Flood of Fire
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)