Friday 5 June 2015

Book Review: “Flood of Fire” by Amitav Ghosh

I had pre-ordered Flood of Fire almost three months ago and last week Flipkart delivered the third and final book in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy to me. I had liked the first one, Sea of Poppies and the second one, River of Smoke, a lot more. Flood of Fire turned out to be good very good in fact, a better than even the River of Smoke.

Like the first two books in the trilogy and not unlike most of his works in the last fifteen years, Ghosh uses his fiction as a vehicle for history narration. His subaltern version that is. Mind you, I am not complaining. The Ibis trilogy is, just like the Glass Palace, a devastating critique of colonialism and Ghosh makes his point very well. In the Flood of Fire, the British are determined to open up China for opium trading, just as Commissioner Lin Zexu does his best to keep opium out. At first, Lin believes that the opium traders do not have the backing of the British government, but his illusions are soon dispelled. The best thing about the Flood of Fire is that most of the characters are likeable, even if they are British soldiers like Captain Mee or businessmen like or shipman turned opium trader like Zachary. Shireen, the wife of the late Bahram Mody is especially likeable, though she travels to China in the hope that the British government would be able to, through the use of force, compel the Chinese government to pay reparations of opium confiscated from his husband’s storehouses. They are all part of a grand design as the story moves along and the great capitalist enterprise is unleashed.

Ghosh’s sympathy for 19th century China shines throughout the novel. He also makes a case to show how common Chinese people who once lived in India, like Asha didi, developed deep and lasting bonds with India. He relishes characters like Neel who easily transcend cultures and makes friends with the Chinese Compton. Chinese authorities seem to treat their Indian prisoners relatively well. The use of Chinese words such as “barbarian” to denote foreigners is shown to be, not a problem with the Chinese or their language, but the result of mis-translation by European scholars who have an axe to grind. On the other hand, the East India Company’s armed forces openly promote and support the caste system. Indian soldiers are given inferior weapons and lesser pay. When fighting in China alongside the Cameronians, racist taunts and harassment are routine. As Havildar Kesri Singh ruminates on such inequities and looks on the Chinese soldiers fighting them with respect (for their dedication to their cause and the opportunity they have, unlike him, to fight for something they hold dear), one gets the feeling that Ghosh has transplanted a modern day man into the body of a humble soldier who lived around 170 years ago.

At one point, Ghosh tells us (wistfully) through Taranathji, the Tibetan monk that the Gurkha King Rajendra Bikram Shah had proposed to Beijing that the Chinese and Gurkhas should launch a joint attack on British forces in Bengal. However, it was against Beijing’s policy to makes alliances with other Kingdoms. And in any case, the Qing did not entirely trust the Gurkhas. I am not sure how historically accurate Ghosh is in this context since google couldn’t throw any light on this, but I think the rest of the novel is kosher.

In a manner which Bollywood would have been proud of, Ghosh brings together in China a number of characters we had met in the previous two books the trilogy. Thus we once again meet colourful characters such as Serang Ali, Baboo Nob Kissin, Paulette, Zadig Beg, Deeti etc. However, the Flood of Fire is a lot more realistic than the previous two books, even in such aspects.

Most of the characters fit their stereotypes, but with Zachary Reid, Ghosh plays God and does an amazing job as the innocent and hardworking carpenter is transformed into something else. I do not want to disclose more and give away the story – please read this novel and find out for yourself.

I knew that armies of yore were accompanied by drummer boys and fifers as they marched into battle, but did not really believe that any civilised army would intentionally and unnecessarily put young uns in harm’s way. The drummer and Fifers in Flood of Fire are nice lovable characters, in particular Raju and Dicky and yes, they do accompany troops to the battle field, put themselves in harm’s way and some get killed! I’ll not dwell any more on this point, other than say that Ghosh has done a splendid job in portraying the world of drummers and fifers.

Some of Ghosh’s observations in this novel are really profound and meaningful. After observing British Indian troops rout imperial Chinese soldiers, Neel is mighty impressed. “Thinking about it later, he understood that a battle was 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.

Ghosh liberally sprinkles his 600 odd page tome with Bhojpuri and Chinese phrases. I thought the occasional Chinese phrase made sense, but the Bhojpuri didn’t since the characters who emitted those Hindi-like words speak only Bhojpuri and I didn’t see the point in the random phrase. It was as if Ghosh had done his research and collected those phrases and didn’t want to waste them.

On the whole, Flood of Fire is a good read and one I would recommend to anyone interested in historical novels.

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