Book review: Flood of Fire is a fitting closure to his opium trilogy

  • Vrinda Nabar, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jul 04, 2015 11:39 IST

Flood of Fire, the final novel in Amitav Ghosh's opium-centred trilogy which began with Sea of Poppies (2008), has all the qualities one has come to associate with Ghosh's work: diligent research, literary exuberance, multiple stories entwined within a basic "plot" and a compassionate humanism which colours everything in the narrative.

Like the first book, it was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Sea of Poppies set the tone for a saga in which the opium agenda was unambiguous, self-serving and ruthless in its manifestations. If the first novel focused on how colonial interest in opium's potential affected lives in eastern India, River of Smoke (2011) moved the scenario to the by-lanes of Canton and the smouldering tensions as the Chinese authorities in turn exerted their diktat on those who tried to make their fortunes from its trade.

Flood of Fire brings these events to their inevitable end: The historical and bloody confrontation (1839-42) between the British and the Chinese. Since the other two novels had been as much about the lives of the Indians and Chinese trapped within the larger drama of politics and commerce they resurface here, if not always in satisfying ways.

A group of irregular cavalry known as 'Fane's Horse'. Raised at Kanpur in 1860 especially to fight in China during the Second Opium War of 1856-1860, the regiment was later re-named the 19th (King George's Own) Lancers in the Indian Army. (Felice Beato/GETTY IMAGES)

Havildar Kesri Singh, with whom the novel begins, is the brother of Deeti, a central player in Sea of Poppies. Kesri is indebted to Deeti for several reasons but she remains a shadowy figure here, revealed through snippets about her life after Kesri left home, her unconventional choices, and the drawings she gifts him. Yet Deeti becomes a rallying point at the end of this novel too, her shrine a gathering hole for survivors to relive memories of their lost ones. Since memory and its discontents are important to the trilogy, this brings a fitting if unexpected closure to Ghosh's monumental comédie humaine. Assembling together his assortment of events and characters, many going back to the earlier novels in the trilogy, Ghosh constructs a tale wherein history, commerce, romance, colonisation, conquest and control, and the heartbreak of loss play their several parts.

Human motive is frequently suspected but Ghosh occasionally turns this around to suggest that we are not completely doomed. Relationships are not always smooth-sailing, and betrayal and tragedy, whether in love or war, are never far from the surface. Kesri, who enlists with the Company, and is lured into a military campaign to assert English supremacy over opium and its trade, has to learn that his loyal service to his English master "Captain Mee" counts for nothing. "Abh to woh unke hain…" he mumbles as he hobbles back to his tent after being denied even a last glimpse of his dead master: "He's theirs now; we have no claim on him."

Flood of Fire; Amitav Ghosh (Penguin Random House; Rs 799; PP616)

Zachary Reid who romanced Paulette in Sea of Poppies and frequently invoked her memory while masturbating at the start of this novel becomes fixated on his employer's wife Mrs Burnham who cleverly exploits his priapism to seduce him. Shireen, shattered by widowhood, learns that her husband had a son by a Chinese mistress and sets out to rescue him from anonymity.

Raju, the son of the zemindar Neel who had been falsely indicted and convicted in Sea of Poppies, loses a dear friend while searching for his father while Neel in turn has no option but to join the Chinese to oppose the English. Ghosh is unsparing in describing the brutalities of war, leaving it to his characters to define them. This makes for an interesting commentary. Kesri calls it a Mahabharat, a war wherein men fight against their own kind out of compulsion, not choice. Zachary, who has progressed from being a simple "mystery" (mistri) to an opium profiteer, sees it as no less than a triumph of modern civilization. But Captain Mee's talk of "teaching the Celestials a sanguinary lesson" speaks for a worldview that has unfortunately survived colonialism and is amply manifest in recent history.

The historical outcome of the conflict is well known and Ghosh uses it to draw out the universals. As always, he allows the human interest to predominate, with mixed results. Shireen's heartbreak and conflicted choices, Kesri's ruminations, and even Captain Mee's divergent responses are among several that shade in the complexities, but the repeated use of Neel's journal is something Ghosh could perhaps have played down, as also the obsession with idiomatic cadences. While "pawnee", "chukkers", "mystery" (for "mistri"), "gudda" and so on work in small doses, the bawdy exchanges between Zachary and a sexually starved Mrs Burnham, entertaining enough for starters ("It's my turn now to bajow your ganta" has been quoted ad nauseam in almost every review), soon begin to read like a tedious Anglo-Indian parody of Lady Chatterley's Lover:

'Do you know what this is, Mr. Reid?'

His eyes widened. 'Is it…? Could it be…? A French letter?'…

'Oh you are too coarse, Mr. Reid! Let us call it a capote - a topcoat for our brave sepoy, so that he shall never again have to suffer the ignominy of shooting his goolies into the air.'

Happily though, these peter out after an early rollicking start. Like Shadow Lines, Ghosh's latest novel uses history and the individual in a moving narrative which is as much about the war for opium as it is about the ways in which power and greed continue to predominate human operations. Though the trilogy ends with the departure of Neel and his son on the Ibis, the schooner with which the story first began, the English acquisition of Hong Kong is a reminder of the dubious lengths nations still go to protect free trade.

Vrinda Nabar is an author, cultural theorist, and former Chairperson of English, Mumbai University.

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