Amitav Ghosh in his historical Ibis trilogy reclaims the story of the victims told for so long by the imperial winners who enforced their will with the power of the gun masked by a rhetoric of civilisation
Shashi Tharoor | 24 Jun, 2015
Over the last three decades, Amitav Ghosh has established himself as a writer of uncommon talent who combines literary flair with a rare seriousness of purpose. His first novel, The Circle of Reason, seemed very much in the Rushdie magical-realist tradition, but he has evolved considerably since then, notably in works like The Shadow Lines and more recently The Glass Palace, which deal movingly and powerfully with the dislocations of post-imperial politics in Bengal and Burma. His evolution is complete, it would seem, with his eighth novel, Flood of Fire, which thrillingly concludes his ‘Ibis trilogy’ seven years after the first volume of the trio, Sea of Poppies, appeared. The three novels, taken together, add up to a whopping 1,654 pages and almost a million words; every one of them makes for delightful reading.
Strikingly, the trilogy’s events span only three years, from 1838 to 1841, beginning with the immiseration of Indian farmers forced into migration by the making over of their fertile lands to opium cultivation, and culminating in the assertion of British power in China in what history knows as the First Opium War. In between, Ghosh gives us a remarkable saga of trade, migration, lust, greed and military power, all depicted with great literary flair, zest for language and storytelling, meticulous research and ingenious plotting. Flood of Fire entirely fulfils the expectations raised by the first two volumes.
In Sea of Poppies, Ghosh depicted British India, a country whose fertile agricultural lands are swamped by the flower of the title, grown to produce the opium that the British are exporting to addicts in an increasingly resistant China. Hungry Indian peasants, meanwhile, are being driven off their land, and many are recruited to serve as plantation labourers in far-off British colonies like Mauritius. Meanwhile, the clouds of war are looming, as British opium interests in India press for the use of force to compel the Chinese mandarins to keep open their ports, in the name of free trade. River of Smoke took that narrative further, complicating it with the tale of a Parsi opium trader, Behram Modi, trying in vain to recuperate the losses he incurs from the confiscation and destruction of Indian opium by upright Chinese mandarins. Flood of Fire takes characters and themes from the first two books to a resounding climax as China is battered into submission by the British in the name of free trade, with huge ‘compensation’ extracted in the form of tribute to the invaders, and ends with the ceding of Hong Kong to the British.
As the action moves from India to China, Flood of Fire brings together key characters from both earlier books, none more brilliantly or starkly portrayed than the octoroon shipwright from Baltimore and first mate on the Ibis, Zachary Reid—first encountered in the opening volume as a sympathetic character, a hard-working and principled man on the rise, passing for White and trying to build a life for himself in a tough world. Zachary, having escaped his ship at the end of Sea of Poppies, now reappears in Calcutta, where to pay off his debts and regain his mate’s licence he works as a ‘mystery’ (properly mistry, or craftsman) on a pleasure-boat or ‘budgerow’ owned by the wealthy opium trader Burnham. Seduced by Burnham’s wife (a masterful portrait) and inveigled into the opium trade himself, Zachary’s gradual corruption and cupidity are effectively portrayed, climaxing in his entering into partnership in Hong Kong with the very man he has cuckolded. Opium gives him the success he craves, and costs him our regard, as we see him seduced by ‘the law of cupidity, that great engine of progress that matched needs to gains, supply with demand, and thereby distributed the right rewards to those who most deserved them’.
But this is not merely the tale of one man’s fall and rise. Reid has, he blithely admits, become ‘a man of the times’: “a man who does not know the meaning of ‘enough’. Anyone who thwarts my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must expect to be treated as such.” The symbolism is clear enough: Reid does to people around him what the British do to China.
It would be wrong, though, to seek weighty metaphors in every character or incident. Ghosh delights in portraying people in all their complexity and weakness, which he depicts with an acute eye, sometimes compassionate and often droll. He is not above low humour either. Particularly amusing are the arch mannerisms of the imperious but sexually voracious Mrs Burnham (as Zachary is obliged to call her till the very end), spiced with colourful 19th century Indianisms straight out of Hobson-Jobson, as she imparts Victorian sex-education lessons to an eager Zachary in almost cartoonish exchanges: “It’s my turn now,” Mrs Burnham proclaims, “to bajow your ganta”….“I do not doubt that it is a joy to be a launder of your age, with a lathee always ready to be lagowed”.
The lessons of the affair for Zachary, though, are not merely linguistic, or even sexual. They haunt him as he takes to selling opium to China’s wretched addicts: ‘Through the odour of dust and dung he recalled the perfumed scents of Mrs Burnham’s boudoir. So this was the mud in which such luxuries were rooted? The idea was strangely arousing.’
Other regulars from the series make major appearances. The unjustly bankrupted and exiled Bengali former raja, Neel Rattan Halder, is now a translator for the Chinese of British words and ways, though he can ‘never be comfortable anywhere around the British flag’. A marvellous addition is his precocious pre-pubescent son, Raju, who sets out for the Far East to find his father; the story of their reunion is almost unbearably poignant.
Also new to readers is this volume’s central protagonist, Havildar Kesri Singh, a sepoy in the East India Company and brother of Deeti from Sea of Poppies, who signs up for the ‘Maha-Chin’ campaign as a ‘balamteer’ or volunteer. Kesri serves as principal aide and guide to his ‘butcha’ (child), Captain Neville Mee, a doughty but simple-minded officer of humble background still pining for his long-lost love, who turns out to be none other than Mrs Burnham. As the ironies multiply, so do the familiar characters: walk-on parts are played here by Deeti’s husband Kalua, the giant runaway known to the British as Maddow Colver and the waiflike Paulette, Zachary’s earlier love interest, now apprenticed to a European botanist in China.
There is also the faintly absurd character of Baboo Nob Kissin, with his hilariously fractured English, his mystical delusions and yet his shrewd contrivances nudging others towards new destinies. To him, the Brits’ war of capitalist triumph presages pralaya, the end of the world; Baboo Nob Kissin watches the assault on China and sees it as the epitome of the ‘kalyug’, the era of vice and destruction in which we live. He is happy to play his part in ensuring the world reaches its predestined doom.
Of the new characters in Flood of Fire, the one Ghosh does both most and least justice to is Shireen Modi, the widow of the opium trader at the heart of River of Smoke, who gives up ‘the peculiar kind of loneliness that comes of living in a house where the servants far outnumber their employers’ and journeys to Canton in quest of her husband’s grave and of his illegitimate half-Chinese son. (Most, because her evolution into a woman in charge of her own destiny is a huge part of the narrative; least, because it is almost too easy, as if the author is eliding over the enormity of the emotional, psychological and social challenges Shireen would have had to overcome to get there.) Flood of Fire also gives us the opium addict Freddie Lee, known to readers of the first volume as Ah Fatt, and her suitor (and late husband’s friend), the Armenian Zadig Bey, both more enigmatic than fully fleshed-out.
The Ibis, the triple-masted schooner from the first novel, and the Anahita from the second are joined by the Hind, as the three ships converge in the waters off Canton, a nautical symbol of the trilogy they inhabit, poised to launch and observe the assault on China in the name of free trade (in opium). As Paulette reflects, ‘The bond of the Ibis was like a living thing, endowed with the power to reach out from the past to override the volition of those who were enmeshed in it.’
Ghosh evocatively captures the era—its dialects, its dress and furnishings, its eating habits, its prejudices. His writing, full of brio and verve, is again sometimes obscured by a fondness for untranslated words that cannot be understood from the context (‘golondauzes’, ‘luckerbug’, ‘jashan’ and dozens more). But this is deliberate: for him,language celebrates the mongrel mating of cultures while,at the same time, ‘it is as if language itself has become a battleground, with words serving as weapons’.
Flood of Fire offers more conventional literary pleasures too, none more effective than the vividly described battle scenes, with naval and military engagements that come alive: ‘… the stretch of water where the Chinese fleet had been was utterly transformed: it was as if a sheet of lightning had come down from the sky, to set the channel on fire.’ The battles mean more because of our sense of an intimate connection with the characters—including soldiers and fife-boys, the teenage musicians employed by the British to accompany and guide the marchers— intensifying our engagement with the narrative.
Ghosh has done his military research. There is a detailed recreation of military life in the service of the East India Company’s Bengal Native Infantry, whose 25th regiment, the Pacheesi, Kesri belongs to—from the stiff and heavy uniforms and helmets that change their wearers’ very way of being, to the ruthless punishments imposed on deserters. Flood of Fire depicts the men and boys on the margins—the sepoys, the accompanying camp-followers including sages and bazaar-girls, the petty traders, the fifers or ‘banjee-boys’ —affectingly. Ghosh is unsparing on the racial discrimination that blighted the British military—the discrepancies in the equipment ad allowances given to White soldiers and Indians, the racism in everything from the placement of camp-sites to the administration of military justice: “It’s always easier to blame sepoys,” as Captain Mee admits, for “it’s a Madras havildar’s word against an English corporal’s”. No wonder an Indian soldier’s loyalty was ‘a matter of such profound uncertainty that no one was perhaps more unsure of it than he himself’.
But the military encounters serve a larger purpose too in the narrative. Zachary watches a battle and sees it as ‘a triumph of modern civilization; a perfect example of the ways in which discipline and reason could conquer continents of darkness’. Neel had thought of long-ago battles ‘as immeasurably distant from his own life, a matter of quaint uniforms and old-fashioned weaponry. Only now did it occur to him that it was on battlefields such as those that his own place in the world had been decided.’
Kesri Singh, in the heat of battle, is much less clear of its purport: ‘So much death; so much destruction—and that too visited upon a people who had neither attacked nor harmed the men who were so intent on engulfing them in this flood of fire. What was the meaning of it? What was it for?’
Opium, if course, is a large part of the answer, as it ‘pours into the market like monsoon flood’—the opium Exchange in Calcutta has ‘more wealth here than in any market in Asia’—fuelling greed, cupidity and brute power garbed in high-blown rhetoric of free trade. As the somewhat two- dimensional Mr Burnham (‘secure in the knowledge that there is no greater freedom, no greater cause for pride, than to be subjects of the British Empire’) declares, blissfully unconscious of irony: “[We will] bestow on the people of China the gift of liberty that the British Empire has already conferred on all those parts of the globe that it has conquered and subjugated.” Or indeed when he describes the conflict: “On one side stands a race that is mired in depravity, tyranny, self-conceit and evil; ranged on the other side are the truest, most virile representatives of freedom, civilization and progress that history has ever known.” Which is which?, the Chinese might well have asked. Especially as a character reveals the real motive: “No longer would tyrants be able to stamp the label of ‘smuggler’ upon honest opium traders”.
Ghosh has a keen eye for the minutiae of class and caste relations, the increasing racial prejudice of the British, the growing national consciousness of Indians, both those who served the British as soldiers and those who had imbibed their language and customs through education. As Neel reflects: ‘It is madness to think that knowing a language and reading a few books can create allegiances between people. Thoughts, books, ideas, words—if anything, they make you more alone, because they destroy whatever instinctive loyalties you may once have possessed.’
The big themes of the trilogy come together in Flood of Fire: the impact of the imperial enterprise on the societies it fractured and transformed, and the human beings it changed, exiled, made, destroyed and made anew; the rich intercourse of commerce and miscegenation; the inter- penetration of peoples, with the shattering of age-old barriers and the erection of new ones; the mongrelisation of language and culture; the tug of conflicting loyalties; and the irresistible lure of lucre.
The trilogy defines an era when imperialism reached its zenith, engendering collisions of customs, convictions, consonants, couplings and cash. It has also reclaimed for its victims a story told for too long by its victors—those who conquered foreign lands, subjugated and displaced their peoples, replaced their agriculture with cash-crops that caused addiction and death, and enforced all this with the power of the gun masked by a rhetoric of civilisation.
Kesri, the farmer’s son who spurned possible service in the Mughal army to fight for the better-equipped, more glamorous British, laments that he can never feel the passion of his Chinese adversaries who are dying to defend their own homes and values. Flood of Fire offers a reminder of the complicity of Indians in the subjugation of the Chinese by the British. How ironic, indeed, and how fitting, that the dissolution of the British Empire has been followed by the irresistible rise of both China and India.
“When we kill people,” a British sea-captain says in the first book of the trilogy, “we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this pretence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.” Ghosh, on behalf of history, is unforgiving; and his trilogy is literary fiction’s most luminous contribution to setting history right.