It begins with a storm at sea. Three ships on three very different voyages are caught in the grasp of a terrible cyclone. The Ibis carries a cargo of indentured servants destined for the island of Mauritius, The Redruth is a British nursery boat loaded with plants and trees gathered from foreign shores and the hull of The Anahita teems with hundreds of chests of raw opium bound for the Chinese city of Canton. The lives of those aboard these ships converge in fateful patterns that form the basis of Amitav Ghosh's most recent novel, "River of Smoke," and at the center of it all is Seth Bahram Modi who has staked his life's work upon the precious and illicit cargo of The Anahita.
Bahram is a Parsi merchant from Bombay who has risen from a life of poverty to his position as one of the most influential foreign traders in Canton, primarily by importing Indian opium to be sold in China. However, as the future of the Chinese opium trade grows dim with the passage of increasingly severe and unequivocal prohibition laws, so do Bahram's future prospects as he gambled his honor and the entirety of his fortune upon this single shipment of opium.
"River of Smoke" vividly captures a critical moment in the history of global trade, as the tensions between the Chinese monarchy and the British East India Company mount to a perilous crescendo that will culminate in the devastating violence of the Opium Wars. The foreign enclave of Canton, where much of the novel takes place, is a cosmopolitan array of various international interests, each vying for its portion of the vast and unbridled opportunities for trade that flow from the markets of China. The characters in the novel represent this diversity of national origin and social status, from the opium dealers and "sing-song girls" of Canton's river district to the wealthy and powerful Chinese merchants and foreign traders.
Ghosh's rapt attention to detail anchors the reader firmly within the world of his story, which takes place nearly two centuries ago and yet mirrors the contemporary moment in vital and uncanny ways. The rhetoric of free trade that is embraced with messianic fervor by the foreign traders in Canton could have been taken directly from current discussions of globalization. And the illusory ideals of liberty and freedom, which were called upon to justify the Opium Wars, remain with us today in the resurgent ideology of neoliberalism and the imperialistic military interventions of Western powers. Ghosh's novel is never didactic, painting a complex and multifaceted picture of this period in history, particularly through the character of Bahram whose life is an amalgamation of the various political and economic forces acting upon the individuals of this era. However, "River of Smoke" calls upon the reader, through its novelistic vision of empathy and compassion, to remember the tragic errors of the past so as not to repeat them in the present.
Ghosh is an internationally best-selling author whose work has been translated into over 20 languages. "River of Smoke" is the most recent installment in his Ibis Trilogy, and was preceded by the novel "Sea of Poppies," which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and won the prestigious Crossword Book Prize in India. Ghosh discussed his work with Real Change during a recent visit to Seattle in which he spoke at Town Hall Seattle as part of a 2011 Seattle Arts and Lectures series.
"River of Smoke" is set in the years leading up to the Opium Wars between China and Britain in the 19th century. What were some of the historical factors that contributed to this conflict? The basic issue was that the West faced this major balance of payments with China. There was a lot of silver flowing out from the West to China and they needed to send something to reverse the flow, so they hit upon exporting opium from India. They sent a lot of opium from India into China and the Chinese realized that it was a major problem for them on many levels. It was a social problem as well as a financial problem. So they tried to put an end to it and that was when the British elected to force them to keep the markets open.
What was the role of the East India Company in the conflict, and what was the effect upon the people of India? The role of the East India Company was absolutely critical because at that point the East India Company was the ruler of most of India, so the East India Company was the prime mover in all of this. The impact the Opium War had on China was very direct, and it led immediately to a series of uprisings and rebellions and ultimately to the fall of the Chinese monarchy. In India its impact was less direct, less obvious and much more subtle really. It's something which played out over a very long time.
Much of your novel takes place in the foreign enclave of Canton, which was at the time one of the largest and most active trading ports in the world. Can you describe the importance of Canton within the world of your novel and within this period of history? Canton is almost like one of the main characters in the book because it was really such a fascinating place. As far as the world was concerned, Canton was a place of enormous importance. For centuries, Canton was the only Chinese port that was allowed to trade with the West, and in that period, just as today, China was enormously productive. It was a major exporter of commodities, it was an exporter of silk and porcelain and tea and many, many other things. All of this came into the world through Canton.
The character of Seth Bahram Modi dramatically captures the moral and political complexities of this period in history. What inspired you to focus on Bahram as the central character of your novel? Well, several men like Bahram -- Bombay-based merchants, very important traders from India -- were in Canton in this period, and I became very fascinated by their situation. I wanted to know what their response was to this peculiar and very important historical circumstance, so that is why he became such an important character in the book.
"River of Smoke" is rich with historical details that work to create a vivid fictional landscape in the mind of the reader. How did your historical research interact with your creative process in writing this novel? To me, research is kind of a supplementary thing. It's not like I do all the research and then write the book. As I'm writing, I'll come to a situation and I'll think to myself: Well, what were they eating? What were they wearing? And that's when I'll try to find out, to fill in those gaps. So it's not really a separate process from the writing. They both happen together.
The act of storytelling figures throughout your novel as a way of remembering and reconnecting with the events that shape the contours of your characters' lives. What is the relationship between this kind of storytelling and more dominant historical narratives? Historical narrative is of a completely different order. They're offering you analyses, they're offering you a raw picture, if you like, and it's based upon certain sorts of documents, but what I'm trying to do is something quite different. I'm trying to follow individuals through this period, I'm trying to track their emotions, their responses, their predicaments, all of that. So it's a completely different thing. I do think, also, that the novel is a form that allows you to do something which is difficult for historians. See, when a historian writes a book, he's either writing a book about the politics or the economics or if they're a very special kind of historian, they're writing about the botany or about the science or something. As a novelist, you're dealing with the entirety, you're dealing with the gestalt, you know? And that's what's really exciting, because it allows you to place the person in a certain situation and circumstance and try to imagine the entirety of their environment.
The relationship between language and identity, and the process of translation, figures largely in the experience of your characters. Can you describe the importance of language and translation within your novel? Well, language and translation are very important aspects of this entire historical experience. Asia was a very complex, multilingual world. So everyone who was in Canton, for example, was having to coexist with lots of languages that they didn't understand. And at the same time, they were doing these very crucial dealings with each other through the medium of language. So it's a very interesting picture. It's very interesting to try and understand to what degree linguistic understanding entered into it all.
And you write about the patois that was spoken in Canton, as the language of trade. Yes, the pidgin was a very curious thing because the grammatical structure was like Cantonese, but the words were English. But you know a very strange aspect of this is that it penetrated even America. When the Native Americans met the settlers, they also evolved a kind of pidgin and much of this pidgin was actually borrowed from the trading pidgin of China.
There is a wide-ranging diversity of culture, language and religion that characterizes the South Asian subcontinent, and yet in Canton, all who originate from this region are referred to as "Achhas." What does this reveal about the construction of racial identity during this period of history? That's an interesting question, and it's something that intrigued me as well. You know, why was it that all of these people were just lumped together when they were so different? I guess it's a set of perceptions. There was this set of perceptions about who is who and who is what, and everybody was trying to understand and classify the others.
Because foreign women are barred from the city of Canton, most of the primary characters in your novel are men. What is the relationship between masculinity and the ideals of freedom and enterprise that are espoused by the foreign traders? That's an interesting issue. I think that particular way of looking at the world in terms of free trade and making war for free trade, it was very much a masculinist kind of vision. But you know the really peculiar thing about it is that the late 18th, early 19th century is when you actually have the invention of the whole idea of the masculine with the kind of hyper-masculinity and the separation of the masculine and the feminine in this very radical way that happened in the Victorian world. So these things are really very intriguing and very interesting to me.
There is a contrasting story line in "River of Smoke" in which the plants of China and the West are valued for their healing properties and their beauty rather than their capacity to intoxicate. Why did you choose to include this story alongside that of the opium traders? Well, the natural world interests me very much, and botany interests me very much and for the character Paulette, the botanical aspect of her life is very much a thread in the book that preceded "River of Smoke," "Sea of Poppies." I'm just fascinated by the way in which, in the 19th century, this intricate network of exchange between the East and the West came into being. You know, if you look out today on most American gardens, so many of the plants are from China and that's no accident. I mean, it was in this period in Canton that these exchanges took place.
There is a great deal of contemporary resonance in the events of your novel, particularly in regard to globalized markets and the doctrine of free trade. Did you choose to write about this historical period because of these parallels, or were they revealed to you through the process of writing? The second definitely. It was the process of writing that brought me to a realization of this. But you're absolutely right, there is a sort of mirroring and I think it's true that the Opium Wars are very important. I think history will one day look back and see it as the beginning of a certain period, when wars were made in the name of free trade and liberalization. And today when people talk about the doctrine of free trade, they do it as though it were this thing without any history, as though it had nothing preceding it. And yet, this doctrine comes to us soaked in blood and soaked in criminality. I mean, it was responsible for millions of deaths in China. I just don't understand how one can forget that or just put it aside.
It's interesting how little the rhetoric has changed, because I believe some of the scenes in your book, some of the debates and exchanges between the foreign traders on the nature of free trade are taken from actual conversations. Yes, absolutely. In many of the scenes I quote exactly what they said.
Do you see points of comparison between the 19th century opium trade and the contemporary international drug trade? You know, I'm often asked that and obviously, it's not similar in that in the 19th century, it was the dominant power that was using the drug trade. But it's also true that these weren't then as dominant of powers as they are now and they did use opium quite self-consciously to undermine China, to undermine Chinese institutions, to undermine Chinese society. But it's a different thing now.