AUGUST 29, 2015
AMITAV GHOSH likes to trouble boundaries. None of his books fit snugly within categories, either of genre or of nation. He slipped between memoir and scholarly thesis throughout In an Antique Land (1992), using old letters in a Jewish synagogue in Cairo to follow the path of an Indian slave who traveled the Red and Arabian Seas a thousand years ago. Political lines on a map grew porous in Shadow Lines (1988), where Ghosh described a fictional family that suffered loss at the hands of communal tensions spilling over the border between West Bengal and Bangladesh. The Hungry Tide (2005) weds ecology with anthropology to explore the disturbed history of man and tiger in the Sundarbans as it leaks into modern times. The Ibis trilogy — now complete with the release of Flood of Fire — represents Ghosh’s longest and most ambitious work by far, depicting a world in motion on the eve of the Opium Wars.
The ensemble cast of the Ibis trilogy — the first two volumes are Sea of Poppies (2008) and River of Smoke (2011) — lives and breathes in the mind long after you put the books down, from soldiers to sailors, indentured laborers to fallen aristocrats. A slaver-turned-trading ship called the Ibis ties together the main characters, each of whom is transformed by their journey across the ocean. A Bengali aristocrat stripped of his titles by the British ends up a scribe and informer for the Chinese in Canton. Two Bhojpuri lovers whose relationship is barred by caste and class are able to reinvent themselves as a married couple on the Ibis and then in Mauritius. A Parsi opium trader from Bombay is split between two identities: the upright trader with a wife and daughters in Bombay, and the man with a Chinese mistress and son in Canton. But what cleaves him in the end is not this, but a moral divide — between his status as an opium trader who needs to recoup losses, and the ravages that he sees opium addiction wreaking on China and his own son. His wife finds her identity expanded by the ocean when she leaves Bombay, later, to visit her husband’s faraway grave.
In theory, the historical context of the Ibis trilogy can carry few surprises. We know the outlines of what’s to come long before Ghosh begins. The first set of Opium Wars began nearly two centuries ago, with China’s attempt to end the lucrative (and illegal) opium trade. By the late 1830s, British and American merchants were growing rich off the sale of opium to China in return for tea and silks — leaving debilitating addiction in their wake. In 1839, after China’s attempts to block opium through diplomacy failed, Commissioner Lin Zexu ordered the destruction of all opium cargoes belonging to British and American merchants at the port of Canton.
Following the costly loss of opium, the British navy retaliated against China — leading to war and China’s humiliating defeat. By 1842, China had lost ownership of Hong Kong along with the right to turn opium from its shores. The country was forced to open its borders to trade with the rest of the world, in a series of “unequal treaties” undermining China’s sovereignty, treaties that were not completely overturned until World War II. These events, apocalyptic for China, reverberated across the rest of the world. With the victory of free trade came the expansion of empire.
Against this exquisitely researched historical backdrop, the tale of Britain’s victory and China’s loss reaches the levels of Greek tragedy in Ghosh’s skilled hands — there are few storytellers alive today in the English language as gifted as Amitav Ghosh.
A frame story is set in the future in Mauritius, where a handful of the previous denizens of the Ibis tell stories of how the tumult leading up to the Opium Wars disrupted each of their lives. The matriarch of the group in Mauritius, a Bhojpuri woman named Deeti, has a touch of second sight that allows her to look beyond her own narrative — she went from widowhood in the poppy fields of Uttar Pradesh to transportation on the Ibis as an indentured servant, and finally to a second marriage and a second start in Mauritius. Opium suffused her life and nearly broke it. The poppy crop barely supported her family in India, and its extracted drug killed her addict husband. Opium permeates every other life in the narrative, too — each character embedded within its far-flung web of trade and war, from businessmen who extol the virtues of Free Trade to addicts seeking an escape from painful reality.
The narrative gives equal sympathy to all these characters, deftly drawing us into each conflicting mind in turn. We are shown the perspectives of the Chinese fighting for their homeland and of Indian soldiers far from home as they fight for the British in China. Toward the end of Flood of Fire, an Indian soldier named Kesri notices the passion of a Chinese soldier who fought to the death at the Battle at Chuenpee. Kesri feels the other’s depth of belief is something he himself cannot have, fighting as he does under the flag of the British East India Company. It “struck Kesri that in a lifetime of soldiering he had never known what it was to fight,” the narrator says, for something that was his own. “An unnameable grief came upon him then; falling to his knees he reached out to close the dead man’s eyes.”
This is the strength of Flood of Fire, the best of the three novels at taking that imaginative leap that lifts fictional characters off the page. The first two books are weighed down at times by the research that went into them — unsurprising, given that Ghosh dug enough from the archives for this series to write several academic texts on Indian Ocean naval history alone. When faced with so much material, it can be a surgeon’s job to carve out only as many details as the reader needs to grasp an unfamiliar context and bring a lost world back to life. River of Smoke might have benefited from fewer details about Cantonese cuisine, for instance, and more about the emotional growth of the characters.
But with Flood of Fire, Ghosh has gotten the balance right. The reins of the narrative are back in the hands of individuals we can identify with and care about — often to the reader’s peril. There is no safety in this world that Ghosh paints, rushing as it does down the path to war. The most destructive acts happen not on the battlefield, however, but within the minds of the characters themselves. One of the darkest narrative arcs of the series takes us on the journey of a man from Baltimore named Zachary Reid, who opens the trilogy as an optimistic, likable young sailor on the Ibis. He is mixed-race, born of an African-American mother and a Caucasian-American father, and learned to imitate his father’s gentry manners and accents while waiting at the latter’s table. Escaping racial violence in Baltimore by boarding the Ibis, Zachary has learned to pass as white by the time he reaches Calcutta. Here, no one knows of his mixed heritage except for an odd mystical figure named Baboo Nob Kissin, who sees in Zachary an avatar of the dark-skinned god Krishna.
Baboo thinks that Zachary’s destiny is to aid in the coming apocalypse — and sees it as his spiritual duty to help Zachary along on his path. The latter ultimately gains an addictive taste for the privileged world that he was barred from as a child, through an affair with an upper-class English woman in Calcutta. Zachary’s mistress urges him to conquer the “continent of darkness” within himself. “We are in an age of progress,” she says, “and in order to belong to it you must destroy everything that is backward in yourself.” He does so by destroying his past. With Baboo’s help, Zachary reinvents himself as a white gentleman and a successful opium trader.
Any story will look askance at figures who find happiness and success in the midst of a tragic ending, as the Chinese fall before the British onslaught, but Zachary’s metamorphosis resonates through the core of the book. He, the novel suggests, is the only kind of person that can thrive in a post-Opium Wars world — canny, calculating, and purged of all but economic greed. As Zachary joins the throng of European and Parsi traders ready to carve up the recently ceded island of Hong Kong, Baboo jubilantly asserts that the apocalypse is on its way. The “great devouring” of the world, Baboo says, “will end only when all of humanity, joined together in a great frenzy of greed, has eaten up the earth, the air, the sky.”
Every creative work is a product of its moment, bearing as it does the imprint of the writer’s milieu. Thus The Lord of the Rings can be read as a mournful dirge for England before the World Wars, Frankenstein an Industrial Revolution–era meditation on childbirth and postpartum depression, Pride and Prejudice a tale of class anxiety as soldiers and merchants rose with the global expansion of the British Empire. The Ibis trilogy, too, is more than an enjoyable piece of historical fiction — it is a prescient commentary on our present-day world, told at a slant.
Ghosh said in a 2008 interview with Chris Lydon that he began Sea of Poppies as a way to write against the historical amnesia about war and empire evidenced by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the books drew out other resonances as well. Sea of Poppies was published in 2008, the year that Lehman Brothers collapsed and “Great Recession” was coined. What amazed me most as I read Sea of Poppies all those years ago were the parallels between the globalized world of 1838 and the new millennium. Ghosh depicted a world locked into the vagaries of free trade, where nations rose and fell — and lives were shattered — on the whims of a market that traded in luxuries: Sugar. Tea. Silk. Ivory. Opium.
River of Smoke came out in 2011, the year bookended by Arab Spring and Occupy. All around the world, people were rising up to protest a social order embedded in fossil fuels and corporate greed. I remember being struck most in River of Smoke by the idealism and integrity of Chinese Commissioner Lin Zexu, who sent a missive to Queen Victoria appealing to a moral code that he hoped she, too, held higher than profit. His message had no effect — the British government provided political backing to its merchants, regardless, and invaded the country after Commissioner Lin’s destruction of opium cargo. I recall reading “opium” and thinking oil — and wishing for a new Lin Zexu for modern times.
Ghosh is conscious of the oil-opium parallels in the Ibis trilogy, even as he is careful to make finer distinctions between them. Indeed, Ghosh has grown outspoken lately about the dangers of fossil fuel dependence to human civilization as we know it. While publicizing Flood of Fire earlier this year, he frequently spoke not just about the book but about climate change and how humanity is “sleepwalking towards disaster.” Here, it seems, is an apocalypse to mirror the one at the end of Flood of Fire — heralded once more by human greed.
But is it really that simple? Focused as it is upon the destructive nature of economic greed, Ghosh’s vision of human folly sometimes falters. In the Ibis trilogy he has molded historical reality to fit a morality tale — a fictional structure that makes his message clear and resonant, but is somewhat limiting. The worst character flaw is addiction and greed: for social status, opium, money, or all three. The only option for these flawed but sympathetic characters is capitulation or escape — through death, or finding a new life on Mauritius. The apocalypse, for Ghosh, is a system where desire for material gain runs rampant, destroying lives and nations as surely as a cyclone.
We are used to hearing such narratives of humanity these days — accustomed, as well, to the guilt that they inspire. Human beings are destroying the planet and themselves through greed. To purge ourselves of our sins, we must recycle, reduce, reuse — repent. But such stories are incomplete, because what morality tales do not address is the humdrum, unintentional nature of evil acts, the destruction that can arise even from shortsighted good intentions. They discard, as well, the societal structures that guide and constrain our actions. It is tempting to make a scapegoat out of Mr. Hyde, and revile our baser instincts. The danger, though, is that we’ll think our job over once Mr. Hyde is under control. The real culprit may be not him but Dr. Jekyll, upright and affable, who voices concerns about the state of the world but stops short at examining his own role within it.
The Ibis trilogy provides a thought-provoking window, even so, onto both the distant past and our own times. Early on in Flood of Fire, the future seems to breathe back into the past as one character contemplates the fate of China: “The great scholars and functionaries took little interest in the world beyond until suddenly one day it rose up and devoured them.” We are jolted out of a similar inattention when we see distorted images of ourselves reflected back from the past. Writing against historical amnesia, Ghosh forces us to look at ourselves through that dark glass — and to think deeply about what we see.