In the second of his ‘Ibis’ trilogy, Ghosh is at the pinnacle of his prowess. It’s a triumph, a truly global novel
Poppies was set primarily in the Calcutta of 1838—the fulcrum of the British empire in the east, where trade was the lubricating agent of colonization—and on board the Ibis, transporting indentured workers to Mauritius, along with convicts. But River of Smoke abandons this centre, for the most part, stretching its action from Mauritius in the West to Canton in the East, with passing cameos by other parts of the world, such as the island of St Helena where Napoleon is exiled after losing the Battle of Waterloo, which puts in an appearance in the novel.
Much of the action continues to take place on board merchant ships—either in mid-voyage, or anchored off the coast of China, as events come to a slow boil in the world’s largest market for the opium that British and Indian traders make a killing on. The line from the poppy fields of eastern India is thus drawn all the way to Canton. Here, local opium dealers supplying a willing population of addicts not only help reverse the trade deficit of the British empire with China—while adding to the wealth of individual opium traders from all countries who’ve joined the gold rush—they also lead the Chinese empire to clamp down on opium imports. The outcome, of course, will be the Opium Wars, in not one but two editions.
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