Review: Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke

Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke (Delhi: Penguin, 2011). 558 pp.

A popular (and very inaccurate) version of Parsi history in India posits the community’s relative obscurity until around the 1700s, when an influx of enterprising Parsis into Bombay—by sheer dint of their hard work and enterprise—brought undreamed of wealth, political influence, social capital, and respect to their tiny community. We are all familiar with the stories of poor moffusil Parsis who lifted themselves out of desperate poverty and established themselves as honest, trustworthy, civic minded individuals, lavishing their fortunes on philanthropic causes and the improvement and adornment of western India’s great metropolis.

There is, of course, a measure of truth in this narrative. What is less acknowledged—both inside and outside of the community—is that a good portion of this wealth until the 1850s was built on opium, and specifically the exportation of opium to China. The so-called “China trade” was, in reality, largely constituted of the smuggling of narcotics. During the first three decades of the nineteenth century, as the scholar Amar Farooqui has demonstrated in his book Opium City (2006), Parsis controlled approximately one-third of the firms in the city that dealt in the opium trade. Many of the most prominent, respectable Parsi families—the Readymoneys, Jeejeebhoys, Wadias, Banajis, Camas, and the Tatas—rose to fame and fortune partly or fully through opium. It is a dark aspect of Parsi history that the community has, for the most part, found it very difficult to acknowledge, leave alone address.

In this light, Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, River of Smoke, the second part of his Ibis trilogy, is an important book. It delves into the Parsi involvement with the opium trade and the many ways this helped create the modern community as we know it. Parsis would be well advised to read Ghosh’s novel—a fictional account premised on voluminous historical research—in order to gain perspective on how some of our ancestors grew rich off the sufferings of a faraway land.

Following up on Sea of Poppies, Ghosh centers his story around Bahramji Modi, a Parsi trader who bears striking resemblance to Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy. Like Jamsetji, Bahram is born into relative poverty in Navsari but rises quickly to commercial success after marrying into a wealthy family—the Mistries, heirs to a shipbuilding empire. As contracts for ships wane, Bahram advises his father-in-law to diversify into new commercial opportunities. “Today the biggest profits don’t come from selling useful things: quite the opposite,” he argues. “The profits come from selling things that are not of any real use. Look at this new kind of white sugar that people are bringing from China—this thing they call ‘cheeni.’” Opium, Bahram continues, “is just like that. It is completely useless unless you’re sick, but still people want it” (p. 51).

Fast-forward to 1838: Bahram, having long ago convinced his father-in-law and—thereafter— reaped incredible fortunes from his decades in the “China trade,” set out for Canton carrying his most valuable—and, from the standpoint of his business interests in Bombay, most critical—shipment of opium. Ghosh paints a vivid picture of Canton and its foreigners’ enclave, “Fanqui town.” While the walled Chinese city remains forbiddingly inaccessible, Fanqui town is a whirl of people from all over the globe—Indian lascars, British and American opium barons, Eurasian painters, Cantonese beggars, scraggly European sailors—all packed into a few tiny blocks. And then there is the Pearl River itself, the “greatest of Canton’s suburbs,” clogged with houseboats, one of which housed Bahram’s beloved Chinese mistress, whom had borne him a son, Freddy or Ah Fatt. Now one of Fanqui town’s most prominent seths, an arbiter of Indian interests and a close friend of the biggest British and American traders, Bahram hastens back to a city that has transformed his life markedly for the better. But all is not well: rumors swirl of an impending Chinese crackdown on the opium trade, one designed to sweep away the atmosphere of graft, payoffs, and broad-daylight smuggling in which the opium trade has flourished.

Much on the novel focuses on a very different conflict: the struggle of Bahram and his fellow merchants to convince themselves that they are simply law-abiding merchants, washing their hands of any hint that their trade transgresses legal or moral boundaries. Smuggling opium, indeed, is a very non-Zoroastrian activity: the pious Parsi would shun association with a substance that pollutes both fire and the body. But Bahram resolutely defends his chosen profession. “…[I]t is not we but the Chinese who are responsible for the trade,” he argues with a fellow member of the Canton Chamber of Commerce. “It is they who love opium after all” (p. 387). Occasionally, however, his conscience is pricked. During a chance meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte, now reduced to tending a small garden on his prison island of St. Helena, the ex-emperor catches Bahram unawares by asking him point-blank if he thought the opium trade was evil (pp. 174-75). Once the members of the Chamber of Commerce are confronted by official orders by the new Chinese commissioner in Canton, Lin Zexu, to give up their opium stock and renounce future involvement in smuggling, the Chamber’s lone voice of conscience frames the issue much more bluntly for Bahram. “Think not of this moment but of the eternity ahead,” he cautions Bahram before a vote on compliance with Lin’s edict. “Who will you choose, Mr. Moddie? Will you choose the light or the darkness, Ahura Mazda or Ahriman?” (p. 470)

Obfuscating morality is a much easier task for many of Bahram’s British colleagues, including William Jardine (who, in real life, had Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy as a major business partner) and Lancelot Dent. Ghosh highlights how such men deployed arguments of “free trade” in order to legitimate their activities—and eventually pave the way for British military action against China during the First Opium War. By transporting opium from India to China, Jardine and his ilk maintained, opium smugglers were simply obeying the laws of supply and demand; Chinese attempts to cut off supplies, furthermore, were nothing more than gross, barbarous interferences with British and American commercial liberties. “We are not smugglers, gentlemen!” Jardine roars to an appreciative crowd. “It is the Chinese government, it is the Chinese officers who smuggle and who connive at and encourage smuggling, not we; and then look at the East India Company: why, the father of all smuggling and smugglers is the East India Company!” (p. 405)

The Indian angle is important. Ghosh’s novel addresses a fundamental paradox in the opium trade for the Indians who were involved in it. The East India Company’s laxity with opium exports meant that a handful of Indians did grow fabulously rich in the early 1800s. But what were the costs? Both the Company and British firms, of course, captured the overwhelming majority of the profits. Most Indians, meanwhile, suffered double humiliations in Canton: second-class status in comparison to Europeans and American residents, as well as the glowering contempt of Cantonese who resented India’s and Indians’ role in the opium trade. But an even bigger humiliation was the fact that, under the juggernaut of British imperialism, the smuggling of narcotics was one of the only avenues open to Indians for personal and material advancement. It was an enterprise that cut at the foundations of India’s moral economy and commercial economy while creating only a very select few Jeejeebhoys, Muhammad Ali Rogays, and Roger de Farias. It was clearly an evil system. This is a realization that slowly dawns on Bahram as the events of early 1839 unfold.

As usual, Ghosh has assembled a massive array of sources—on topics ranging from Chinese and Indian history to botany and the pidgin dialects spoken in Fanqui town—which add real historical depth and dimension to River of Smoke. He has also done an admirable job in researching the Parsis. When Bahram dines, he enjoys a selection of akuri, aleti paleti, dar-ni-pori, and various other items par eeda; when he dresses, he puts on the turban and angarkha that distinguished Parsi gentlemen in the early 1800s; and when he speaks, it is with speech patterns, idioms, and phrases that many Parsi readers will immediately recognize. In his Parsi characters, Ghosh has splendidly brought to life the Parsi Gujarati dialect, teaching me some phrases that I need to deploy in daily speech (tukki garden valo haramjada ni nisani—“a short neck is a sure sign of a haramzada.” Wise words indeed!). There are some very minor, relatively insignificant historical errors. Symbols such as the farohar or the now-familiar portraits of the Prophet Zarathushtra were quite uncommon in 1830s Parsi society (as for the portraits, see an interesting essay written by Dan Sheffield on the subject, forthcoming in the Journal of the K.R. Cama Oriental Institute). Similarly, Bahram’s ship, the Anahita, has Persepolis-style decorations that also would have been relatively uncommon in that era: such styles only gained popularity in the community around the very end of the nineteenth century.

But these are infinitely minor details. River of Smoke is a gripping account of how an array of Indians, Chinese, and Europeans—Parsis, Bengalis, Indo-Portuguese, Scotsmen, a French girl; seths, merchant princes, botanists, dubashes, smuggler agents—were brought together and convulsed in the months before British guns opened fire in the Pearl River Delta.  It is a welcome work of literature that will hopefully tackle collective historical amnesia over a significant yet sordid chapter in both Parsi and Indian history.