The Whirring Gears of the Colonialist Machine

By Nasia AnamNovember 6, 2015

The Whirring Gears of the Colonialist Machine

Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh

FLOOD OF FIRE, Amitav Ghosh’s hefty coda to the Ibis trilogy, is a novel that demands faithful commitment from its reader. Combined with the two other installments in the series, Sea of Poppies (2008) and River of Smoke (2011), the trilogy runs nearly 1,700 pages in its entirety. Flood of Fire begins in true medias res, and one may find oneself flipping through the earlier volumes (or, more guiltily, Wikipedia) to recall the panoply of characters introduced in the previous works. The third of the Ibis triptych offers few mnemonic aids (like flashbacks, for example) to help a new reader out.

Indeed, such technical crutches would seem misplaced in this scrupulously researched historical novel. Moving backward and forward in time around the settings of the first and second novels, Flood of Fire takes place primarily from 1839 to 1841 as the British East India Company gears up to fight the First Opium War against the Chinese Empire — a period which would determine power relations between the largest empires of the 19th century. Through the trajectories of his many characters, Ghosh’s trilogy meditates upon macroscopic shifts in world power. The books narrate both Britain’s transition into the empire it would become, and the ways these global changes stamped the lives of individuals living under colonization.

Sea of Poppies, the first installment in the series, takes place after the British abolish the trade of chattel slaves from West Africa and transition into importation of Indian and Chinese indentured servants. At the same time, the opium trade between all the nodal points of Britain’s colonies increases. The second installment, River of Smoke, depicts the complex trade lines from the colonial port of Calcutta to the seaside cities of Canton and the plantations of Mauritius, which shuttle peoples across the world to settle in unlikely foreign lands. Ghosh’s trilogy reminds us that the seemingly recent phenomenon of globalization is not new at all, but was preceded by the churning circulation of peoples, ideas, and commodities during the colonial era.

The Ibis trilogy’s fictional world is richly populated with fine historical detail, from the minutia of nautical life aboard trade ships, to the sartorial and mechanical particularities of sepoy uniforms and weaponry, to the financial rituals of commodities traders. The text grows richer as the novels move from port to port, following the routes of colonial exchange. In Flood of Fire, Ghosh’s skill as an archival researcher is on full display in lush, lengthy passages that provide the reader with a nearly complete sense of the material conditions of life at the time. The novel isn’t shy about its geographic scope either: as the East India Company (often violently) establishes the illicit opium trade network between India, Singapore, Canton, Macau, and Hong Kong, we get a sense of life in large swaths of the world.

The story scales up and down the class hierarchy through its massive cast of characters, flitting between storylines and time periods with an almost mercurial frequency. Flood of Fire picks up loose narrative threads from a great number of characters introduced in the previous novels. Among them are a British evangelist opium trader and his high-society Anglo-Indian wife; a mixed-race lascar from Baltimore who is a descendant of slaves; a Bengali ex-raja exiled and employed in Canton as a translator; a lowly French daughter of a botanist fluent in Bengali; an opium-addicted Indian-Chinese drug smuggler; an elite Parsi widow on a vision quest to China; a Sikh sepoy suffering a crisis of identity; an embittered, irascible British subaltern with a broken heart; and believe it or not, many, many more. The narrative begins with all of these characters scattered across the spans of the burgeoning British Empire, and delivers nearly all of them, through many improbable coincidences, to Macau by the end of the novel.

Through painstaking and accurate detail, Flood of Fire brings this lesser-studied moment in British colonial history — that is, the First Opium War — into vibrant life. Ghosh carefully arranges scenes of confrontation between figures that, though common in the colonial era, may be less familiar to contemporary readers. For instance, there’s a scene in which a high-ranking sepoy (an Indian soldier fighting on behalf of the British) instructs his men of the dangers aboard a trade ship. He indirectly illuminates quotidian habits and stereotypes of the period that are virtually unknown today.

He ended with dire warnings about what lay ahead: seasickness, flooding, objects caroming around in bad weather, and so on. His most urgent strictures, however, concerned a hazard of […] earth, he told the sepoys. To a man, lascars were thieves, drunkards, lechers and brawlers, with skulls as thick cannonshells. They were the sepoys’ natural enemies and would steal from them at the least opportunity: they had to be watched at every moment.

Ghosh’s staging here reveals, for example, that lascars — the indispensible sailors who manned ships across colonial trade routes — were nonetheless judged harshly by other figures in the colonized world. This allows him to demonstrate enmities and allegiances that were forged between great varieties of people living under colonization. Ghosh’s narrative departs from the basic binary of colonizer and colonized by illustrating the many variegations and striations within those two categories. Moreover, the novel often portrays travel between points in the colonial network that avoids situating the British Isles at the center and the colonies at the periphery. Instead, Flood of Fire focuses on the journey between Calcutta to Macau, placing an emphasis on the migration and exchange of peoples, commodities, ideas, and language between colonies. London, despite being the seat of power guiding all the novel’s action, becomes peripheral — more of a concept than an actual place.

Less successful is the often-wooden dialog between the trilogy’s parade of characters. Neither tonal consistency nor verbal economy seems to be of particular importance here. The characters articulate their every sentiment and thought process in an almost telegraphic way. One of the novel’s subplots takes a particularly melodramatic turn as a Parsi widow named Shireen learns that her deceased husband maintained a second family while working as a merchant in Canton. She tearfully explains her situation to a friend in a soap operatic conversation that is all “tell” and very little “show.”

“Yes […] it’s true. It was a terrible shock to me. I could not believe that he, who had always seemed so devoted, so dutiful and devout, could be entangled this way with someone from another country, someone who did not share his faith.” Now Shireen too paused to dab her eyes. “It’s only now that I’ve begun to understand how life takes those turns.”

The characters in Flood of Fire are granted a near-impossible sense of self-knowledge and a propensity to articulate their own motivations in a way that often renders them flat and unconvincing.

Ghosh and the third book in the trilogy are strongest when showcasing the whirring, moving gears of the colonial machine, with each person, each ship, and each commodity behaving as an individual cog or sprocket. To that end, all of the missed connections, romantic liaisons, hostile confrontations, coercive extortions, tragic misunderstandings, and spiritual delusions depicted in the novel are in the service of offering the most complete and faithful version of an immensely complex slice of a historical space and time.

Novelistic conventions bordering on the formulaic prove to be the most efficient vehicle for achieving the larger stakes of this immense project. As the story moves from the Subcontinent to Southern China, Flood of Fire imports well-worn Victorian tropes into its depiction of colonial society. Motifs suitable to a Merchant-Ivory production abound throughout the narrative. Upper-crust ladies swoon at shocking news, hide their flushed visages behind veils and parasols, and collapse into chaises longues only to be revived with smelling salts. But these moments come off less as tiresome cliché than as Ghosh’s displacement of easily legible English mannerisms onto their colonial lands. Colonist memsahibs perform these gestures while uttering phrases in a hodgepodge of European, Subcontinental, and Chinese languages, making these scenes seem slightly surreal and off-kilter while highlighting the unprecedented and strange incarnations of colonizer/colonized contact in day-to-day life.

Postcolonial literary theory is of course no stranger to moments like these, and Amitav Ghosh is no stranger to postcolonial literary theory. Ghosh, who has a doctorate in anthropology, was a sometime member of the “Subaltern Studies” collective in the 1980s and ’90s. Armed with the theoretical tools of Marxism and poststructuralism, this group of anthropologists, historians, literary scholars, and other luminaries radically changed the scholarly conversation surrounding 19th-century colonial India. By excavating the British colonial archive for traces of those who were silenced during colonization, their approach to history sought to give voice to the oppressed.

“Subaltern Studies” has had a profound effect on literary scholarship, informing what would become the field of postcolonial studies. In seeking to give voice to those who were historically underdepicted, the legacy of “Subaltern Studies” is clearly a strong guiding force in Ghosh’s work, particularly in the Ibis trilogy. Ghosh’s work returns again and again to themes that similarly preoccupy postcolonial literary theory — moments of contact, exchange, and the hybrid ways of life that arose in the colonial period and its aftermath. In depicting scenes that seem to speak almost self-consciously to the concerns of postcolonial scholarship, Ghosh transforms literary theory into literary practice. There is a careful balance in the text between a 21st-century globalized perspective that glorifies these kinds of contact and exchange, and a 19th-century fear of contamination and miscegenation. After all, what literary theorist Homi K. Bhabha deemed ambivalent colonial “hybridity” in the 1990s is precisely what Rudyard Kipling more pejoratively categorized as “the monstrous hybridism of East and West” in 1901. Flood of Fire is equally celebratory and suspicious of the hybridity that attended the networks of colonization. The book locates the contact points that produced this hybridity in the public spaces of port cities and battlegrounds, as well as the private spaces of opium dens and bedrooms.

Indeed, a surprising amount of the text is devoted to bawdy interludes in a Calcutta boudoir between the unlikely pairing of Zachary Reid, an American mulatto lascar, and Cathy Burnham, the elite English wife of an opium trader. In what seems like uncharacteristic inelegance, Ghosh appears to borrow straight from bodice-ripping romance novels to portray the torrid affair. (To wit, there is even a bodice that, if not ripped, is frantically unbuttoned.) But the real point of intrigue in these scenes proves to be Ghosh’s own linguistic prowess. Critics lauded the way Sea of Poppies employed the vernacular phrases and vocabulary that arose among 19th-century seaborne lascars and Anglo-Indian colonists. Flood of Fire reserves most colloquialisms for the bedroom, drawing heavily on the sort of Bengali-Hindustani-English language kedgeree (or kichri, depending on your orientation) found in the 19th-century colonial dictionary known as the Hobson-Jobson. Ghosh unleashes a comically absurd number of euphemisms for this couple’s sexual gymnastics. Moreover, the conjugal act is also performed on the syntactical level as Bengali verbs are bent into English grammatical shapes. The married seductress and her young lover communicate in nearly incomprehensible hybrid phrases whose metaphors span across the idiomatic breadth of the British Empire. It is perhaps only the bilingual (or trilingual) reader who will be able to fully perceive the saltiness of such sentences as, “It’s my turn now, to bajow your ganta.”

The scenes of true seduction however, lie outside of the caricatures of the bedroom. Ghosh’s prose turns heady and resplendent as he evokes the insidious pleasures of empire, particularly as those who are being subjugated are coerced into willingly serving colonialism’s dubious causes. Ghosh’s choice in metaphor is decidedly unsubtle as Zachary first observes the elaborately choreographed exchanges between buyers and sellers of opium:

[he] thrust his hands under the shawl that lay draped over the broker’s lap. The shawl began to bounce and writhe as their hidden fingers twined […] Gradually these motions built to a climax and a shudder of understanding passed through both of them.

Displacing desirous energy is typical in Ghosh’s writing. In The Calcutta Chromosome, for example, malarial mosquitos take on a spiritual and erotic charge as they feast upon the protagonist’s body. In The Hungry Tide, a fatally cataclysmic storm resolves the unconsummated attraction between a Bengali cetologist and an illiterate boatsman. But the libidinous drive in Flood of Fire’s opium transactions is categorically more transgressive than those early instances of narrative sublimation. Where the love scenes in this book provide mostly comic relief, in the trading of opium, Eros appears with a frightening potency.

Zachary’s first experience with smoking the drug is wrought with a scientific precision that is as meticulous as it is sensual. The effects of “chasing the dragon” are, of course, even more mesmeric. “Its consistency was almost that of a liquid, dense, oily and intensely perfumed; it poured into his body like a flood, coursing through his veins and swamping his head.” Zachary first appears in the Ibis trilogy as a relatively innocent sailor from Baltimore, who hides his slave heritage. His bildung in Flood of Fire consists of a series of intoxicating acquisitions of power — a trajectory paralleling that of the British Empire at large. Zachary inherits the paradoxical attitudes that put colonialism and free market capitalism on a continuum. Ghosh shows global capitalism to be the enfant terrible of the colonial enterprise, and in Flood of Fire, opium is the religion of the masses. At one point, Mr. Chan, the opium dealer, pronounces Zachary a custodian of the capitalist cause as the latter floats in the fog of his high. “You see, Mr. Reid? The power that moves the world is inside you now. Lie back. Let it run through you.”

At the other end of the colonial spectrum is the character of Kesri Singh, a Sikh sepoy seduced by the power the colonial apparatus affords him. Shedding the traditional dhoti he wears as a wrestler to don the uniform of a sepoy soldier, he is astonished at the attendant shift in self-perception. The “upcurved yellow extensions on the shoulders of the koortee […] were like the tips of an eagle’s wings, and it seemed to Kesri that his shoulders had never seemed so broad or so strong.” For Kesri, wearing the British military costume is only a first step in performing as a consummate soldier. His loyalties and identity follow the sartorial cues of his uniform.

Kesri only begins to doubt the value of his efforts in the later stages of his military career, as he battles in the British campaign in China. After witnessing the patriotic devotion of a Chinese soldier,

it struck Kesri that in a lifetime of soldiering, he had never known what it was to fight […] for something that was your own; something that tied you to your fathers and mothers and those who had gone before them, back into the dimness of time.

After offering life and limb for the capture of Macau and Hong Kong, Kesri’s undignified treatment by a white British sergeant smarts with a particular poignancy. His disillusionment posits him as the novel’s moral compass. His growing doubt hints at the first stirrings of mutiny in the Indian soldier’s heart, foreshadowing the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion that would change the course of imperial history in the Subcontinent.

For Ghosh, colonial theaters of war are microcosms of the logical incongruities and ambivalences that fueled the juggernaut of the British Empire. Hearing the deafening noise of the skirmish in Macau at a close range, Neel, a scholarly figure and ex-zamindar exiled in China, provides the most meditative and analytical voice in the novel. It is through Neel’s reflections that we understand Ghosh’s stakes in the story of the Ibis on a macroscopic and macro-historical scale. He writes,

[A] battle [is] a distillation of time: many years of preparation and decades of innovation and change were squeezed into a clash of very short duration. And when it was over the impact radiated backwards and forwards through time, determining the future and even, in a sense, changing the past, or at least the general understanding of it.

Such moments of historical and geographical crystallization have been points of interest across Ghosh’s oeuvre. The Shadow Lines, his 1988 multigenerational family chronicle, circles around such an event — in that case the incident is a 1962 riot that begins in Srinagar, Kashmir, and dominoes across the Subcontinent into Dhaka, East Pakistan. In Flood of Fire, Neel’s reflection on the nature of battles encapsulates the central problem of all of Ghosh’s work. How to account for the infinite contingencies, accidents, coincidences, misunderstandings, and instances of pure luck across vast swaths of geographical space and (linear and non-linear) time that make up what we understand to be historical fact?

And thus the gargantuan endeavor of the Ibis trilogy, three immensely polyphonic novels that attempt to remedy the absences and silences of received history. Dialogic space is given to dalits, widows, orphans, outcastes, sepoys, Muslims, and other subjugated figures — all examples of what we now understand to be historically silenced, “subaltern” subjects. Though this review cannot, for reasons of space, account for the trajectories of many of these characters, readers should rest assured that Flood of Fire leaves no narrative thread dangling.

But is there a cost to the kind of project that attempts to represent almost every possible perspective in a given historical moment? Is there damage wrought in the attempt to study, know, and account for every minute detail and grand scale political shift in a complex historical moment? It seems that Ghosh once again speaks through Neel when the character laments the limitations of translation and scholarship.

It is madness to think that knowing a language and reading a few books can create allegiances between people. Thoughts, books, ideas, words — if anything, they make you more alone, because they destroy whatever instinctive loyalties you may once have possessed.

In this passage, Ghosh seems counterintuitively to undermine the entire project of the Ibis trilogy. Neel’s journal echoes the condition Edward Said has called “intellectual exile,” that is, “the state of never being fully adjusted, always feeling outside the chatty, familiar world inhabited by natives (so to speak), tending to avoid and even dislike the trappings of accommodation and national wellbeing.” For Said, intellectual exile is an ethical position, but Ghosh reveals its emotional toll.

Though spanning only three years in the centuries-long history of the British colonization, the Ibis trilogy comprises an ornate near-totality which sometimes resembles plenitude and at other times a morass. The reader cannot but feel some of the melancholy of “intellectual exile.” Ghosh’s opium-fueled universe delivers a gift of knowledge that is as precious as it is burdensome.


Nasia Anam is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at UCLA. She lives in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Nasia Anam is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at UCLA. She lives in Los Angeles.


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