Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On Amitav Ghosh's Flood of Fire

Much like the ambitious speculators who appear so often in his Ibis Trilogy, Amitav Ghosh – or the narrator who answers to his name – resumes operations in Flood of Fire, the final book, having sunk all his narrative capital into a consignment that must now be carefully steered into a safe harbour. The reader knows that the panorama of characters from the first two books – the dispossessed Indian prince Neel Rattan Halder, the young American shipwright Zachary Reid, the wily Hindu accountant Baboo Nob Kissin Pander, the grizzled opium merchants Benjamin Burnham and Bahram Modi, the peasants and soldiers, the boatmen who rove the rivers of Calcutta and Canton and the vagrant lascars who traverse the ports of the Indian Ocean – are connected by a ship, the Ibis; a substance, opium; and an institution, the English East India Company. 

And by a force? In Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, characters were repeatedly seen straining to grasp the reasons for the moral and material upheavals of their world, and the mystery of why they had come together. The Ibis, a former slave ship now requisitioned by a British merchant attached to the East India Company in Calcutta, became a microcosm of a rapidly changing world order: each character on his grim voyage to the colony of Mauritius offered his own interpretation of his destiny and ‘the delirium of the world’, but only the powerful were able to understand it. Among the Indian cast members, only the ambitious Parsi merchant from Bombay, Bahram Modi, could see through the tumult wrought by the opium trade on England, India and China. Flood of Fire, which draws the story out into the Chinese Opium War of 1840, brings the trilogy’s grand subject clearly into focus: capitalism and colonialism as invented, practised and justified across the ports and seaboards of the Indian Ocean in the 19th century by ‘Britannia’s all-seeing eye and all-grasping hand’. Opium, Ghosh suggests, was the substance that created the modern world, and he has set out to tell its epic story.

The dynamism and turbulence of the trade come across in the language of the novels, which is clamorously and sonorously inventive. Early in Sea of Poppies, Zachary, on his journey from America, is forced to change his ‘usual sailor’s menu of lobscouse, dandyfunk and chokedog, to a Laskari fare of karibat and kedgeree’: in these books characters consume not only each other’s cuisine, but their languages too. Different communities swap and transform elements of each other’s vocabulary. Many of the characters are not native English speakers: they speak Hindustani, Bhojpuri, Cantonese and lascar-lingo, and their attempts to communicate with the British, and British attempts to communicate with them, create a rich, lively and punning texture. 

Power determines the new linguistic ‘normal’. The English of the soldiers, sahibs and memsahibs (or Burra BeeBees) in the cities, factories and garrisons of the East India Company reflects a desire to hold on to the world they have left behind, and to make sense of – and prove their interest in, or contempt for – the one they find themselves in. ‘Chuckmuckery’, they say, after the Hindi word for ‘glittering’, chakmak; or ‘dumbcow’, from the Hindi for ‘threaten’, dhamkao; or ‘tuncaw’, from the Hindi tankha or salary. As they bend the strange world of India to their will, they attempt to bend the Indian language into something that sounds like their own, without seeing that they are also being shaped by it. One of the novel’s best puns, repeated so often that it becomes a leitmotif, is uttered by Catherine Burnham, the wife of the Ibis’s owner: ‘Surely you can see,’ she tells her lover, Zachary, ‘that it would not suit me at all to be a mystery’s mistress?’ A mistri, in Hindi, is a humble toolsman, which is how Zachary started out, but it’s the homonym that proves to be the more pertinent characteristic.

During the first two books, Catherine seemed the very incarnation of severe, corseted self-possession, BeeBee-style. Her husband, Benjamin Burnham, is typical of the Englishmen who have arrived in India with the East India Company. He is an agent not just of the Company’s flourishing opium trade, but also of the larger ideology of free trade as a whole, with its alluring new vocabulary of rivers of supply flowing towards vessels of demand, and of markets no longer constrained by morals but creating a new morality – even a new religion. ‘Jesus Christ is Free Trade,’ he insists, ‘and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.’ But now Burnham is in China, trying to break the blockade imposed by the Chinese emperor on the import of opium. When Zachary – the young, mixed-race American shipwright who appeared in Sea of Poppies delivering the Ibis to Burnham from Baltimore – receives a commission to repair another boat of Burnham’s, Mrs Burnham suddenly takes a keen interest in reforming him. Her reproving letters and insistence on private consultations soon reveal a pent-up passion of her own. Before they know it, the two are lovers and Zachary has been introduced to a world of feminine mystery and material wealth. When Burnham returns unexpectedly from Canton, the mystery is abruptly discarded, as his mistress had warned he would be, but love for Catherine has already led Zachary to covet a place in Mr Burnham’s world, and, crucially, to realise that this need not be a fantasy. For once, the winds of history are behind the sails of men like him.

One day, Zachary is taken by Mr Burnham’s generous gomusta, or accountant, Baboo Nob Kissin, to an opium auction held by the East India Company. (The Baboo, whose diligent caressing of ‘correct English’ recalls Hurree Babu in Kipling’s Kim, has his own agenda.) The spectacle is so grand, and the awe in which big traders like Mr.Burnham are held so seductive, that Zachary decides to invest the money bestowed on him by Mrs Burnham during their assignations in a small consignment of opium, to be taken to China alongside Mr.Burnham’s vast stock. Love’s labours have become a source of capital: Mrs Burnham has shown him his place in the world and set him on the road, should he have the nerve for it, to becoming a sahib. Zachary is no longer a mere mystery and an exuberant free trader in language – he speaks more languages than anyone else in the trilogy – but a Free Trader as Mr Burnham understands the term. Like Mr Burnham, Zachary has crossed the divide – the distinction is made by Fernand Braudel in his classic study, The Wheels of Commerce – from the market economy to capitalism, from the routine material life of an economy to the darker arts of speculation. It is almost like falling in love again. That night,

Zachary experienced spasms of anticipation that were no less intense than those that had seized him before his assignations with Mrs Burnham. It was as if the money that she had given him had suddenly taken on a new life: her coins were out there in the world, forging their own destiny, making secret assignations, colliding with others of their own kind – seducing, buying, spending, breeding, multiplying.

The hideous culmination of the cult of free trade is the Opium War of 1840, which has been anticipated from at least halfway through River of Smoke. Ghosh’s account is more or less faithful to history. With tea all the rage in England, the East India Company required a scarce and desirable commodity of its own in order to balance its trade with China, so created a vast market in China for Indian opium. With more and more Chinese men incapacitated by an addiction to ‘chasing the dragon’ (the exquisite scenes of opium-smoking in Ghosh’s story elicit pleasures to rival the narcotic ones), the authorities in Canton eventually declared the trade illegal. The distress and debt generated by this move reverberated back up the distribution and production chains to Calcutta and Bombay, and moved the powerful British merchants in Canton to lobby the British government to intercede. The result was a war which the economist Ha-Joon Chang describes in Bad Samaritans, his account of the deceits and delusions behind the idea of free trade, as ‘particularly shameful . . . even by the standards of 19th-century imperialism’. 

By the time we reach the final act in Flood of Fire, Ghosh has laid the ground painstakingly for a sophisticated analysis of the politics of the war. Details of nautical and military manoeuvres are relayed with panache and present an unforgettable picture of the tumult of military order (“The noise too was overpowering, the sheer volume of it: the thudding of feet, the pounding of drums, the ‘Har-har-Mahadev’ battle-cry of the sepoys, and above all that, the whistle and shriek of shots passing overhead”). And there’s a sombre beauty to the British and Chinese descriptions of the war’s devastation (“All around them metal was clanging on metal, drowning out the cries of dying men”), as also to the narrator’s attention to his favoured few (“An unnameable grief came upon him then; falling to his knees he reached out to close the dead man’s eyes.”)

As in the previous books, some of the most dramatic moments involve characters who, having taken up the challenge posed by circumstances not accounted for by convention, realise that their very identity is being devastated in the process. We see Shireen, the widow of Bahram Modi and a woman who has never even left her house in Bombay without an escort, taking a ship out to Canton to try and recover her husband’s fortune. Soon she realises, with both alarm and pleasure, that ‘the journey ahead would entail much more than just a change of location: in order to arrive at her destination she would have to become a different person.’ (Her actions are also being determined by a principle which the feminist critic Malashri Lal calls ‘the law of the threshold’, according to which the lives of women in Indian novels change irreversibly when they cross the safe, but suffocating, threshold of their houses, and by implication their gender-defined roles, for the first time.) 

And midway through the war, the reader also realises that Zachary’s amiable and empathetic nature has coarsened irredeemably, as power becomes more important to him than justice. ‘I am a man who wants more and more and more,’ he declares towards the close of the book, ‘a man who does not know the meaning of “enough”. Anyone who tries to thwart my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must expect to be treated as such.’

Over the course of the three books, one character stands out as possessing a level of intelligence and detachment on a par with the narrator’s, and it is to him that the trilogy’s greatest meditation on history is handed. He is Neel Rattan Halder, the Raja of Raskhali, a somewhat introverted sensualist, heir to the revenues from his family’s feudal estate and the profits from his father’s investment in Mr Burnham’s enterprise. In Sea of Poppies his wealth was confiscated by a British court in Calcutta and he was sentenced to several years in the penal colony of Mauritius. On his way, on board the Ibis, Neel jumped ship and eventually ended up in Canton under an assumed name, his truculent nature shaken by adventures he would never have sought out himself. In Flood of Fire, he is settled in Canton and works as a translator of English documents into Chinese. But he fears that the Chinese aren’t taking the British threat of war seriously enough, and believes that they will come to regret their assurance that a vast country can’t be shaken by a few foreign battleships. When the two sides finally meet in battle, it’s as if two ages are clashing, and Neel becomes both elegist of the old order and a chronicler of the energies of a new force in history:

He had never witnessed a battle before and was profoundly affected by what he saw. Thinking about it later he understood that a battle was a distillation of time: many years of preparation and decades of innovation and chance 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. It astonished him that he had not recognised before the terrible power that was contained within these wrinkles in time – a power that could mould the lives of those who came afterwards for generation after generation . . . He understood then why Shias commemorate the Battle of Kerbala every year: it was an acknowledgement that just as the earth splits apart at certain moments, to create momentous upheavals that forever change the terrain, so do time and history.
How was it possible that a small number of men, in the span of a few hours or minutes, could decide the fate of millions of people yet unborn? How was it possible that the outcome of those brief moments could determine who would rule whom, who would be rich or poor, master or servant, for generations to come?
Nothing could be a greater injustice, yet such had been the reality ever since human beings first walked the earth.

Those familiar with Ghosh’s work will hear echoes here of his previous novels. From his very first book, his characters always seem to know that they are sailing not just on the ship of Time, but – which is a different thing – of History. Even as they search for meaning and agency in their own lives, they compare their situations and civilizations to others distant or disappeared; sometimes centuries pass in their mind’s eye as hours do in the lives of others. 

But as Ghosh has learnt to withhold these meditations from his cerebral narrators and disperse them more freely and cunningly among his characters, so his books have come to exude not the fusty odours of the library, of the mind responding to a text or map at leisure, but rather the bracing air and even flood of fire of the greatest fiction, of the mind taking itself by surprise during a moment’s respite from the body’s labours. “Ben Yiju’s documents were mostly written in an unusual, hybrid language:” declares the narrator of In An Antique Land (1992), describing his twelfth-century Jewish merchant who is his subject, “one that has such an arcane sound to it that it might well be an entry in a book of Amazing Facts.” “Nobody knows, nobody can ever know, not even in memory, because there are moments in time that are not knowable:” declares the equally studious narrator of The Shadow Lines (1986), “nobody can ever know what it was like to be young and intelligent in the summer of 1939 in London or Berlin.” Compare these to the music of the spheres produced by the (in this case disembodied) narrator watching the Bihari peasant woman (and reluctant poppy-cultivator) Deeti in The Sea of Poppies as she undertakes the long voyage to Mauritius on board the Ibis:

As she was listening to the sighing of the sails, she became aware that there was a grain lodged under her thumbnail. It was a single poppy seed: prising it out, she rolled it between her fingers and raised her eyes, past the straining sails, to the star-filled vault above. On any other night she would have scanned the sky for the planet she had always thought to be the arbiter of her fate – but tonight her eyes dropped instead to the tiny sphere she was holding between her thumb and forefinger.

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