It is 1838, and Amitav Ghosh's new novel, River Of Smoke, sails into Canton, a rambunctious, crowded city, and home to seafarers, itinerant merchants, opium traders and many such floating folks. "In China, everything new comes from Canton," says a character, in what is the second book in a planned trilogy.
The exotic, tiny Fanqui town - or foreigners' town - appears to have been the most exciting part of the city. Thousands of men from all over the world live cramped in a little sliver of a place, one of the "last and greatest of all the world's caravanserais". It is also the hub of a thriving opium business where traders from Europe and India exchange their deadly cargo for tea, silk, porcelain and silver.
Canton's suburbs are bustling, floating cities on the Pearl River, a veritable "waterborne hive" where up to a million people live in boats moored along the water's edge. At the centre of this maelstrom of commerce, a prosperous Indian Parsi opium merchant, Bahram Modi, negotiates a knotty question of the morality of his trade even as Chinese authorities launch a concerted crackdown.
But beyond the fog of opium and the cacophony of the foreigner's town, River of Smoke is really a scathing parable of globalisation.
The obstreperous foreign merchants invoke the principles of free trade to justify opium exports to China. And when the Chinese rulers finally crack down on opium, the obdurate traders turn fiercely protectionist, insisting that their government should intervene. "Free trade cronies are full of braggadocio and false conceit, but in fact they are the rankest of cowards," says a rare upright merchant, Charles King. Earlier in the book when Bahram cajoles his rich father-in-law to give him a ship to begin trading in opium, he tells him that the world is changing. "Today the biggest profits come from selling things that are not of any real use," he says.
Last week, on a cloudy Delhi morning, I asked Ghosh, a trained anthropologist from Oxford, whether free trade and globalisation had failed a lot of people. "Of course," he said. "Look around you, look at Greece, look at England. And yes, we keep making and selling things which are of no real use!"
There's an amazing amount of economics in his novel - pushed against the wall, opium merchants talk about setting up an off-share trading base to ship in opium and about the "hand of freedom, of the market", echoing Adam Smith. (Ghosh tells me that a number of traders were Scottish, and would have been influenced by Smith's tracts.) Clearly, globalisation repeats itself again and again - often with unsavoury results - and nothing really changes.
And then there are the ruminations on democracy. "Democracy is a wonderful thing," says Bahram. "It is a marvellous tamasha (spectacle) that keeps common people busy that men like ourselves can take care of all matters of importance. I hope one day India will also be able to enjoy these advantages." I ask Ghosh about the health of democracy in India. He doesn't appear to be very upbeat about it. "Democracy for democracy's sake doesn't make much sense", he says, "unless we strengthen institutions and follow processes." Otherwise, as Bahram says, it can just become a spectacle, involving the institutions, the media and the people.
Two decades after India embraced globalisation and economic reforms, the results are mixed: a rising tide has lifted all boats - to borrow an allegory from Ghosh's sea novels - but many boats are barely afloat. There is valid criticism about a lot of growth being jobless, and inadequate state attention to education and health of the poor. In an intensely media-driven environment, where everybody appears to be playing to the gallery, democracy, many say, is being trivialised.
But, of course, River Of Smoke is more than all this. This masterwork of historical fiction is brimming with characters and colour. Behind its finely etched detail about people, cities, voyages, flowers and food, it is a seriously engaging political novel - perhaps one of the finest ever by an Indian writer. Don't miss it.
Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke is published by Penguin