River of Smoke - Amitav Ghosh

         River of smoke.jpg        
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Best sellers: The Hungry Tide, Sea of Poppies,  Calcutta Chromosome.

Since the book cover didn't give any, I resorted to wikipedia for the synopsis.

In the year 1838, Three ships are caught in a raging storm off the coast of Canton. The Anahita, owned by Bahram Modi,  Parsi opium trader from Bombay, The Redruth, Owned by Fitcher Penrose, on an expedition to collect rare species of plants from China and Ibis (from the sea of poppies) carrying convicts and indentured labourers. The convicts Neel Rattan, a Bengali Zamindar and Ah Fatt a criminal from Canton, escape from the ship along with a couple of lascars.
The story traces the lives of these principal characters in Canton.Bahram Modi a lowly son-in-law of a rich Parsi Ship builder Rustamjee Mistrie,convinces his father in law to provide him seed capital to enter in to opium trade and carries out multiple sucessful expeditions to China and creates considerable wealth in the process for his in laws. However, on the sudden demise of his father in law, he is forced by his brothers in law to retire from the Export division. Bahram decides to ship a large consignemnt of opium to China, as he is confident that he would be able to earn a sizeable profit to buyout the Export division, in spite of a ban on trading of Opium issued by the Chinese officials. Bahram also has a son(Ah Fat) through a Chinese boat woman, Chi Mei, unknown to his family back in Bombay.

Fitcher Penrose, a botanist,is on an expedition to China to collect rare plants. He is joined by Paulette Lambert aka Puggly, daughter of a French botanist, in his search for the rare Golden camellias. They are helped by Robert Chinnery,a fictional illiegitimate son of the English painter George Chinnery
Neel and Ah Fat have escaped from Ibis and they meet Bahram Modi, Ah Fat's father. Neel joins Bahram's as his Munshi.
Does Mr.Modi manage to sell his opium and redeem himself inspte of the Chinese government's crackdown, does Mr.Fitcher find the rare plant he is looking for? Does Neel manage to evade the long arm of the law?

"That is just it," said Bahram. "How long will we have to wait?"
     Captain Elliott scratched his chin. "Perhaps two years. Maybe three."
     "Two or three years!"
 Bahram remembered the angry letters that had been accumulating in his office; he tried to think of how he would explain the circumstances to his investors; he thought of the reactions of his brothers-in-law when the news reached them; he could almost hear them exulting, in their discreet way; he could imagine what they would say to Shireenbai: We warned you; he's a speculator, you shouldn't have let him squander your inheritance...
      "Surely your investors would wait, Mr Moddie, would they not?" Burnham insisted. "It is just a question of a little time afterall."
       Every man in the room was looking in Bahram's direction now. He was too proud to tell him that time was the one thing he did not have; that a delay of two years would mean certain default; that for him the results of Captain Elliott's betraal would be ruin, bankruptcy and debtor's prison.
        None of this could be said, not here, not now. Somehow Bahram managed to summon a smile. "Yes," he said. "Ofcourse my investors will wait." 

Maithili Speak:
To start with I didn't know this was part of Ibis triology (because the book had no synopsis on cover) and was second to Sea of Poppies. 

The starting was a bit confusing with lot of native language used( which the author takes no pain to translate!) and little history of the characters of the first book.

Now for those of you who are not too good with history and do not remember crap about the opium war on China here is the gist:
Foreign countries exported opium in exchange for tea and silk to china. Opium was mostly exported by East India Company which had forced its colonial countries, including India, to take up large scale production of opium. England itself put strict restriction on Opium in its own country. 
China had, for centuries, restricted foreign movements in their country. Chinese government had ensured that all trade with foreigners was conducted strictly with the merchant guild of China and outside the walled city. No local citizen was to be involved in trade with foreigners. The merchant guild was responsible for the foreigners' conduct and trade. 
The opium addiction had reached to such heights in China that the Emperor had to step in to curb it. The government officials, seeing the wealth that smuggling opium brought, had been too lenient with foreigners while the merchant guild was friends with the foreigners.
Opium was smuggled in large quantities across the islands and river. The Canton city was the floating city where all trade happened. The emperor appointed a commissioner who was incorruptible and which led to complete stopping of trade through Canton.
The goods were burnt and foreigners took this as a opportunity to war with China and the rest as called in history is the after effect of "opium war".

The book leaves no character without proper history and background. The description of China is interesting and so is the trade of those times. 

Bahram is the Parsi merchant who succeeds in making his place in this close knit Committee although his story is that of what an independent merchant would face competing with foreigners. He lives a very different life in Canton and for his very reason it is very important to him that the trade be never stopped. He discovered what love was with Chi-mei , a boat woman who bore him his only son. He has loyal friends and is known as respectable there. 

There's also this character called Robin Chinnery who is sent to find about a botanical species called "golden cameilla" but is busy with artists and writing longgggggggggggggg letters to his friend Paulette who he called Puggly. 

Its is an exhausting book , but if you the one who loves historical set ups, long descriptions and an impeccable vocabulary this book is for you.

Rating: 3 on 5 because the author assumes that you know the language of the boat people and does not bother translating in some places!

Price: Rs 699/-

You can read it online HERE. However I wouldn't prefer to read such a long book online.. 


  1. I've always thought the writing of Amitav Ghosh takes a lot of patience and maturity - two things that I lack completely. It was during a discussion about books with my Mashi (aunt) that I got to know that what I thought was, in fact true. His books do require a certain sense of maturity to be enjoyed, and a whole lot of patience. After the conversation, I had been convinced to pick up one of his books (I've only read The Hungry Tide till date), but didn't dare to venture into the Ibis trilogy. I've only just started with The Glass Palace, and I surprised myself a bit when I found it rather interesting. I'll surely have to read The Sea of Poppies once I'm done with this one.

    Arnab Majumdar

  2. i have d same sentiments for amitav ghosh and salman rushdie....i wanna read them both very badly cos their back covers say they're amazing story tellers, but then i cant bring myself to start reading their books, cos the writing seems super boring and stretched.
    nice review though :)

  3. @Arnab : Yes it indeed takes PATIENCE!! I had to literally drag through the first few pages until I came to the actual happenings of the book.. I have read The Hungry Tide and yes by far that is the book of Amitav Ghosh which I found simple! Nevertheless I respect the man for the research he does on each of his books!

  4. @Kalpak: Even I couldn't get past Rushdie's Midnight's children although i have read such great reviews! Amitav is anytime better! maybe because you know where the description ends and conversation starts :D D: They are both very talented and support their stories with good research but I don't know why they have to be so boring and stretched!!

  5. I couldn't pick up Amitav Ghosh for the very need of patience. I shall give this one a shot though. :D

    Good review.

  6. looks like i hv to pick this one. i hv read the glass palace... wil read this after i finish off sea of poppies

  7. lady ! how do you get so much patience !!! I can never imagine myself able to read this ! though a good one i can deduce from the amazing and detailed review you gave :)

  8. @MSM : Thank you :) Give it a read if you have loads of time at hand :)

    @Freelancer: I too m search of Sea of Poppies but will read it after december now :)

    @Prasetyo: Thank you

    @Nimue: I have this strange compulsive disorder whereby I can never leave a book unread if I pick it up :) The first few pages made me want to stop but then I m glad I could finish it :)

  9. thanks to his boat people language I could not progress with sea of poppies. Needless to say have kept it for a future-patient me.

  10. There was a time when I wasn't so obsessed with blogging when I used to finish books like these in 24 hours straight. Now it takes me a week-_-

    And the Glass Palace is still sitting on my sill.

    Well reviewed Em:) Maybe I'll pick this up during my holidays.

  11. @nightflier: seriously boat people language does get irritating at times!

    @PeeVee: It is a good holiday read :) When you don't have to complete it at one go you can pick this up :)


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