The final episode of the Ibis trilogy written by the prolific novelist Amitav Ghosh was recently launched in India. Flood of Fire, which follows Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, is the most captivating of the three. It brings to a fitting close the interconnected lives of people — Parsis, Bengalis, British, Americans, Chinese-Indians, and others — linked through their experiences on the ship called Ibis.
Engaged in the trade in opium between India and China during the early nineteenth century, Ibis is also a carrier of dreams, agonies, and hope. Fast-paced, enthralling, and beautifully narrated, the concluding volume is hard to put down. Die-hard fans of the Ibis story will most likely finish reading the 600+ pages tome in a couple of sittings.
Behind the fascinating story is meticulous research that the author undertook in various parts of the world. This includes finding details about the production and export of opium from India, the ships that transported the commodity, the multiple languages and groups of people involved, the naval battles on the Chinese coast, the Indian soldiers who participated in these battles, and even the intriguing contemporaneous medical discourse on onanism.
Fiction grounded in painstaking historical research has been one of the admirable trademarks of Amitav Ghosh’s writings. It is one reason why some of his books, especially In an Antique Land, are regularly assigned for global history courses. That book was based on a detailed study of manuscripts written by Jewish merchants, whose trading networks stretched from the Malabar coast of India to ports in the Mediterranean Sea. These manuscripts, known as the Geniza documents, were discovered in a storeroom of a synagogue located in Cairo, Egypt.
Most of the material that Amitav Ghosh used for his Ibis trilogy comes from the British Library and the National Archives at Kew in England. Several other publications from the nineteenth century related to India-China interactions, the situation in Guangzhou, and the opium trade and war are also available on the Internet. Ghosh also visited India and China to personally experience many of the places mentioned in the trilogy. He has admirably and seamlessly integrated these records and findings into his narrative. The creatively written 10-page long “epilogue” describes the documents as belonging to the archives of one of the characters in the story. Also in this section is a list of modern scholars who have written on related topics, albeit not as entertainingly as Ghosh.
Since the publication of Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh has been on the lecture circuit, delivering talks on facets of India-China connections during the nineteenth century at various scholarly meetings and conferences. While these lectures take a cue from the fictional characters in his Ibis trilogy, they more rigorously delve into the historical aspects of India-China interactions. His arguments in these lectures are often two-fold. First, China made a significant contribution to the making of modern India, a fact that, he argues, could be discerned not only from the introduction of tea, portrait paintings and designs used for saris from China to India, but also from the impact on the local economy through the production, transportation, and export of opium. Second, he contends that colonial India and Indians played a significant role in financing and fighting the Opium War. He also correctly points out that very few people have studied these aspects of India-China connections.
Indeed, the colonial phase of India-China connections is one of the least examined topics in the field, dominated either by works on the earlier Buddhist phase or the 1962 war and its various manifestations and consequences. It is especially disconcerting that there are no active faculty members in either India or China who are working on this period, which has bequeathed the problem of the McMahon Line and left many bewildered over the status of Tibet.
The interest in examining the historical ties between India and China is often only at the superficial level, invoked by the political leaders of the two countries and uncritically cited by international relations specialists. As shown by the recently completed Encyclopedia of India-China Cultural Contacts, a two-volume work jointly produced by Indian and Chinese scholars, under the auspices of the Indian and Chinese foreign ministries, the two governments are insincere about promoting proper understanding of the historical past. Rather, they seem to be content with showcasing people-to-people exchanges under state direction, with the aim to promote only positive viewpoints of historical contacts. The error-filled, shoddy, and absolutely disastrous publication, on which the two sides spent a large amount of money, stands in stark contrast to Amitav Ghosh’s trilogy, even though the latter is designated as fiction.
In fact, the Ibis trilogy has surprisingly accurate portrayals of events. If closely examined, it might turn out that some of the characters and their experiences are also based on historical personalities. Flood of Fire, in particular, is a work that could be used in colleges and universities to create an interest in studying the historical connections between India and China. It can also serve as an inspiration for those who want to explore one of the most consequential periods in the history of India-China relations.
As readers of the Ibis trilogy finally learn of the fates of Paulette Lambert, Zachary Reid, Neel, Ah Fatt, Kalua, and other fascinating characters, Amitav Ghosh should be thanked by scholars of India-China connections for popularizing and subtly educating millions of people about the events that transformed these relations in fundamental ways. What is needed now is a companion volume that, not necessarily as grippingly as Ghosh, outlines in a factual manner the colonial foundations of contemporary India-China relations.
(Tansen Sen is professor of Asian History at Baruch College, New York. He specializes in Asian history and religions and has special scholarly interests in India-China interactions, Indian Ocean trade, Buddhism, and Silk Road archaeology. He is the author of Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade: The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations, 600-1400 (University of Hawaii Press, 2003) and co-author (with Victor H. Mair) of Traditional China in Asian and World History(Association for Asian Studies, 2012). He serves on the governing board of the Nalanda University, India.)