|The Ibis trilogy is a masterpiece, an epic that is much larger than the story it seemingly tells
By Sandipan Deb
The final volume of perhaps the most ambitious literary project ever undertaken by an Indian author. Thank you, Amitav Ghosh.
This is a meaningless bet to offer, since neither you nor I will be around at that time, but I am willing to wager that a hundred years from now, if there is one Indian author in English of the late 20th and early 21st century whose work is still remembered and read, it will be Amitav Ghosh.
From the poignant Shadow Lines to the near-hallucinatory Calcutta Chromosome and the epic Hungry Tide, Ghosh has always surprised and enchanted the reader with his choice of subject, depth of research, lyrical yet exacting prose, and storytelling skill. He is the one Indian author in English who is, quite simply, as good as anyone else in the world writing in that language.
Amitav Ghosh (Photo: David Shankbone)
Flood of Fire ends his majestic Ibis trilogy, which he has referred to as the work of his life. Set in the late 1830s leading up to the First Opium War, the story extends from Ghazipur in the Gangetic plain (which, even today, is the site of the largest opium factory in the world) to the island of Mauritius and imperial China.
The sweep is vast, the protagonists drawn from three continents, and the fate of its characters intrinsically linked to themes much larger than they can appreciate or even comprehend. The Ibis trilogy is a hell of a feat of gripping storytelling, but it is fundamentally about the massive and immensely complex historical forces of globalization and imperialism.
The lead characters are different in each book of the trilogy. The first one, Sea of Poppies, introduced a dozen people of various nationalities, but at its centre is the story of the widowed upper-caste Deeti and her lover, the untouchable Kalua, who escape casteist retribution by taking refuge on the ship Ibis, carrying Indian labourers to Mauritius.
The second, River of Smoke, revolves almost wholly around Bahram Modi, a Parsi businessman who has bet everything that he has—and much more—on one big opium shipment to Canton, just as the Chinese authorities are cracking down on the trade, and Paulette Lambert who is searching for a rare flower in primitive Hong Kong.
In Flood of Fire, we see the world through the experiences of Kesri Singh, Deeti’s brother, and a soldier in the East India Company’s army; Zachary Reid, the mulatto captain of the Ibis, and Shireen Modi, Bahram’s courageous widow. The only character who is a constant in all three books is Neel Rattan Haldar, a Bengali zamindar cheated out of his estate by the British, framed for forgery and sentenced to seven years of indentured labour in Mauritius.
Ghosh’s capacity for research has always been awe-inspiring—anyone who has read Calcutta Chromosome would have been stunned by the extraordinary history of the disease of malaria and its cure. But in the Ibis trilogy, which has been a decade-long project for Ghosh, he surpasses all the benchmarks he had set. From the intricate details of ship architecture and seafaring of that period, to the nuances of traditional Parsi cuisine, he has mastered it all.
Language, in fact, is one of the most fascinating parts of the trilogy. From Bhojpuri to the heavily Hindustani-ized English that the British who have settled in India speak (“Oh, Annabel! This badmashee just will not do! Come away, dear. Jaldee!”), from Chinese idioms to the universal pidgin English used by the lascars (“Haiyah! Is true maski? Mr Chan blongi here, on boat?”) and 19th century English slang (sailors referred to venereal disease as “fouling the fiddle-block”), the trilogy is a treat for those who are linguistically inclined.
Through the struggles, tribulations, triumphs and failures of his characters, Ghosh maps the first wave of globalization, from, as a British reviewer has written, “the ‘wrong’ end of the telescope”. Deeti, Kalua, Neel, Kesri, Zachary, Paulette, Ah Fatt, Baboo Nob Kissin, Serang Ali, Jodu, Raju are all microscopically insignificant players in the gigantic game of trade and commerce that is being played out on a scale never seen before. This is subaltern history much more valuable than what is churned out by pretentious academics.
The British merchants believe that free trade—in this case, selling opium grown in India by dirt-poor debt-ridden farmers to the Chinese people at a humungous profit—is a Christian right. “It was misguided, even sinful, said Mr Fraser, of the Chinese government to cite the public good in opposing the free flow of opium. The truth was that the best—indeed the only—way that the public good could be arrived at was to allow all men to pursue their own interests as dictated by their judgement. This was why God had endowed Man with the faculty of reason: only when men were free to justly calculate their own advancement did the public good – or, for that matter, material advancement, or social harmony- come about. Indeed, the only true virtue was rational self-love, and when this was allowed to flourish freely it resulted, of itself, in a condition vastly more just and beneficial than anything that any government could accomplish.”
The subtext here is clear. We are still grappling with the corollaries and consequences of this belief of the rich world. When the wealthy opium merchant Mr Burnham addresses young British naval officers on the eve of battle, he says:
“It is you, gentlemen, who will give to the Chinese the gifts that Britain has granted to countless millions…secure in the knowledge that there is no greater freedom, no greater cause for pride, than to be subjects of the British Empire. This is the divine mission that the Almighty Himself has entrusted to our race and our nation.”
One will not be surprised if this reminds readers of certain international events of the last decade and a half.
Ghosh, writing more than 170 years after the First Opium War, emphasizes that this was the first war in history which was almost wholly financed by businessmen, and had no other objective but to push a drug to a vast population, a drug whose cultivators made no money, whose users were doomed to addiction hell, and it was only the middlemen who reaped the benefits.
This was how economic imperialism began, couched in religious balderdash, armed with a convenient definition of “freedom”.I cannot help but quote one more passage, where Ghosh gets almost cheeky (which is quite unlike him):
“Some day, following the example of men like themselves, said Mr Fraser, the Chinese too would take to free trade: being an industrious people, they were sure to prosper. Of all the lessons the West could teach them, this was the most important. And inasmuch as traders like themselves were helping the Chinese to learn this lesson, they were their friends, not their enemies. From this it followed that the more vigorous and persistent they were in selling opium the more praiseworthy their conduct, the more benevolent their friendship.”
The Ibis trilogy is a masterpiece, an epic that is much larger than the story it seemingly tells. At the same time, it is a hugely entertaining read, brimful with characters the reader can love—and more importantly—worry about. The three books also illuminate Ghosh’s mastery of the craft of writing.
Sea of Poppies rushed with the breathless momentum of a thriller, while River of Smoke moved at a sedate pace (but without lessening the sense of urgency). Flood of Fire alternates between sedate and breathless, with the objectives and moralities of the characters changing in ways that may surprise readers, but which are entirely logical. The men to watch here are Zacahary and Nab Kissin.
Flood of Fire concludes a journey that we have enjoyed for a decade, and we are grateful for the ride that Amitav Ghosh has given us. If you want, ignore the subtext. Just revel in the bloody good story he tells.