Flood of Fire: The Ibis’s last tumasher

Destruction of opium at Humen Credit: Wikipaedia Commons
Destruction of opium at Humen
Credit: Wikipaedia Commons


Flood of Fire

Amitav Ghosh

Penguin India

Rs 799, 616 pages

It seems just the other day that a ship called the Ibis, “like a great bird, with sails like wings and a long beak”, set sail with a company man, a coolie woman escaped from suttee and the opium trade, a zamindar turned prisoner, merchants, baboos and other colourful cargo on board.

Over a decade has gone by since Amitav Ghosh first began his Ibis trilogy, and in that time, Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and this final volume, Flood of Fire, have attracted thousands of fans across the world, and upended the usual view of the Opium Wars, Empire and the opium trade.

[Opium’s Empire: Amitav Ghosh on the background to Flood of Fire:]

The way that Ghosh would choose to write this was set as far back as 1992. When Ghosh wrote In An Antique Land, he started with a mention of “the slave of MS H6” who steps briefly onto the stage of history, “no more than a name and a greeting”. Ghosh was pushing back against the way histories are written. “…The only people for whom we can even begin to imagine properly human, individual, existences are the literate and the consequential, the wazirs and the sultans, the chroniclers and the priests — the people who had the power to inscribe themselves physically upon time”.

Through the three heavily researched books of this massively ambitious trilogy, he has given equal space to those whose lives are chronicled in gazettes, letters, diaries, registers and reminiscences, and those whose unrecorded lives provided the labour, blood and sweat for much of these enterprises – the girmitiyas and the balamteers, the coolie women and men. This approach is risky – an excess of political correctness, and you have a 616-page pamphlet instead of a novel – but fortunately, Ghosh’s love of storytelling neatly balances his historian’s urge to set the record straight.

Flood of Fire sweeps into 1839, the year Commissioner Lin banned the sale of opium and closed the channel to Canton, sparking retaliation from the British. Neel’s letters bring that time 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.”

[Amitav Ghosh on China, now and in the time of the Opium Wars]

In quick succession, Ghosh lets readers catch up with the lives, travails and narrow escapes of now-familiar characters. Shireen Modi, Bahram’s widow, ready to undertake a sea voyage to China to claim her husband’s profits despite her family’s disapproval, bumps up against the discovery that he had a secret life. Neel is now in Canton’s American Hong, settled into his new life as a translator, though he can “never be comfortable anywhere around the British flag”.

Zachary Reid, the young American sailor, is cleared at his trial but must work as a “mystery” (mistri, carpenter) to Mrs Behram, who turns out to an expert at rattling a fellow’s rigging. She does this in order to deal with the damage he might suffer from the regular practice of Onania, the heinous sin of self-pollution, in passages that veer from playful to the ponderous.

Other characters, equally beloved, stay offstage; Deeti, for instance, is only glimpsed sideways. But everyone finds space in this capacious, fast-paced book. 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.”

 Flood of Fire is a brisk read, for all of the dense historical research and period detail crammed into these 616 pages. Ghosh moves swiftly through action-packed passages, sliding in some virtuoso war scenes, made even more vivid thanks to his natural empathy with and understanding of the lives of sepoys who drew their tuncaw from the East India Company.

 It is Deeti’s brother, Kesri Singh, whose story becomes the emotional heart of Flood of Fire. Circumstances conspire to take him away from his home paltan in the Pacheesi to become a balamteer; cooped up in Fort William, he dreams of destinations, Lanka, Java, Singapore, Bencoolen. “But when Maha-Chin cropped up he derided the suggestion: who had ever heard of sepoys going to China? The very name Maha-Chin suggested a realm that was unfathomably remote: what little he knew of it came from wandering pirs and sadhus who spoke of crossing snow-clad mountains and freezing deserts. The idea of a seaborne campaign being launched against such a land seemed utterly absurd.”

 Of all of the details of a sepoy’s life that Ghosh sets down so well – the camp-followers and the stiff uniforms that impose another way of being on them, the discomfort of having worse equipment than their British officers, the initiation into combat and killing – the most striking is the question of loyalty. Elsewhere, he’s written of how “the sepoy always had to contend with the gaze of those he served”: a sepoy’s loyalty was “a matter of such profound uncertainty that no one was perhaps more unsure of it than he himself”.

Kesri Singh’s loyalty to his paltan is undercut by the fact that the men bring village loyalties, divisions and betrayals into the army with them. Race undercuts the loyalty he might feel to the Company, and yet, the army is the only place where he can feel at home; what he carries from his village is Bhojpuri and memories of his grey-eyed sister, not a sense of belonging.

 These questions, of loyalty to clan, caste, race, nation, place, ideas and great loves, weave in and out of Flood of Fire. Some betrayals cannot be undone, as Shireen Modi learns; some never happened the way you imagine they had, as Zachary and Paulette find out. Some run deep, as Neel knows in exile:

 “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.”

 Ghosh is a great writer, but he is not a flawless one, and yet the weaker timbers of the Ibis Trilogy do not undo his accomplishments. His exuberant love of language is as much a feature of the book as the landscapes and seascapes. Perhaps there is too much bunnowing of dumbpokes, and some sentences read like dilly-wrecks, with too much detritus crammed into them. But I cannot dislike a novel that spells tamasha two ways – tumasher, tamasha – and Ghosh’s fascination with the Bhojpuri of the soldiers’ and the slang of Canton is equally endearing. The strongest criticism of the Ibis trilogy is that it sometimes reads like a historical novel of the period, not just a historical novel about that period.

But that does not gainsay the pleasure of meeting favourite characters again, and cheering them on as they claim freedom amid the action and the drama. As Mrs Burnham says: “Have we not done enough by our duty, Shireen? Do we not also have a duty to ourselves?”

In these ten years, Amitav Ghosh has permanently changed and reshaped the way histories — colonial, Indian, Asian — are seen and fictionalized. He is more acute at reshaping race and class, and giving back narrative spaces to those long silenced by one or the other, than he is on refashioning gender, but he is a master at shifting your worldview.

When he set the Ibis and the Anahita afloat, he also created a history of the past written by those who were long considered powerless to bring their lives to the attention of the world. Flood of Fire is a grand tamasha, but it never lets you forget what the Ibis was: a vessel of blessed memory.

 (Published in the Business Standard, Weekend section, April 30th)

Speaking Volumes: Slow Reading

From 'Animalinside'; artwork by Max Neumann
From ‘Animalinside'; artwork by Max Neumann

For years Laszlo Krasznahorkai has been explaining that he does not use long sentences. Every second review of his work mentions those long sentences, but he would not agree. He writes the way people speak (or think, or imagine).

The full stop – “the dot”, he says dismissively – is an artificial convention, like apostrophes, commas. Call his lines real sentences instead, accumulated slow phrase by slow phrase from the voices he hears in his head.

The Man Booker International prize, awarded to Krasznahorkai last week, is, like the Nobel, one way for a great writer to be honoured among his peers. The other writers shortlisted for the Man Booker this year included Amitav Ghosh, Alain Mabanckou, César Aira and Hoda Barakat, all towering figures in their own right.

[The complete Man Booker International shortlist, in The Guardian.]

Krasznahorkai’s work, familiar and cherished in Hungary and Germany for years, appeared in imperceptible stages to the English-speaking world. The gradual discovery of his books, first from Bela Tarr’s films, then from the translations, has been like watching the raising of an iceberg stage by stage: you catch glimpses of alien forms of astounding beauty and black ice as the great mass of it comes up from the depths.

The general misconception about Krasznahorkai is that his books are “difficult” writing, a loose description employed on everything from the truly impenetrable, cerebral novel, to anything more ambitious than Coelho bestsellers.

But that doesn’t convey what it’s like to read him. His long sentences, unspooling on the pages, are neither dense nor incomprehensible. They require you to slow down, but they are composed by a skilled writer who pays careful attention both to the world he lives in and the fictional worlds he creates.

[Read the first chapter of Seiobo There Below]
Satantango begins, famously: “One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells.” Kamo-Hunter, the first chapter of Seiobo There Below is made up of evocative, spiralling sentences that track a snow-white heron in the middle of the Kamo River, near Kyoto (“the City of Endless Allusions”).

[The Millions interviews Krasznahorkai after Satantango was translated, 27 years after its first publication.]
As a writer, he believes that living in the world, you must pay attention to all that it contains, not skimming its violence and ugliness but also holding on to the idea that something beautiful may exist, elsewhere. Krasznahorkai makes me want to start a Slow Reading movement, in praise of books that are strange, rich, rooted in fertile soil, redolent of flavour, that reward you for spending time with them.

One of his favourite translators, Ottilie Mulzet, said in an interview: “I would never insert a full stop where there isn’t one in the original, because for me these sentences are like rivers, and if you place a full stop where there isn’t one in the original text, it’s like you’re damming up the river.”

From 1988 to 2011, he and Bela Tarr collaborated on six films, each a classic (Damnation, Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies, The Man From London, The Turin Horse). Satantango is the most celebrated, remembered for Tarr’s legendary long tracking shots and for its seven-hour length.

[Bela Tarr on his films and the collaboration with Krasznahorkai]

Satantango begins with the return of Irimias and Petrina to a failed village collective; the villagers don’t know that the two are also the eyes of the totalitarian state. “We kept the structure of the book,” Tarr said, “Like the tango, it’s six steps forward, six steps back.” The Turin Horse picks up on a key incident from Nietzsche’s life – his breakdown after he witnesses the whipping of a horse by a hansom cab driver. What happened to Nietzsche has been thoroughly chronicled. Krazsnahorkai, typically drawn to the porous border between human and non-human experiences, asks what happened to the horse and its driver.

It was only in 2000 that the first of his books, The Melancholy of Resistance, was translated, in 2010 that George Szirtes’ striking and faithful translation of Satantango came out, in 2013 that Seiobo Down Below was released in English. From 1990, Krasznahorkai had begun travelling in parts of Asia, starting with Mongolia and then moving on to China and Japan – his second wife, Dóra Kopcsányi, is a sinologist of some note.

His Asian books are startling and unusual. The Prisoner of Urga (1992) was his first travelogue from China. From the North by Hill, From the South by Lake, From the West by Roads, From the East by River (2003) pulls off the trick of capturing some of the wabi-sabi principles of Japanese art and calligraphy in literary form. Its chief protagonist is the fictional grandson of Genji. Destruction and Sorrow Beneath The Heavens, his 2005 memoir of travelling in China, is out in a new translation in January 2016 – he compares past and present, recording what feels irredeemably lost.

“…it turns out that all the buildings here are brand new and fake, that all the Lohans and so-called Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are brand new and fake, that every groove and every pillar and every inch of gold paint is brand new and fake, that everything is a fraud…”

The more I read of Krazsnahorkai’s books, the more I am drawn back to his readings. He often starts without preamble, pulls his readers into the world of his book in just a few sentences, ends without speaking further of what has just been read, and he is usually mesmerising. Over the years, his readers have grown in number and loyalty; he was famous for them long before the Man Booker.

Krasznahorkai, reading from Animalinside with Forrest Gander:

On one occasion, he reads in a dark room with light falling only on the pages. At a reading in the US, asked about war, he gives a stirring speech about peace as one of humanity’s most surprising achievements. To the astonishment of the organisers, the audience breaks out into an impromptu rendition of Lennon’s Imagine. In Berlin, he steps out onto a balcony, reading an apocalyptic section to the startled street as the image of a dog in silhouette is projected on the window of the balcony below. “With no warning,” Adam Thirlwell writes, “he disappeared. Simultaneously, the lights went dark.”

I think of what Krazsnahorkai said he aimed to find through writing. He said this in an interview, in two uncharacteristically short sentences: “Beauty in language. Fun in hell.”

 (Published in the Business Standard, May 26, 2015)

— More: James Wood’s definitive profile: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/07/04/madness-and-civilization

Krasznahorkai, George Szirtes and James Wood:


– Dancing in the Pub, Satantango

Journal: The elsewhere rains


Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever become a) less absent-minded b) more practical and when I put this question out to the Universe, all I get back is a belly laugh. Unlike almost everyone who’s in Delhi this summer, I haven’t minded the heat, because I was absent-mindedly waiting for the monsoons to roll in from the Arabian Sea. That would be the Arabian Sea off Goa, where I moved for three months in 2012 and then again for ten months in 2014, not the Arabian Sea off Delhi (because there isn’t a Sea off Delhi, as we who are roasting here this week are fully aware).

I grew very attached to the monsoons, unlike real Goans, who grumble quite rightly about the humidity and the fungus that grows on everything and the constant splashing around in raincoats and rubber chappals. But it was quiet and peaceful in Calvim and Bastora during the monsoon months, and everything was stained in emerald green or malachite green. There was time to meet old friends, the restaurants that were open in off-season were placid and not crowded, and one beautiful day, my neighbour gladdened my heart by calling across, “So nice it is when it’s only us, no tourists?”

At the end of ten absurdly happy months in Bastora, we decided with some regret not to move to Goa after all for mostly practical reasons. And that word, ‘practical’, reminds me of another thing. There’s so much talk of how hard it is to make a living from fiction writing and how you should save what you get when it comes in for a rainy day, and of course I meant to put my advances and royalties from The Wildings into practical things. Like Fixed Deposits or Bonds or at the very least, Bank Accounts. On reflection, though, there’s practical spending and there’s magical spending.

The Goa years were magic. We’d visited and holidayed in the state on and off for several years, but it was only when Margaret Mascarenhas (dazzling poet, writer, curator of the Prison Art project among many other things) offered me a writing retreat in Calvim that I found out what it was like to live there. I had wonderfully kind neighbours, visiting egrets, a stunning view across the paddy fields down to the river, and remarkably friendly kitchen frogs — and in 2012, Calvim could only be approached by ferry. Crossing the river took just ten minutes, but in that crossing, you placed a wide margin between yourself and the wider world. Every time I got on that ferryboat, I felt as though I’d dropped most of my fears and anxieties about writing on one bank, and picked up a small backpack of ideas and inspiration on the other side. Most of The Hundred Names of Darkness took shape in those three months.

A year or so later, the advances for Hundred Names gave me the courage to do something as impractical as rent a house for almost a year in the village of Bastora, from Anjali Puri, who, like Margaret, turned out to be one of the world’s nicest landladies. The thing about practical spending is that it’s excellent for buying you practical stuff. But magical spending is what you want to do if you’re interested in the accumulation of magical experiences.

There are a lot of goals I’ve ticked off my bucket list over the decades, including driving on the world’s highest road, meeting baby (and grown) elephants, and watching the King of Bhutan score big in an archery tournament. Spending two monsoons in Goa is fairly high on that bucket list.

These are photos from 2012, when I reached Calvim just in time to see the monsoons come in, and spent weeks out on the river on the ferry and other boats, getting to know Goa in the rains.

Magical spending may be massively impractical, but it’s priceless. Meanwhile, I guess we’ll have to head off to the hills soon, seeing as the Arabian Sea and the monsoons are just the tiniest bit of a distance from Delhi.

Journal: Checklist, useful skills

Below a list of what the well-educated Indian might have learned in the days of Nalanda.

I’m a high scorer on toy-making, composing poetry, filing up blanks, using figures of speech, knowledge of lexicons (though not the rest), talking in riddles, conversing in finger-signs; hopeless at deceptive make-up, needlework, embroidery, weaving, fancy-weaving; can cook, have never made syrups or ear-drops, not so much the garland-things; yes to proper use of scents and shampooing, no to proper use of ornaments, costumes, dyes and sadly blank on the rest of the list (metallurgy, crystals, engineering, wood-carving), including the arts of victory in war. And you?

List of accomplishments for the well-educated Indian
List of accomplishments for the well-educated Indian

Screenshot 2015-05-23 14.45.54

Speaking Volumes: Beyond Human

Indra Das's The Devourers (claw marks courtesy our cat, Bathsheba, who is also an avid reader)
Indra Das’s The Devourers (claw marks courtesy our cat, Bathsheba, who is also an avid reader)

One way to find out what an elephant is saying to you is to drop by the Elephant Gestures Database. Is the pachyderm in your life attentive, ambivalent, defensive; soliciting play or simply asking you for more spacial proximity?

Joyce Poole and Petter Granli started the online database in 2009, based on over three decades of their research on elephants and animal communication. They track the difference between the head-jerk and the head-swing, when to tusk-click, and how an elephant can read seismic vibrations, for instance. As Tania James writes in her novel, The Tusk That Did The Damage, of an elephant known as The Gravedigger: “His trunk, being stout and clumsy, couldn’t sense what his mother’s could sense – the sudden stillness in the rhythm of things, the peril in the air.”

(Visit The Elephant Gestures Database)

The Tusk That Did The Damage, James’ third book, is riveting not just because she’s a thoughtful and precise writer by nature, but because she cracks an old problem for writers: how to write about the non-human mind without, if I might borrow a poco catchphrase, committing the sin of appropriation.

Tania James, The Tusk That Did The Damage
Tania James, The Tusk That Did The Damage

Her novel is set in Wayanad in Kerala, and has four compelling characters – a poacher, a wildlife documentary film-maker, the elephant, and his pappan, who is something of an elephant whisperer. The Gravedigger has earned his name; James’ genius is to make the elephant’s intelligence, anguish, anger and longings completely compelling, while preserving for him a degree of unknowability, respecting the necessary gulf between the human and the non-human mind.

(“It really began with the elephant”: Tania James interviewed in the LA Times.)

Except that it might not be as necessary, or as wide a gulf, in the foreseeable future. Writers have been tackling non-human minds – animal, alien, and in-between – for centuries, but until very recently, experiments in animal language tended to set up human speech as the default. Can animals talk? How much of human language can different species understand?

These old questions are far less interesting than asking how animals communicate – through vibrations (elephants), signature whistles (dolphins), brain wave signals (rats), smells and chemical messages (wolves), complex long-distance vocal communication networks (songbirds). Shift the question around: how well can humans – probably among the most inquisitive of animals – understand other animal species?

 (The science of animal consciousness: Brandon Klein in Aeon)

When writers grasp this, the way they write about animals changes fundamentally. The research that Karen Joy Fowler did for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves led her, for instance, to investigate the lives of lab animals, especially chimpanzees.

She has spoken about two particularly disconcerting moments: the first was learning that one of the torturers at Abu Ghraib had worked on poultry farms, and wondering whether there wasn’t a link between these two professions. The second was discovering that while researchers in early experiments expected chimpanzees to mimic human behaviour, they weren’t prepared for the opposite: the swiftness with which human children imitated chimps.

(Karen Joy Fowler on the Kellogg experiment, interviewed in Bookslut.)

Fowler and James may move on to other subjects, but in the skill with which they attempt to investigate the inner lives of animals, they are in tune with the zeitgeist. It’s been just three years since the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness acknowledged that humans were not the only animals who could generate consciousness: the ability to feel and experience the world with conscious intent is shared between many non-human animals. This might be the first generation of human writers to tackle the problem of writing about animals not just from a position of curiosity, but from a base of mutual respect.

If that’s a difficult rope-trick to pull off, it’s that much harder to write about either aliens or mythical creatures such as werewolves. I approached Indra Das’s The Devourers with some wariness, not expecting to fall in love at first bite. But however badly burned a reader might be by too many clueless fantasy novels where the protagonists make you want to howl at the moon on their behalf, she’ll be delighted by The Devourers.  Das, a very talented illustrator who also writes well-crafted short science fiction, knows exactly how to hook a reader.

(Indra Das, A Moon For The Unborn: short story in Strange Horizons)

His narrator, situated in Kolkata, says, “I met a man who told me he was half-werewolf. He said this to me as if it were no different than being half-Bengali, half-Punjabi, half-Parsi.” Thirty pages later, the professor and the werewolf have set up a meeting exactly where you’d expect creatures of the night to hang out – at the Oly Pub. (Cigarette haze, plates of dirty dalmoth, “the popular refuge of the firmly middle classes”.)

(Read an excerpt from The Devourers.)

Das takes the werewolves back into Mughal India, their stories revealed through old scrolls. One narrative is offered by Cyrah, the survivor of a sexual assault by an ancient creature. Alongside the werewolves, there are also shape-shifters who hunt khrissals (humans), and he throws in a superb set-piece involving a massacre of our kind, set against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal.

His exceptional craft is part of what makes The Devourers one of the most satisfying fantasies to come out of India in the last ten years. By the end of a few chapters, I wasn’t surprised that Das makes you believe that werewolves stalked Mumtazabad and Akbarabad, or when he inverts the hunter-prey relationship to ask who needs whom more.

(“I felt like I was being hunted as well”: Indra Das interviewed by the Bangalore Mirror)

But The Devourers is also about other shaggy monsters – hidden sexual selves and hungers, the loneliness of those who have no skeleton keys to unlock their cages of identity, the understanding that the ability to devour and the ability to love are not the same. It is strange but true: a novel that imagines non-human creatures so well has much to say about the difficult condition of being human.

(Published in the Business Standard, May 12, 2015)

Writers on writing

2013-11-24 16.44.00

Erica Jong, writing in 1988: “Perhaps the literary artist is born like a woman with all her eggs present in their follicles; they have only to ripen and burst forth -and ripeness is all. But sometimes it takes half a lifetime for them to ripen.”

Susan Sontag in 1961: “The writer must be four people:

  1. The nut, the obsédé
  2. The moron
  3. The stylist
  4. The critic

1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence*. A great writer has all 4 — but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.”

Angela Davis on Toni Morrison as an editor:

“She did not rewrite things for me, but she asked me questions. She would say, ‘what did the space look like? What was in the room, and how would you describe it?’ It was quite an amazing experience for me to have her as a mentor. My experience with writing was primarily writing about philosophical issues. I really had to learn about how to write something that would produce images in people’s minds that would draw them into a story.”

Davis on Morrison as a writer:

“This is something that really impressed me about her: her discipline, her focus. One time, I was sitting in her house in Rockland County, (New York), and she had to drive in to (Manhattan) every day to work at Random House. I would see her when we were driving in. When there was traffic, she would pull out a little pad and write something or pull out a scrap of paper here or there, and I realized she was living the life of the next novel in her mind, regardless of whatever else was happening. I have always been impressed by her ability to be so focused and to inhabit the universe of her writing while not neglecting the universe that involves the rest of us.”

Mary Oliver, Sand Dabs, Seven:

“There is no pencil in the world that doesn’t have the ability to strike out as well as to instigate. It’s best to write, to begin with, generously.”

From the Foreword to Long Life:

‘”Poets must read and study, but also they must learn to tilt and whisper, shout, or dance, each in his or her own way, or we might just as well copy the old books. But, no, that would never do, for always the new self swimming around in the old world feels itself uniquely verbal. And that is just the point: how the world, moist and bountiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”‘


Imaginary places: The Wildings map

I wish I’d learned to draw properly (more School of Gunter Grass, less School of Edna O’Brien). I blame some of my woeful inability to sketch anything at all on the art teacher who made us draw apples for three months straight after which I a) nursed an aversion to drawing b) still associate apples and pencils, sometimes snacking on the wrong one.

When my editor asked for a rough map that the illustrator could use for The Wildings’ Canada/ US edition, I pulled out the one I’d drawn when I was writing the book. It was horrible. It had cats and cheels doodled all over the “map” and plot notes in the corners. So I drew another map. It is not very good but the thing about being terribly bad at drawing anything at all is that you’re so proud of having finished something that’s legible. (Sort of.)

© NilanjanaRoy
Wildings, rough map. © NilanjanaRoy

Now I’m going to go off and drool at these:

Real Maps of Fictional Places

(Drawn by real artists!)

Reading. Writing. Fooding. Lodging.


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