and horticulturalist Fitcher Penrose's mercantile explorations to secure Chinese botanical curiosities for Europe” (Batra 326) are inspired by the same imperial mission. 

Canton: Ghosh uses the epistolary technique to tell much of book two and three. Main developments of the stories include the use of epistolary technique, Anahita’s  arrival at Canton, Chinese’s policy change about the British opium trade, Robin’s search for golden camellia, Allow’s meeting with Bahram and his execution by the Chinese, China’s first visible resistance to the opium trade, the traders’ annoyance with Captain Elliot’s promise to the Chinese authority about stopping the opium business, etc. 

Most of the impressions of the city (Canton) “in…the novel are conveyed through the painter Robin Chinnery and Bahram's scribe Neel on their tours out of the factory premises into Canton and its surroundings” (Batra 324). The Fanqui town turns out to be a true international business hub where people from around the word meet. Relationships between different races and nationalities are forged in the city. We can, for an example, talk about “the romantic relationships between the boat-woman Chi-mei and the Parsee opium trader Bahram Moddie; between the Bengali Asha-didi and her Chinese husband, Ah Bao (nicknamed Baburao); and between the Anglo-Indian painter Robin Chinnery and his Chinese counterpart Jacqua” (Batra 324). 

Commissioner Lin:


The chapter focusses on the aftermath of riots in Canton and Captain’s Eliot’s role after the riot. Captain’s action is self-contradictory as it goes against the opium trade run by the British merchants. 

The saddest experience was that Chinnery’s friend Jacqua had his arm broken by the lascar rioters. 

Chinnery suddenly finds himself stranded by Jacqua’s boys, who verbally abuse him with racial prejudices against the fanquis. He feels like leaving Canton, which no longer welcomes him. 

Chinnery also describes the long cultural ties between Canton and India. It is found that “people from Hindustan, Arabia and Persia” (352) built temples in Canton, a land that is apparently forbidden to foreigners. 

The mass killing swept away all the foreigners from Canton. 

The Chinese are always suspicious about Europeans who tried to dupe them many a time and wanted to capture the Chinese lands. 

Baharam is so upset because of Allow’s (Ho Lao-kin) death and hallucinates Allow’s image. 

Charles King proposes Baharam to surrender all stored drugs to the Chinese authority. 

Lin Tse-hsu, the new governor, arrives at Canton. His title is Imperial High Commissioner (364).

Accidentally, Baboo Nab Kissin and Neel are reunited. It is revealed that Baboo helped him escape from the Ibis. Through Baboo, Neel also has come to know about the recent condition of his wife and son.  

Mr. Burnham and Mr. Bahram meet at Jardine’s great farewell party. Captain Elliot is hated by the foreign traders for his stand against the Opium trade. 

Mr. Jardine and Mr. Dinyar Ferdoonjee hypocritically accuse the Chinese of the smuggling and glorify the East India Company. The grand party ends with a quarrel between the English and Bombay traders.


Robin meets Mr. Chan to deliver him the photos sent by Mr. Penrose. But Mr. Chan offers Robin to copy the Portrait of an Eurasian (drawn by Mr. Chinnery) for him.  Robin accepts the offer. 82-84

The traders propose to establish a settlement in the west China. Imperialism and coloniazation go hand in hand. 

Lin has arrived, and the traders are alerted. They decide not to move first and let the Chinese take the first move. 

The new commissioner has declared a decree putting a complete ban on opium, and an urgent meeting is summoned which ends in a decision of sending a representative to the commissioner with a request to extend some time to decide on the matters declared by the Chinese authority.


The relationship between Robin and Pancqua deepens, and they work together in their artistic endeavors. Robin hands over the painting to Mr. Chan. Robin also takes opium upon Chan’s request and narrates Chan’s journey to London in opium-induced dream. 

Robin’s artistic life is disrupted by the turmoil in Canton. He also ponders on China’s thinking about the linkage between Christianity and opium. China thinks that there is a strong connection between Christianity and Opium. The opium traders debate over the surrender of opium to the Chinese authority. But finally, they decide to defer the situation further. 


Paulette is asked to send five trees to Mr. Chan. She feels a motherly attachment to the trees. 

The committee still bargains about the surrender. They propose to surrender one thousand crates of opium, which is turned down by the commissioner. Instead, he orders to arrent Dent and Bahram. But upon Neel’s diplomacy, Bahram’s name was dropped from the list in the last minute. Dent refuses to surrender. Meanwhile, Captain Elliot has arrived at Capton. 

At one point, Neel succeeds to convince Capton that both the Chinese and the Indians are the equal victims of the Opium trade run by the British merchants. 


Paulette succeeds in sending the precious plants to Canton through Baburao. 

The situation worsens as the Commissioner has decided to act against the traders. He issues no travel ban from Canton and decides to confront Mr. Dent, the biggest opium smuggler. 

The maidan is cleared and all Chinese are asked to leave the area. It is indicative of the Chinese action against the smugglers. A final warning is given by the commissioner to Captain Elliot, who hurriedly summons a meeting and convinces the traders to surrender the goods to the Chinese authority. 


All goods are surrendered to the Chinese authority. 

Robin mentions the names of flowers that have been spread from Canton around the world. The commissioner sends a letter to Queen Victoria urging to stop opium trade to china. Bahram suffers from inward guilt and commits suicide in his hallucination. Neel meets paullete and Robin informs Paulette that Zachary is on his way to China. The novel ends with Neel’s conversation with Deeti who he informs that he visited Canton thirty years after the incident and found the city changed into a new look. A new foreign enclave was built whose name is Shamian island. It is also clear that the Europeans waged a war on Canton and did not stop smuggling opium to china.