Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy: Of trade winds and opium tales

Ghosh's work is a stunning analysis of unfettered globalization told through the stories of ordinary people

Amitav Ghosh is very possibly the finest living Indian writer in English. And the most striking aspect of his body of work is that he never revisits a territory. Each of his novels explores an area that has nothing in common with any of his previous books.

So, The Shadow Lines deals with Partition and borders, while The Calcutta Chromosome is about malaria (yes, malaria, and you would never know how mysterious this disease is unless you read the book) and the supernatural. The Hungry Tide exposes the world to the wondrous—and deadly—history and geography of the Sunderbans, and ends with the shameful massacre of innocent refugees at Marichjhapi by the Jyoti Basu-led West Bengal government in 1978.

But his most ambitious work is the Ibis trilogy, comprising Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire, published between 2008 and 20015. It is a gigantic piece of work, totalling about 1,700 pages, with dozens of principal characters from very diverse backgrounds, moving from Bihar to China to Mauritius, with the British opium trade in the 1830s to the First Opium War in China as the backdrop.

Ghosh is a stylist par excellence. The biggest secret that ties all the plot lines together in The Calcutta Chromosome is revealed in a throwaway sentence about 60 pages before the book ends, and I have met several readers whose reaction to the novel was: “What the hell happened? I didn’t get the story!" (The Calcutta Chromosome won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best science fiction novel of the year for 1995.)

In The Hungry Tide, the reader knows, almost right from the beginning, how it will all end tragically for a female character at the heart of the narrative, but Ghosh forces you to read on, with his mastery of the craft of writing a gripping story. In The Shadow Lines, there isn’t much of a story—Ghosh presents various perspectives and is inviting each reader to create his own story.

He complements his craft with alarmingly deep research. The Ibis trilogy (Ibis is the name of the ship on which most of the characters find themselves at one time or another) wows the reader with 19th century Bhojpuri songs, minute details of opium cultivation, Chinese society and culture, the peculiar language of the laskars (sailors), botany, the engineering details of ships and intricacies of sailing them on the high seas, the Indianization of the English spoken by East India Company officials, Parsi customs, and even early 19th century pornography.

All of this adds up to an extremely broad-swathe story about the wave of globalization that swept through the world in the early 19th century. The East India Company has compelled farmers in the Gangetic plain to grow opium, ruining the traditional agricultural economy, and is dumping the drug in China, compelling lakhs of Chinese to become addicts. The British see free trade as part of their religion, central to their Protestant ethic.

But they are not alone in the opium business. A Parsi trader bets everything that he has on a new ship and a huge cargo of opium for an adventure that will make or break him for ever.

Meanwhile, a Bihari woman and her lower-caste lover are on the run from the law, and decide to board the Ibis and leave India. An orphaned young Frenchwoman, a botanist, who is looking for an escape from her diminished life as a maid in an English household in Calcutta, becomes their companion. A Bengali zamindar, beggared by the East India Company and with a price on his head, is also on the Ibis, as is a young Chinese man in chains, who is supposed to be a public enemy. A mulatto is the second mate, trying very hard to hide his racial identity. And a devout Vaishnavite, who is also on the trip to China, begins believing that this man is an incarnation of Krishna.

The Chinese are responding to the rampant opium trade by shutting down the British enterprises and sending in some tough bureaucrats and soldiers. The British government sends in armed forces, triggering the First Opium War, which China would lose. (Even today, the Chinese feel great rage about these wars.)

At first sight, Ghosh’s protagonists are insignificant pawns in the great economic change sweeping Asia. But almost all of them are also courageous human beings and display considerable free will. In the course of events, they are separated from one another and settle in different countries, and there is enough indication that many will spawn citizens of Indian origin across Asia and maybe on even more distant shores.

The Ibis trilogy, with its multiple plot lines, is an analysis of unfettered globalization—and merciless economic bullying—through the stories of ordinary people whose lives are deeply affected—changed beyond recognition, in fact—by decisions made by fat cats at the top of the international trade hierarchy.

You may not agree with the distinctly left-of-centre message that Ghosh sends out, though never overtly, but the books will certainly give you enough food for thought, and may even provoke you to re-examine some of your assumptions about world trade and free movement of people across the world.

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com.

The Bookmark is a series on ‘interesting’ books—intelligent and thought-provoking, but also enjoyable.

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