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

flood

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)