Amitav Ghosh’s epic Ibis trilogy sails home in ponderous, minutely detailed glory
Rajni George | 27 May, 2015
History is a jealous master, claiming every descendant of its originators. One of contemporary literature’s most panoramic historical sagas repeatedly returns to its lodestone to remind us of the inevitability of history’s wages: a great ship, one of the classic literary vehicles. For, when Paulette, orphaned amateur botanist, and sailor- turned-opium merchant Zachary Reid reunite, she realises that ‘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’. The Ibis once voyaged with a consignment of convicts and indentured labourers from Calcutta to Mauritius, in September 1838, and the fallout was immense, even after the literal storm has settled: two lascars, two convicts and a passenger missing (Sea of Poppies, 2008). In River of Smoke (2011), we opened with Deeti, the young woman who first captured readers’ hearts, and planted the hook of this pan Asian saga, surviving the storm and subsequent escape thanks to ‘Zikri-Malum’ (Zachary). And we left her last with fellow Ibis survivor Neel, looking at a painting of Canton in flames, when he remarks, in the book’s closing sentence: “The picture cost more than I could afford… but I bought it anyway. I realized that if it were not for those paintings no one would believe that such a place had ever existed” (River of Smoke, 2011).
For those who took up Sea of Poppies seven years ago, this summer brings the much-awaited Flood of Fire (Hamish Hamilton, 624 pages, Rs 799). This epic cycle comes full circle when the water blazes with the savagery of the wares it carries forth; the action, somewhat placid in the middle book, is urgent here, as it moves to its pinnacle. The opium exports of the British have been blockaded by Beijing, so they plan to invade and force China to capitulate, demanding an island base on the coast and just compensation. As the confrontation of East and West gains momentum, four narratives move forward, pulling several threads with them in a tapestry of colonial-era tumult which ends on Chinese shores. Thus, several years and two books into an era-defining trilogy, we complete four significant years spanning the opium conflict, in over 2,000 pages.
Havildar Kesri Singh of the Bengal Native Infantry’s 25th Regiment—Deeti’s brother—is the opening act and the clean bass line of this book, leading his detachment of Indian volunteers into impending war and increasingly uncertain of how his unwilling, poorly tended crew will fare in what they call ‘Maha-Chin’, despite the assurances of his English superior and friend, Captain Mee. Much more certain of his path is young Zachary Reid, the foolhardy sailor who has just cleared his name and settled in Calcutta (he helped the five escapees leave the Ibis), with the opportunity to make his fortune on a passage to China through opium tycoon Mr Burnham—and the buxom Mrs Burnham, who will see him made into a gentleman. Newly widowed Shireen Modi is left bereft by the strange death of her opium trader husband Bahram, who slipped off his ship and lost his fortune to the blockade, and hers is the most daring trajectory of all; she chooses to leave her comfortable life in Bombay’s Parsi community to claim her rightful due and find the son her husband never told her he had.
Awaiting them all, on the other side of the divide, is Neel Rattan Halder, a one-time raja whose dalliance with the opium trade sent him into indentured labour until he escaped; now an aide and translator for the Chinese, he wants to make his knowledge useful to someone but fears the consequences of an uneven war. For, despite prolonged battling, the Chinese must capitulate, reeling from substantial losses and forced to hand over six million silver dollars in damages against the confiscated opium. Importantly, they must cede the island of Hong Kong or ‘Red Incense Burner Hill’. And there are other invisible and visible costs, as they eventually lose the battle of the first Opium War (1839-42) and, later, the second Opium War (1856-60). These conflicts weakened the dynasty and helped create modern republican China; it is one of the most telling tests of the East.
Ghosh’s characters are compelling studies of these revolutions, mini portraits of the agents of change and the victims of that change. There are opportunists and profiteers, like Lynchang or Lenny Chan, who starts out as a servant to an English flower-hunter and then, after serving as a caretaker of plants in Kew, makes his fortune off the ‘black mud’ business back in Canton. The profiteers can also be victims; Freddie, who was Ah Fatt on the Ibis, reappears as a troubled opium addict (he is also Bahram Modi’s half-caste son, the product of his long-standing affair with a Chinese woman), and his is perhaps the least satisfying of threads here, in that his presence is chiefly symbolic. He represents, of course, the wasting away of subjects under the influence of opium—but he is too much of a hollow man, almost a caricature, in this book. Similarly, Paulette lends little by the way of screen presence in this turn. Ghosh’s cast of characters is a miracle of diversity— a guide to the characters would not have been remiss in this kind of big, layered book—but the balance doesn’t come as easily as in Sea of Poppies. This stretch of the tale could well have been 200 pages shorter—but those loyalists who essay it probably won’t mind, either way.
By chapter 12, many protagonists are housed aboard the Hind, part of a large and varied expedition ranging from little boy fifers to wealthy women to the tough-talking men of the Company. The Cameronian and Her Majesty’s 49th Regiments combined with the two companies of Bengal Volunteers make up a thousand men, supplemented by a battalion from the 18th Royal Irish Regiment, men from the Royal Marines and the sepoys, sappers, miners and engineers of the 37th Madras Native Infantry Regiment, the largest group of fighting men: all of it totalling 4,000 men, who delight at the sight of Union Jacks crowding the 20 warships and 26 transport and supply vessels anchored in Macau. The journey is epic, full of the kind of fracas native to all tales of ship voyages, which create the most satisfying arenas for conflict (from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, and many other wonderful maritime tales).
The action finally breaks too slowly, however, more than halfway in, escalating into a minor skirmish which serves as a trailer for the big violence to come. The sepoys charge forward, howling “Har, har Mahadev!” and: ‘From the squat barrels of the howitzers came dull thudding sounds as they lobbed shells into the fortifications; from the field-piece came deep-throated roars as it hurled grapeshot and canister directly into the ranks of the opposing infantry.’
The movements of war are simultaneously gripping and monotonous, and it is the fate of these battles to both entrance and bore us. As the victims shit themselves, stagger about ridden with grapeshot and jump into oblivion to avoid admitting failure, it is the futility of war that inevitably bores us even as it tells us more about ourselves than we find in everyday life. War is a stretch, a compounding, an exaggeration of the human experiment, as Ghosh reminds us.
Even a soldier like Kesri, hardened by many difficult acts, is forced to ask: ‘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?’ Comparing himself to Dronacharya battling Arjuna, or King Shalya, forced to fight his sister’s sons, he is struck by the poor logic of dharma as guiding principle. Kesri’s rebellion, when it comes, is one of the book’s uplifting moments.
More succinctly, shortly after the British troops emerge triumphant in an early battle, under the aegis of a proud Kesri, Neel reflects on the proximity of battle and the injustice of politics: ‘it astonished him that he had not recognized before the terrible power that was contained within these wrinkles in time—a power that could mould the lives of those who came afterwards for generation after generation… 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.’
The message is driven in, over and over again, and there may be little that is new about it. There is nothing new about the deeply entrenched colonial attitudes of the British army’s functioning, either; ‘“It’s always the same story, isn’t it havildar?” said the captain, in a tone of embittered resignation. “They send us to fight with old equipment and then they complain that sepoys don’t match up to white troops.”’ Their lives are handled carelessly, it is clear, yet the sepoys make a name for themselves on the battlefield.
Then, there is the speech of opium tycoon Mr Burnham, who likens the opium conflict to the inevitability of the quarrel of Cain and Abel, going so far as to say that the ‘celestial’ aspirations of the Chinese will be put down by the ‘chastening’ effected by British forces. These are old, heavy truths.
What is more novel are the plain and simple truths Ghosh offers, about sepoys and their motivation, for example: ‘This, in the end, was what mattered to them most, neither history nor glory, but the sustenance of their families, back in their villages’. The ultimate insight offered: “I suppose everyone finds the despotisms of other peoples hard to comprehend.”
Throughout, the language delights in its immersive and authentic use of idiomatic language of the period; people ‘freshen hawse’ and go about ‘coguing the nose’, engaging us in the classic vein of historical fiction.
Ghosh is the master of the ‘killer detail’, most compelling in the smaller aspects of his miniaturist’s vision. The level of historical detail is typically thorough. We learn of ‘the special code that China coast opium-sellers had started to use, to dupe the mandarins in case their account books were seized by customs officials’; how the Congreve rocket was adapted from Sultan Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan’s use of rockets against the Duke of Wellington during war with the East India Company; how, while preparing to enter the fray, marines forced themselves to urinate, knowing there would be no time to relieve themselves once battle begins. The minutely detailed pleasures of the opium trade are especially of interest: chests of it transferred from ship to godown, each maund (73 odd kg) going to traders for 130 to 150 rupees, a third of it going to the original source, the farmer (who lost his investment often, in paying the middlemen). The bazaar behind the Opium Exchange, an unlikely, muddy little gali wherein fortunes were made by modestly dressed shroffs featured ‘tazi-chitty or “fresh letter” and ‘mandi-chitty—“ bazaar letter”’ as means of exchange, its transactions taking the semblance of discreet hand jobs when hands motion under the cover of blankets.
‘So this was the mud in which such luxuries were rooted? The idea was strangely arousing,’ muses young Zachary. Zachary is easily titillated, of course. For here is Amitav Ghosh the comic writer, giving us a supremely funny episode between the tightly corseted Mrs Burnham and young Nathaniel, whose ‘pet’ gives him away and leads them into the farcical campaign which somewhat unevenly dominates the first half of the book, rendering him the victim of her anti-onanistic mission. Hilariously, Graham crackers from America are among the cures she suggests in what is a diverting sideplot, though the Indian-speak grates in its overabundance of ‘buk buk’ and similar affectations.
Soon, this too is left behind. Mrs Burnham, severally referred to as ‘Juno-esque’, morphs from a memsahib version of Mrs Robinson to the lovelorn figure of a woman who will never see her first love realised; her heart beats for Captain Mee, the equally torn East India Company man who she must face again aboard the Anahita. Many such reunions are effected for the New Year celebrations of 1841, and Zachary realises, when they are all on a level stage, that Paulette and Mrs Burnham posit ‘the poles of his desires, one of them forthright, spontaneous and simple in her tastes; the other enigmatic, sophisticated, wedded to luxury’. He is bequeathed only one in the final turn of events, and remains an odd chancer of a hero.
For, while Shireen Modi owns the most unusual and interesting storyline in one sense, as an empowered woman in an age where there are few, Zachary is the true hero of this story: a profiteer to beat all profiteers. A survivor.
Now that the saga of the Ibis is at an end, there is a sense of fatigue on the part of the reader. Ghosh, one of the great contemporary Indian writers, and the author of some of our finest modern classics—including The Shadow Lines, which defined a generation newly delivered of Partition, and In An Antique Land, an acute, masterful meditation on Egypt—is ten books into his remarkable career, studded with prizes like the Pushcart Prize and the Sahitya Akademi Award. No doubt this trilogy will win him even bigger prizes. He is a literary superstar in the most modern sense of the word, both in numbers and in acclaim, in the eyes of readers and critics both. Moreover, we have our own historical mega-narrative now, our counterpoint to the narratives of British colonials; our own Passage to India, inflected.
But one hopes that he will return to the present day repercussions of the Kal Yug his hysterical pundit Baboo Nob Kissin reminded us is nigh, two centuries ago—the current opiate dream requires his talent and vision even more than that of the indisputably present past.
(To read 'The Master of Tides', an interview with Amitav Ghosh click here)