Book Review: Flood Of Fire by Amitav Ghosh
Full of fast-paced, visually delightful narratives, this is an intoxicating finish to the trilogy
First of all, a confession: the last of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy is the first I read. I know it’s cheating—mostly myself—to get to the climax well before soaking oneself in the entire drama of the story. And the great fear was that, armed with a cursory knowledge of what has gone on before, I would be completely at sea. However, after my experiment in reverse reading—having first completed book 3, Flood Of Fire, and then moved on to book 2, River Of Smoke, and yet to tackle book 1, Sea Of Poppies—I can say with confidence, and no small relief, that it matters not so very much in what order you read the books. The author weaves in just the right amount of background information to keep us from getting lost, and to make each book complete in itself. And knowing how the story ends for each of the characters doesn’t make previous episodes from their lives any less absorbing.
The landscape of Flood Of Fire is set in the first Anglo-Chinese Opium War (1839-42), but Ghosh’s political commentary comes from a diverse cast of characters who can’t shake off a connection forged by the Ibis. A ship belonging to Mr Burnham, a rich and influential British merchant based in the thriving port city of Calcutta, the Ibis once carried indentured labourers to colonies like Mauritius; it is now an important accessory in the British Empire’s opium trade with China.
While Mr Burnham’s belief, and that of others of his ilk, in the supremacy of the British cause and the Empire are undaunted, through two other central characters in the novel, and what they make of themselves—the corruption of Zachary Reid and the obstinate heroism of Captain Neville Mee—one also sees with utmost clarity that those controlling the strings of wars, and the fates of men, are the merchants and traders; it’s no longer the time of men who fight for glory and the country alone. The half-comical and prophetic character of Baboo Nob Kissin—a side player who nudges other characters towards destinies of his making—calls it the coming of the “kalyug” (the age of vice and doom).
It’s not all bare-bones politicking and warmongering in the novel though. This is a delightful, visually resplendent and fast-paced multiple narrative, which could be, in parts, a war thriller, a love story or a family saga. It moves episode-like to the to-ings and fro-ings of the dutiful Havildar Kesri Singh and his “butcha” Captain Mee, the tormented Zachary Reid and the astonishingly sprightly woman of many secrets Mrs Burnham, the serene widow Shireen Modi and her husband’s gallant friend Zadig Bey, and the exiled Ah Neel and his Chinese colleagues, besides a host of other characters, such as the opium addict Freddie Lee aka Ah Fatt, the young botanist Paulette, the beefy but gentle lascar Maddow Colver aka Kalua, and, of course, the omnispresent Deeti.
As Ghosh connects the dots to lead to the trilogy’s completion, several undercurrents make their presence felt strongly: faint rumblings of discontent among the Indian sepoys in the British army; the pre-eminence given to caste and clan relationships when matters of promotion are decided on in the army; the traditionalism of the British officers, who will never fully accept a person of low birth, in contrast to the merchant class, where what matters most is the display of entrepreneurship; Kesri Singh’s sudden burst of awareness, on seeing the routed Chinese giving up their lives for their country, that he is just a gun for hire and can never know what fighting for one’s homeland feels like; and the quiet acceptance among the Parsi community of a larger role for their women in society.
In other aspects, the story has all the ingredients, thrill and giddiness of a romance of the everlasting, surpass-all-odds type that could put Anuja Chauhan out of commission. At the same time, an adulterous relationship between an English lady and a poor sailor is filled with roll-in-the-mud humour. So utterly bizarre are some of the descriptions of sexual acts—the exertions of the “bawhawder sepoy” bringing on the lady’s “shoke”; “thrusting your cargo through the hatch”—that they could easily have been in the running for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award if one weren’t aware that this was done with complete consciousness of their very queerness.
Indeed, it is this, Ghosh’s playful treatment of various zubben—we hear characters speak in Bhojpuri, Bengali, Cantonese, the accented Hindi of the English, and the pidgin English of the Chinese—that not just lends the Ibis trilogy its authenticity but also gives it a spring. Ghosh may have lost out on the Man Booker International Prize announced last week, but he will surely leave legions of his fans well-intoxicated with the last instalment in the Ibis trilogy.
For an excerpt from the book, click here.
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