Amitav Ghosh's Flood of Fire: A fitting end to the Ibis' voyage

  • Simar Bhasin, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 08, 2015 17:53 IST

Sea of Poppies, the first volume of Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy, had shown the inner workings of the Opium trade in the era of British India, while the second instalment, 'River of Smoke' had provided the backdrop of the rising tensions between China and the foreign traders dealing in Opium who had set their base in Canton.

Now in its final volume 'Flood of Fire', Ghosh takes us through the phases of mounting friction between the traders of the East India Company and the Chinese government which had resulted in what came to be known as the First Opium War (1839-42).

The story is told through Deeti's brother Kesri, a havildar in the Bangal Native Infantry, Neel, an erstwhile zamindar who is now working as a translator in Canton, Zachary Reid, an American sailor whose journey had begun with the Ibis and Shireen Modi, the wife of a recently deceased Parsi merchant who sets sail to the 'Maha Chin' in the hopes of recovering her husband's debts.

"But now it is as if language itself had become a battleground, with words serving as weapons."

What we see throughout the Ibis trilogy is Ghosh's play with language. From Cantonese to Bengali, from English to Gujarati, from the ornate dialect to the colloquial sailor terminology, the research done by the author and its consequent treatment is close to flawless.

In 'Flood of Fire' for instance, in the intimate scenes between Zachary and Mrs Burnham, the author's attempt at wordplay gains momentum, creating humour and a light tone in an otherwise heavy text. Phrases such as "chartering" with "the jib" and lines like "It's my turn now, to bajow your ganta" are perfect examples.

This however poses a challenge for a reader who is unacquainted with 'Hindustani' and therefore many such phrases and double meanings would be lost on them.

The three volumes of Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy.

The use of language becomes all the more important in a novel dealing with a context that requires not one or two but multiple languages so that what comes across is not just the telling of different stories of different characters but also a partial telling of the story of the different cultures and backgrounds to which these characters belonged, making them all the more 'real'.

"Both sides are kaafirs: one worships idols and animals, just as you Hindus do and the other worships flags and machines."

Set in a specific period in world history, the Ibis trilogy is far from being a cut and dry retelling of the Opium wars. In several instances particularly through principal characters like Zachary, Neel and Kesri, Ghosh brings out an aspect of war that is gaining ground in our more immediate reality- the truth of wars being fought not for capturing territory but more importantly for capturing an economy. The irony behind the term 'free' trade and the civilizing purpose of the Western powers is brought out beautifully through the narrative. One example is when Compton, Neel's friend and colleague, states "This is what happens when merchants and traders begin to run wars - hundreds of lives depend on bribes."

However, it is through Zachary Reid that the personification of the capitalist worldview is most eloquently presented. As Reid declares "I am a man who wants more and more and more; a man who does not know the meaning of the word 'enough'."

It is Reid's transformation from an "ingenuous good-natured boy" to a money hungry capitalist that personifies the underlying theme of greed and the unquenchable thirst of power.

"It was as if a gale had parted the purdahs that curtained her world, blowing away many decades' worth of dust and cobwebs."

Our first glimpse of the Ibis is through Deeti's eyes and in the last pages of Flood of Fire the final glimpse of the Ibis is also through her drawings. Where Deeti and Paullete were the anchors, so to say, in the first two books, in the last book it is through the characters of Shireen and Cathy that a lot of insight is provided by Ghosh.

The oppression and the voicelessness of women in a predominantly man's world particularly in an era in which the book is set makes Shireen, the daughter of a wealthy and respected Parsi merchant and Cathy, the daughter of a retired Army general, all the more important.

Interestingly both women, when they appeared in the first two books, were shown to be completely religious to the point of orthodoxy in their separate beliefs and averse to any 'modern' attitude towards life. However it is in the third instalment that we get to meet Shireen, the woman hiding behind the 'purdah' of being Mrs Modi as we are also acquainted with Cathy, erstwhile hidden behind the 'veil' of Mrs Burnham.

While 'Sea of Poppies' provided an introduction to the Ibis and the voyage beyond and 'River of Smoke' gave us a glimpse into 'fanqui town' and its workings, 'Flood of Fire' provides a finale to the voyage which covered the years leading up to the Opium wars.

In Paulette's words - "The bond of the Ibis was like a living thing, endowed with the power to reach out from the past to override the volition of those who were enmeshed in it."

This bond is what remains with the reader long after the last few pages have been read.

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