Chasing the dragon: the 19th-century craze for opium made a fortune for many adventurers. Image: William Douglas Almond/ Private Collection / © Look And Learn / Illustrated Papers Collection / Bridgeman Images
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Amitav Ghosh concludes his Opium War trilogy in brilliant, ramshackle style

Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, Flood of Fire, takes you to the end of its exploring, only to hint that the story is just beginning.

Flood of Fire
Amitav Ghosh
John Murray, 624pp, £20

The most audacious moment in Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, Flood of Fire, ­happens in the final sentence. After 600 pages, Ghosh refers to “this telling” as being “as yet scarcely begun”. Is he sham-bragging about how much he has already written or signalling that he is just getting started? Whether or not Ghosh chooses to explore still more of the world that he has revealed in the unabashedly baggy Ibis trilogy – a world of 19th-century war- and money- and love-making, set in and across India and China, a world full of warriors, widows, addicts and hustlers, all connected to each other by their time on ships that are otherwise freighted with opium – his latest effort forms a fit conclusion to an enterprise that has stretched across nearly 2,000 pages.

Many of the characters and plotlines in Flood of Fire first appeared in Sea of Poppies, which followed the lives of people from various stations and parts of the world brought together on a ship, the Ibis, making its way across a rough Indian Ocean to Mauritius in 1838. That novel’s personal and historical situations developed, with new characters coming into the mix, in River of Smoke, in which the Ibis and two other ships are imperilled by a cyclone that sweeps across the Bay of Bengal just as tensions between Britain and China over the opium trade and larger economic dealings intensify to the point of likely war. In the final book of the trilogy, Ghosh writes about individuals fully caught up in the First Opium War (1839-42) as yet another ship, the Hind, sails from India to China, again with a motley cast, some seeking answers to questions created by the events of earlier books, others keen for money and adventure.

There’s much of both to be had, now that Britain has decided to send a military force to China to secure a more stable and favourable position for its trade interests, which are mostly about Englishmen getting rich using two Indian commodities in great demand in China: opium and indentured workers. This imperial gambit culminates in the claiming of Hong Kong for the Crown, but not before much blood is spilled by the Indian and Chinese soldiers fighting each other along the coastline at the behest of their respective overlords. “This is the road to glory,” reads a sign that a British soldier scrawls and puts up alongside the Union Jack, with gunpowder-scorched corpses strewn everywhere below.

Graphic and gripping, the novel’s extended and close-up treatment of battles, framed by grand pageant sequences of warships leaving various harbours, is interleaved with a vertiginous coming together of characters and plotlines from elsewhere in the trilogy, whether in a convenient chance encounter aboard a ship, or the result of hard determination to seek love or vengeance, to offer help or seek it. Meanwhile, ideas and arguments relating to the state regulation of the drug trade, to China’s ambiguous emergence as a player in the global economy and to wild western dreams of lucrative civilising missions in distant lands invest these 19th-century renderings with immediate, 21st-century relevance.

To get to all of this, however, requires patience. Ghosh spends the first 200 pages unpacking the situations of four characters in particular: Shireen, the Parsi widow of an opium merchant; Kesri, a brave and loyal low-born colonial soldier whose sister disappeared following a bad marriage; Neel, a fallen Indian nobleman now chronicling the political situation from China; and Zachary, a young American on the make who has survived misadventures and even criminal charges related to his first voyage on the Ibis and is now, as ever, keen to try again for money and love, roughly in that order.

Ghosh eventually moves all of these characters (save Neel) aboard the Hind and sends them to China. He then brings off a multi-part denouement that is at once personal and historical, with more than a few freighted observations about the Ibis along the way: “It has tied us all together in strange ways, ne?” These references may come off as unnecessarily self-indulgent to some readers, as will the extended opening segment of Flood of Fire.

But that is reading this work the wrong way. Ghosh wants you to take your time and get lost in the world he has conjured, which is very much helped along by his writing in a chutney of 19th-century English and Hindi and other languages, constantly sliding between decorousness and technical terminology, assorted pidgin and straight-up gutter slang. “It’s my turn now, to bajow your ganta,” the matronly Mrs Burnham tells Zachary in the midst of a love affair that is only initially comical. Don’t bother googling the phrase. Likewise, use your imagination to figure out what “chewing on a chichky” involves. Ghosh provides plenty of context, not to say an endless array of equally colourful synonyms, whether about sex or about war, money and drugs, the trilogy’s main preoccupations. This is all intended to keep you happily confined to the pages of this brilliantly ramshackle novel, which Ghosh declares “the climactic tamam-shud to this chronicle”, before suggesting that the story is really just beginning.

Randy Boyagoda’s latest novel is “Beggar’s Feast” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Cather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.