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River of Smoke



Awards: NPR Best Book of the Year

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About The Author

Amitav GhoshAmitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh is the internationally bestselling author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Glass Palace, and is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes. Ghosh divides his time between Kolkata and Goa, India, and Brooklyn, New York.

photo: © Dayanita Singh

Awards

NPR Best Book of the Year

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Reading Group Gold

Set during the opium trade of the early nineteenth century, Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy is a voyage through epic power struggles between East and West—a complex history that continues to resonate throughout the world. The first novel in the series, Sea of Poppies, took readers to the Ganges and Calcutta, where the seductive opium commodity was cultivated and processed. The cast of characters included Neel, a pampered raja convicted of embezzlement; Paulette, a French orphan masquerading as a deckhand; and Deeti, a widowed poppy grower fleeing her homeland with her lover, Kalua. Continuing their sagas while introducing intriguing new characters, River of Smoke takes us to the opium marketplace via the clipper ship Anahita, which is secretly loaded with perhaps the most valuable cargo ever to leave India, and the Redruth, carrying Frederick “Fitcher” Penrose, who is determined to track down China’s priceless horticultural treasures.

The novel’s destination is the legendary Fanqui-town, the lost enclave of foreign factories in Canton, where traders, sailors, merchants, and politicians built a tumultuous but colorful international community. Bringing to life intriguing historical revelations, Ghosh captures Fanqui-town on the brink of its downfall, when it had become a powder keg that would soon ignite the Opium Wars. At the heart of River of Smoke is the tale of Bahram Modi, a brilliant entrepreneur whose achievements were never enough to win the respect of his wife’s family. Now he has staked everything on a massive opium shipment, unaware that its course is directly in the path of a cyclone.

Brimming with the spectacular coincidences, startling reversals of fortune, and tender love stories that make Amitav Ghosh an enchanting storyteller, River of Smoke is also a meditation on today’s headlines, from the blind pursuit of wealth to the far-reaching tragedies of the drug trade. We hope the following guide will enrich your discussion of this timely masterwork.



1. The opening scenes recount Deeti’s survival after she and Kalua escaped the Ibis. She insists that destiny, not chance, led her to the site of her hidden shrine. For her, what does destiny mean? What legacies does she pass on to the next generation?

2. Like many of the novel’s characters, Ah Fatt and Robin Chinnery have bicultural ancestries. What limitations and freedoms accompany their lack of a legitimate, aristocratic bloodline? Do ancestry and prestige go hand in hand in River of Smoke?

3. Discuss Bahram’s and Fitcher’s motivations. Are they simply greedy?

4. Paulette is a master of disguise and can comfortably move between cultures. What does she consider to be her true identity? Why is horticulture a suitable field for her?

5. Discuss the role of religion in shaping the characters’ view of the world. When Christian characters justify the opium trade, how do they reconcile it with their faith? (You may enjoy revisiting Charles King’s letter to Charles Elliot near the book’s final pages.)

6. Bahram and Zadig discuss the experience of having an additional, foreign wife, debating whether love is a factor. How does the relationship between Bahram and Chi-mei change over the years? Would Bahram enjoy Canton as much if he weren’t a foreigner?

7. How do the trilogy’s ships—the formerly slave-trading Ibis, Fitcher’s practical but eccentric-looking Redruth, and the treasure-laden Anahita (named for the Zoroastrian angel)—reflect their passengers?

8. In chapter seven, Robin’s letter describes the Pearl River as a suburb of Canton. In chapter thirteen, Zadig recalls the legend that claims the river got its name from a foreign trader who dropped a mysterious pearl. Drawing on these and other impressions, discuss the Pearl River as a character: how would you describe its powers and its personality?

9. Consider Ghosh’s penchant for intertwining fates. For example, Ah Fatt had been Neel’s companion in the labor prison, while Neel (qualified to work as a munshi because of the education that accompanied his noble status) is close by when Mr. Punhyqua is arrested, marking the unlikely fall of another member of the ruling class. Does Ghosh create tragicomedy or pure irony in story lines such as these?

10. Near the end of chapter six, Bahram has a chance encounter with Napoleon (a scene inspired by reported encounters between the French emperor and seafaring traders). If you had been in Bahram’s position, what would you have asked Napoleon?

11. Chapter two depicts Bahram’s slippery ladder escape, echoed in the last chapter. What is the effect of watching Paulette observe the aftermath of the dangling ladder? What do you imagine for Bahram after those final moments?

12. Explore the novel’s closing scene, in which Deeti and Neel look at Robin’s prophetic painting. Through his art and his letters, what vision of history does Robin present? Is this vision different from the novel’s?

13. Although Neel is a fictional character, he was inspired by an 1820s court case in which a wealthy Bengali was convicted of forgery and sentenced to servitude. How was your reading affected by the blend of real-life and imagined figures?

14. Amitav Ghosh revels in the written word, compiling Neel’s amusing, extensive Chrestomathy in Sea of Poppies and playfully exploring the French influence on the vocabulary of Deeti and other sojourners. What makes Ghosh’s approach to language unique?

15. What do you predict for the third installment of the Ibis trilogy?

16. What can the modern world learn about economics and humanity from this novel? Is the history of the Opium Wars—with international trade rivalries such as Dent and Jardine’s—repeating itself?


Guide written by Amy Clements / The Wordshop, Inc.

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