It is 1839. The British, whose opium exports to China have been blockaded by Beijing, are planning an invasion to force China’s hand. Their demands-an island base on the Chinese coast from which to continue their trade and a princely sum in compensation for their losses. In Calcutta, Zachary Reid, an impoverished young sailor, dreams of his lost love and of a way to make his fortunes. His chance comes when the wealthy opium merchant Mr. Burnham gives him a job of a lifetime even as his wife provides Zachary with other allures.
Heading towards Calcutta is Havildar Kesri with his captain, Neville Mee, to lead a regiment of Indian volunteers in the upcoming war. Alert, battle-hardened, Kesri must turn his ragged, ill-equipped band of men, who know nothing about either China or sailing, into an efficient machine if they are to emerge out of this doomed expedition. In Mumbai, Shireen Modi waits anxiously for news of her opium trader husband only to discover that he has died mysteriously in Hong Kong and lost all his fortune in the opium blockade. She must sail alone to China as war clouds loom to reclaim his wealth and reputation-and in risking everything find a new life for herself again.
In Canton, Neel becomes an aide and translator to a senior Chinese official as Beijing begins to prepare for war with Britain. The more he sees, the more worried he becomes-for the Chinese have neither the ships nor the artillery to match the British in modern warfare. The future seems clear but do the Chinese know it?
Amitav Ghosh has concluded the Ibis trilogy, his fictional recreation of the events leading up to the first opium war of 1839-42 with the last installment, Flood of Fire. The trilogy consisted of Sea of Poppies , River of smoke and Flood of fire.Sea of Poppies, the first in the trilogy was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker prize. It discussed the details of opium production and its impact on the people of Bihar and the Bay of Bengal, most notably through the character of Deeti, widowed by her husband’s opium addiction and apparently destined to die on his funeral pyre until she escapes on board the Ibis. Ibis is a former slaving schooner repurposed as a transporter of opium.
River of Smoke, the second book in the series, took us to the opium’s destination, Canton, and the growing tension between the Chinese authorities and the traders. Neither of the previous two novels nor the latest reads as a dry history lesson. Ghosh’s story roars along, constantly flipping between high seriousness and low humour. It is simultaneously wrong-footing and delightful, riveting and diverting.