By: Amar Farooqui
Book: Flood of Fire
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Price: Rs 799
The final volume of Amitav Ghosh’s monumental Ibis trilogy has been eagerly awaited since the publication of River of Smoke in 2011. Like its immediate predecessor, it is set against the backdrop of the First Opium War in China (1839–42). It focusses on the events of 1840–41, during the course of which the British were able to establish control over the crucial maritime locality extending from Canton to Hong Kong after brutally annihilating resistance put up by the Qing armed forces. River of Smoke had narrated the story of its key character, the Bombay opium dealer Seth Bahram Moddie, in conjunction with the showdown of 1839 between Chinese officials led by Lin Zexu and international drug smugglers in the Canton region. Following his appointment as Imperial Commissioner, Lin Zexu had put in place tough measures to destroy the opium trade. His insistence that the huge stock of Indian opium stored on ships anchored near Canton be handed over to the Chinese authorities, and the subsequent destruction of these consignments totalling nearly 20,000 chests (or 1,600,000 kg) eventually prompted the British government to intervene militarily in the interests of “free trade”, so as to uphold the right to narcotrafficking. Bahram Moddie’s massive losses due to the confiscation of his cargo had led to his suicide; River of Smoke had ended with this incident.
In Flood of Fire, Ghosh returns to Canton to describe in gory detail the terrible vengeance exacted on it by the British. The first half of the novel, however, is set mainly in Calcutta and Bombay. We meet Kesri Singh, brother of Deeti, the main protagonist of Sea of Poppies (the first book of the trilogy). Kesri is unaware of the fate that had befallen the unfortunate Deeti who was forced to flee from her home in Bihar and became part of the Ibis family travelling to Mauritius. Kesri is a havildar, or “sepoy officer”, in the Bengal Army, sharing a close bond with his British officer Captain Mee. Through this relationship, Ghosh explores the inner world of the East India Company’s army: sepoy (sipahi) units of the almost exclusively upper-caste Bengal Army could function as khap panchayats with the informal authority to excommunicate soldiers whose families had transgressed injunctions pertaining to marriage. In a disquieting scene, Kesri is declared an outcast as punishment for the “sins” of his sister and there is nothing that Mee can do about it. As a matter of fact, the Company was unwilling to interfere in such matters, and actively fostered upper-caste prejudices.
Then there is the (“black”) American shipwright and sailor Zachary Reid who had assisted some of the Ibis subalterns, including Deeti’s companion Kalua, to escape from the ship before it reached the shores of Mauritius. Reid’s trial in Calcutta and his torrid clandestine affair (after his acquittal) with the wife of the powerful British opium dealer Benjamin Burnham paves the way, in Flood of Fire, for his emergence as an opium merchant. Opium, we comprehend, contaminates the soul irredeemably. By the end of this novel, the lovable Malum Zikri (Zachary) of Sea of Poppies is a detestable though hugely successful person. The extensive, explicit, descriptions of sex are slightly unusual in a Ghosh book, even if they are not entirely out of place in the story.
In Bombay, Bahram’s widow, Shireen, struggles to cope with the innumerable problems created by her husband’s death. The enormous financial liabilities resulting from Bahram’s failed opium venture (the central plot of River of Smoke) are partly taken care of by Shireen’s brothers who use this as an instrument to reduce their sister to complete subordination. The real calamity for her is the startling discovery that Bahram had a wife in China, Chi-Mei (now dead), through whom he had a son, Ah Fatt alias Freddie, first introduced to readers in Sea of Poppies, as a mysterious prisoner on board the Ibis. The disclosure about Chi-Mei is made by a close friend of Bahram, the Armenian Zadig Bey, who then manages to persuade a very reluctant Shireen to undertake a voyage to China both to visit her late husband’s grave in Hong Kong and possibly meet Ah Fatt. The rapid transformation of Shireen is a trifle unconvincing — from her adoption of European-style clothes to the ease with which she is able to handle the opposition to her growing proximity to Zadig Bey. On the other hand, we can see that the journey is immensely liberating for her, considering that her marriage with Bahram had not been particularly gratifying for the couple.
In the latter half of the novel, the major and minor characters converge upon Canton–Macau–Hong Kong. Most of the action takes place at these locations or aboard the three ships which have transported these figures from India: Ibis, Anahita and Hind. The first two vessels are already familiar to us from the earlier novels, while the Hind is a new addition. Ghosh, the historian, now completely takes over to recount the violence inflicted on the Chinese people during the military assault of 1841. The entire narrative is, as expected, based on painstaking research. The British mobilised force on a large scale, unleashing the firepower of their advanced warships, of which the most formidable was the iron-clad steam-propelled frigate named inappropriately (from the Chinese point of view) Nemesis.
We witness most of the campaign through the eyes of Kesri Singh. Amidst the bloodshed, a bewildered Kesri pauses to reflect, “So much death; so much destruction — and that too visited upon a people who had neither attacked or harmed the men who were so intent on engulfing them in this flood of fire” (p505). The outcome of the conflict is, of course, well known: “No longer would tyrants be able to stamp the label of ‘smuggler’ upon honest opium traders” (p283)! The novel stops just short of the final confrontation of 1842 that came to an end with the treaty of Nanjing which formally facilitated the import of opium into China.
As in any literary work of epic proportions, there are several relatively minor characters in Flood of Fire too, all of them fascinating in their own way. There are, for instance, the fifers Dicky and Raju. They are part of the squad of “banjee-boys”, small kids recruited mainly from among “Eurasians”. The experiences of banjee-boys have hardly been noticed in mainstream historical scholarship on the Company’s army.
Without opium, it has been said, “there may have been no empire at all”. Nevertheless, declining interest in economic history in recent years has been accompanied by scholarly amnesia about the linkages between opium and colonialism. Significantly, it is an eminent writer of fiction who has redirected attention to the place of opium in the scheme of empire. At a time when we are being told by apologists that imperialism has been a benign historical force,
Ghosh’s trilogy demonstrates the utter inanity of such an argument. It also compels us to think about the complicity of some of the subjects of the British Indian empire in the colonial subjugation of China.
Amar Farooqui is the author of Opium City — The Making of Early Victorian Bombay