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July 17, 2015

Book Review: Flood of Fire

Text by Ranjabati Das

There are many reasons why you should read the final part of the bestselling Ibis trilogy, not least because it sheds light upon the historic First Opium War

When David Cameron and company visited China in 2010, they were requested to remove their Remembrance Day poppies, seen by the host nation as a symbol of the Opium Wars (and a reminder of their defeat as well as the unfair treatment and ‘unequal treaties’ that followed). But Britain chose to stand up for free speech and stuck to their guns in an effort to teach China the ways of a democratic society. Not literally this time, one could quip, because the Chinese artillery in the 21st century is a force to reckon with, a far cry from the outdated guns that spelt their doom 150-odd years back. There is also the fact that, today, the UK is the Asian superpower’s second-largest trade partner in Europe.

Amitav Ghosh’s trilogy, where much of the action, till the very last page in fact, happens onboard a ship called the Ibis, deals with how Britain declared a war, which they won easily with their superior arms and naval power, and colonised the island of Hong Kong – an important centre of trade. All of this happened in the name of an upstanding cause – free trade – and in the aftermath of the seizure of millions of pounds’ worth of smuggled opium by the order of the Qing emperor, Daoguang, who stood staunchly against the legalisation of the import of the drug. Ghosh ably demonstrates the real intentions of the East India Company: to penetrate the insurmountable walls of Mahachin, where they weren’t allowed to trade. And how this was in alignment with the interests of the merchants and traders who filled many a coffer from not only selling opium but also wartime supplies. So all righteousness and jokes aside, the recent stance of the English is a bit ironic, considering their role and motivations in the said wars, which had resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians.

Throughout the book, we hear multiple perspectives. There’s the Chinese side of the story revealed through the eyes of Neel, a former raja, now a fugitive in China. We find out about the experience of being a part of the Bengal Volunteers – who were sandwiched between the British and the Chinese – through the viewpoint of Havildar Kesari Singh (Deeti’s brother, for those who have read the other books in the set). And we are also privy to the rags-to-riches and innocence-to-depravity story of a young American sailor, Zachary Reid, alongside the journey of Shirin, the widow of a Parsi merchant, who overcomes societal pressures to reclaim her life instead of going under. Finally, we also come face to face with the war – in spite of all the buck-bucking between the higher-ups – that is preempted in the preceding books.

By turn descriptive, informative, ingenious (especially the use of words such as nokar-logue, chup-chup, ‘mystery’ (maistry) and ‘kid-mutt’ (from khidmatgar), which roll off the Indianised tongues of the Western characters) and utterly engrossing, Flood of Fire stirs and provokes. Kesari and his fellow soldiers’ initiation into the Bengal Native Infantry’s 25th regiment, or the Pacheesi, as young sepoys, and their attempts to adopt the ways of the Brits are especially touching. The book also arouses feelings of patriotism, empathy and sympathy – be it for the honourable English kaptan, Mr Mee, who is destined to lose his one true love or the unnamed Chinese villagers of Tsingpu, who were forced to pick up staves and picks, and engage in warfare, in self-defence.

Anyone who has read Ghosh and anticipates a sprinkling of his particular sense of humour, is in for a shocker. You’re served a rare helping of bawdiness instead. With a smattering of Bihari, Cantonese and Bengali, there is no doubt that the author has tried to maintain as much authenticity in the feel of the book as in the facts. We are transported to the mid-19th century as much through day-to-day happenings (the clash of cultures and Kesari’s bewilderment at being asked to strip in front of an English doctor – and two nurses – is easily fathomable) as dramatic twists and turns, all of which are conjured up, essentially, in the author’s head, even if they are confined within the context of and tailored according to the historical setting. All the stories, subplots and characters criss-cross, wondrously clearing away more and more of the fog, and connecting the dots have never been more rewarding. Ghosh had envisioned the trilogy as standalone stories and not as sequels, so you can pick up any book and enjoy it in its entirety. At the same time, as and when you read the other volumes in the Ibis family, you will find that there’re many more layers to unpeel and appreciate than you thought was possible.

I can’t help drawing a parallel between the foreigners in his book – be it Kesari,  Mr Mee or Neel, all in exile in a country far away from their homelands – and Ghosh, whose own close ties with India resonate in his tales. The smaller Chinese characters like Baburao and Ashadidi, from Kolkata’s Chinatown, who are ostracised on classist grounds in the floating city of Canton stay with me. So does a pivotal one like the mixed-race Freddie or Framjee – born of a Chinese mother and an Indian father – who grows up as an outcaste in China and who would neither be accepted by his father’s family nor his community in India. All urge me to think deeply about self-identity, and what it truly means to belong and be at home.

When Ghosh set out to research and write the stories, he knew it would take him a “long, long time” to put it all down, and it did – a decade, to be exact – he tells me at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Colaba a couple of months ago. No, he doesn’t feel a vacuum of any sort after the completion of the saga because he is already busy with other projects, which, by the way, include a non-fiction book, based on his research for this trilogy, which will be published next year. Just in case you haven’t had your fill yet….

Rapid Fire with Amitav Ghosh

He speaks with an ease, without waxing poetic, and that powerfully draws the listener towards him. But in spite of all his politeness, it is easy to get overwhelmed in this Sahitya Akademi Award and Prix Medici Etranger winner’s presence.

Currently reading “Anjum Hasan, The Cosmopolitans” (soon to be published).

Favourite filmPather Panchali, you could say.”

Relaxes by “Playing badminton.”

Latest indulgence “Chocolate.”

On days you can’t write, it’s best to… “Go away somewhere. That’s why it’s so nice to be in Goa because I can just go and sit on the beach.”

Favourite travel destination “Southeast Asia; I’ve always enjoyed travelling in Burma, in Malaysia, in Thailand; off late, been travelling more in Indonesia.”

Would have loved his books to be made into films by… “Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak.”

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