An outstanding Indian novelist looks at the Opium War

opium war

Opium is at center-stage in Flood of Fire, which traces the consequential history of the British, their Indian allies, and the mandarins ruling China just before and during the First Opium War. Though it occurred nearly two centuries ago, this historical event is worth revisiting today for its lasting influence on today’s Chinese rulers, whose memories are vivid about the humiliation visited on their country by the British, other Europeans, and (later) the Americans. Few of us in America today can appreciate the intense feelings this nineteenth-century conflict continues to conjure up in the minds of educated people in China.

Flood of Fire is the concluding novel in the monumental Ibis Trilogy by that Indian giant of historical fiction, Amitav Ghosh. It’s the sequel to Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke. Taken together, the three books tell the story of the Indian opium-trading ship Ibis and the colorful, polyglot personalities who are connected to it, during the momentous four-year period from 1838 to 1841.

Flood of Fire (Ibis Trilogy #3) by Amitav Ghosh @@@@ (4 out of 5)

Flood of Fire, as well as the two novels that preceded it, is remarkable in two ways. First, the author’s documentary research was exhaustive and clearly required years of reading old documents and traipsing from one library to another: in an Epilogue, Ghosh includes eight pages of references tightly packed together into paragraphs. Second, Ghosh’s love of language is palpable, with every character in this novel displaying a distinctive mode of speech that seems to reflect accurately the way people spoke in mid-nineteenth-century India and China.

The principal characters in this third volume in the Ibis Trilogy all appear in the earlier stories as well: Kesri Singh, a havildar or sergeant in the military service of the British East India Company; Zachary Reid, a young mulatto from Baltimore who begins his career as a ship’s carpenter; Benjamin Burnham, the fabulously wealthy opium trader who owns the Ibis; Burnham’s wife, Catherine, who lives under the shadow of a dark secret; Shireen Modi, a Parsi (Zoroastrian) mother of two in Bombay who is now the widow of Seth (“sir”) Bahram Moddie, a penniless youth who had risen to the top of the opium trade by taking audacious chances; Neel Rattan Halder, the former Raja of Raskhali, who has become an adviser to the Chinese in their standoff with the British; Zadig Bey, an Armenian trader close to Seth Bahram; and assorted other soldiers, sailors, traders, officials, and hangers-on. It’s what Hollywood used to call “a cast of thousands.” This is an immensely complex story and sheer pleasure to read.

At times, Flood of Fire is hilarious. There are extended passages about masturbation which highlight the Victorian obsession with sex and brilliant examples of the malaproprisms that result from people attempting to communicate in their third language, or their fourth. For example, “‘You must meet me at Strand, with money-purse, at 5 p. m. Kindly do not be late — I will be punctually expectorating.'” It takes a writer with the talent of Amitav Ghosh to make this stuff up.

For further reading

This is one of 11 insightful books about China reviewed on this site. It’s also one of the Good books about India, past and present.

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