Sunday, July 05, 2015

Amitav Ghosh - Flood of Fire

Publisher: +Penguin Books USA

This is the grand finale to the amazing Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. What a journey it has been.

Sea of Poppies set us on a journey abroad the Ibis with a motley group of Indians, Americans, British and Lascars.  We learned about the languages and the cultural milieu that its various characters came from.

River of Smoke set us down in Canton to find out about the opium trade. China buys opium but is torn apart by its use.  Commissioner Lin is determined to stop the opium trade even if it means going to war with the British.

Flood of Fire begins with the story of Kesri Singh, Deeti's older brother and a havildar in the East India Army.  He has just heard that Bhyro Singh has been killed abroad a ship, also Bhyro's nephew and his sister Deeti's husband, Hukum Singh has been killed. This news intrigues him as he did not hear anything from his own family about Deeti being widowed. It sets him reminiscing about his past and how he came to join the army at the behest of Deeti and Bhyro Singh.

We learn about the curious recruitment process in the various armies at the time.  There was the Mughal Army at Delhi which was deemed to be the best.  Then there were various principalities who were looking for soldiers. The recruit had to be canny and pick a good army that would pay it a good and regular income.

In Bombay, Shireen is devastated by the news of Behram's death.  Even more, she has to bear the ignominy of Behram having died bankrupt. Her brothers are determined to wipe out Behram from their lives.  Further to this, Shireen has come to know that Behram had a son by a Chinese woman in Canton.  Shattered by this discovery, she decides to go to Canton to meet the boy and also try to recover the money Behram lost.

In Calcutta, Zachary finds himself facing a lawsuit for the murder of Bhyro Singh on his ship and the escape of convicts.  He is cleared of all charges, but his license is held back pending a fine of 100 rupees. He gets a job with Mrs. Burnham to tidy up a boat they confiscated from Raja Neel. He finds Mrs. Burnham taking an undue interest in his sexual health.

The scene shifts back to Canton where fierce fighting is about to take place between the Chinese and the British.  Many of the original passengers of Ibis are in Canton on various business. Their fates are still intertwined and they keep running into each other.

For a while, I felt a little tired out by the stories of Shireen and Zachary.  They seemed neverending.  But once the characters land in Canton, Macau, and Hongkong, all was well. The story trotted along very well.  I was afraid the lives of all the Ibis characters would not knit together well.  I fretted about the absence of Deeti and wanted to know more about her.  In fact, I even sneaked peeks into pages ahead just to find out how things were going to be eventually.

All I will say now is that the story does come together very well in the end.  There are some deaths, some heartbreaks, and some meetings.  A story of this proportions could not have ended well for all its characters. But I was completely satisfied by the end.

Amitav Ghosh has presented us with a modern epic here.  He has researched painstakingly into every minute detail of those times and the lives of people who belong to a variety of class and culture.  We get to know all about the peasants of Bihar to the Lascars who run the ships. From the highly cultured memsahibs to the way nawabs lived in those times. Parsis of Bombay and shipping merchants of Calcutta are brought together by a common interest, Trade.

It also presents us with the fact that it is Trade that makes the world go round.  But for the profits yielded by India and China,  the British would not have bothered with us.  On the heels of their greed to eke profits out of these regions came the need to rule over us.

We are also apt to blame the mixed Hindi-English, called Hinglish, upon the youngsters of today.  The fact is, the British and Indians were mixing Hindi and English as far back as the 1840's! Language has always been a dynamic thing that tends to break out of grammatical stranglehold and morphs into something new every few decades.  If this was not true, we would still be speaking like Shakespeare.  In this book, we get plenty of examples of how language was also evolving, along with the way of dressing.

It is a wonderful tale that makes the times (1840-1841) come alive.


Madhulika liddle said...

I have to admit I've not read any of the Ibis trilogy (I had read The Glass Palace, and that didn't impress me enough to make me want to read any more by Amitav Ghosh). Yes, he's a good writer, but I just found it - well, not quite to my taste. Maybe I should give him another go. This does sound good.

Ava Suri said...

I was lucky I read Sea of Poppies first. It is quite different from his other books. I could not sit through The Hungry Tide, it was quite tedious.

I am absolutely in love with the Ibis Trilogy.

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