12 June 2015

Book Review: The Long Voyage of the Ibis

My (long) review of Amitav Ghosh's Flood of Fire. Published in the Wire.

A recent article in Slate on the surprising survival of “the very long novel” suggested that it works as counterprogramming. In these times of avowed attention deficit, reading a VLN feels ever more like resistance. The novels that make up Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, at 550-600 pages each, don’t quite qualify as VLNs. But a trilogy goes one further, by returning us to the committed seriality that was once de rigueur for literary consumption.
At the Delhi launch of Flood of Fire, one gentleman in the audience managed to ask the question on many people’s minds. “If I want to read this book, do I have to first buy and read the other two books?” Ghosh smiled and assured him that he didn’t. I wasn’t quite convinced: as one of those devoted Ghosh readers who read Sea of Poppies with great excitement and River of Smoke with a patience born of waiting, I’m not the ideal candidate to test this claim. But having now read Flood of Fire, I think it actually does manage to be a stand-alone narrative. This is a remarkable feat, given that it is also within these 600-odd pages that all surviving loose threads from the previous two books must be tied up.
Several characters from the previous books reappear, many having transformed themselves, chameleon-like, as they travel through time and space. Neel, an English-educated Bengali who was once the Raja of Raskhali, is now a translator in Canton; the Bengali-speaking French orphan Puggly has emerged fully formed as the botanical collector Paulette; the ‘half-caste’ son of a Parsi seth and a Chinese woman has gone from being the convict Ah Fatt to the rather less threatening Freddy Lee. Among those who undergo truly radical change in this book are Mrs. Burnham, who acquires both a past and an interiority one might never have suspected, and Seth Bahram Modi’s wife, who emerges from a sequestered, literally purdahed existence at the top of the Bombay mansion she was born in, to take her place in a new world. (Ghosh helps her along, slyly dropping the “Shirinbai” of the previous books for the more contemporary “Shirin”.)
There are new characters, too, none more important than Kesri Singh, the elder brother of Deeti,  who was the centre of the first book, and whose invisible presence continues to haunt the third. I will refrain from naming the other new characters, but what is remarkable to me is the degree to which Ghosh is invested, in this book, in chance reunions. The coincidental coming together of long-lost characters–lovers, siblings, parents, children–after a long and complex plot involving their separation, is very much among this book’s narrative pleasures, both Shakespearian and filmi.
A petarrah of words
One of the other pleasures of the Ibis Trilogy has been the joyful proliferation of multiple Englishes, allowing the hybrid speech of a polyglot colonial world to roll off our tongues. Sea of Poppies made enjoyable use of this, having characters switch from one sort of language to another—I think particularly of ship’s mate Zachary, moving from the slangy American “What the hell you pesticatin me for at this time o’night?” to the sahebi civility of “If I may be so bold”. River of Smoke contained not just negotiations, but even flirtation and lovemaking in the pidgin-English of Canton’s boat-people. Flood of Fire is no different. Some characters make do with a couple of signature interjections, like the young banjee-boy Dicky’s use of “ya” and “bugger”, and Freddy Lee’s “lah” and “ne”. But the book bubbles over with the vocabulary of the Raj, in which English met Hindustani to create a unique lingo used not just between English masters and native servants, but between white colonialists themselves: the Burnhams, thus, are looking for a mystery (mistri) for the purpose of bunnowing (banaoing) their boat, and are willing to offer a good tuncaw (tankhwah).
Certain aspects of Raj life threw up a greater number of hybrid words, such as the British Indian army, whose workings form the most engaging chunk of Flood of Fire. Within the first two pages of the book, we’ve already seen the tamasha of a paltan going by, with ox-drawn bylees and a host of army camp-followers: dandiawallas, syces, berry-wallahs, bhisties, naach-girls, mess-consummers (a combination of the English ‘mess’ and the Hindustani ‘khansaama’) and bangy-burdars (“men who are each obliged to carry forty pound weight, in small wooden or tin boxes, called petarrahs,” says my Hobson-Jobson). On page 5, we encounter ‘badmashes’, ‘coolie’ and ‘subedar’ as part of a (fictitious) report in the Calcutta Gazette. By page 22, Ghosh brings this linguistic hybridity explicitly into his narrative, when Neel is asked for help by an Englishman in Canton who is puzzling over the many Indian words in an article on opium production in the Chinese Repository: maund, tola, seer, chittack (all weights and measures), arkati (a kind of agent), ryot (raiyat, peasant) and carcanna (karkhana, meaning workshop or factory).
In Ghosh’s compelling vision, words emerge as aides to love—and to war. We giggle at Mrs. Burnham’s Hindustani-inflected sexual banter, describing her lover’s “bahawder sepoy” as “a lathee always ready to be lagaoed” and informing him that “In India, chartering is what you do with… your jib”. We also wonder at how conflict can result from deliberate misconstruals, even at the level of states: as when Compton accuses inaccurate translators of “twisting the Chinese language in order to make trouble” with the British. Still, when Neel writes of being “besotted with words”, one imagines Ghosh’s own voice, reaching out to readers who might share that particular intoxication.
Not quite a peace pipe
Although the trilogy is named for the Ibis, the schooner on which its disparate cast of characters first come together, the ship plays less of a role in the second and third books. What in fact does unite the books is opium. Opening in the poppy fields of Ghazipur, by the Ganga, the first book offered an arresting account of opium production: how the sap from ripe poppy bulbs was harvested to be made into opium in the East India Company’s factory. The second book described its transportation, and how large a role opium played in financing British rule in India. In Flood of Fire, more layers emerge: we observe an opium auction in Calcutta, discover a trade in opium futures, and learn that Indian sepoys often took a form of opium known as maajun to calm their nerves before battle.
Opium is the intricate web that links these characters: Deeti and Kesri belong to a district where most fields have been opium-growing since they were children; there is Deeti’s addicted first husband, and her discovery of how the opium she harvests for a living can be put to more surreptitious uses. There are Bahram Mody and Benjamin Burnham, whose trade is built on opium exports to China, and Ah Fatt, who smokes it. Opium, finally, is the link that brings Britain, India and China together—or drives them apart—in the First Opium War.
That war forms the climax of Flood of Fire, and much of the book’s second half is taken up with the slow-burn build-up, as merchants, soldiers and ordinary folk prepare themselves for upheaval. One of the reasons why River of Smoke didn’t entirely work was that it felt like a middle, and often a slow, meandering one. Also, despite its vivid descriptions of Fanqui-town and its strange rules (no foreign women, for instance, were allowed in), or the flowering plants that went from Canton to the West, the primary characters – Paulette and her botanist mentor, Bahram and the Co-Hong merchants, and the overly chatty Robin Chinnery – just weren’t that interesting. Or they needed a grander Grand Finale.
Flood of Fire moves much more purposefully. As I said, it is full of uncanny reunions, and the outbreak of war provides a crescendo of sorts (although Ghosh is not the writer to pretend that everything happened in one fell swoop; he plays the war out, with at least some of the tortuous waiting that it actually involves). But the new characters, too, take you along with them. The strongest of these is Kesri Singh, through whose eyes Ghosh offers a fine-grained sense of the life of an East India Company sepoy.
Castes of mind
I cannot begin to describe here the book’s impeccable research (as a snarky friend once said, Amitav Ghosh writes novels for graduate students). But unlike in The Hungry Tide, or River of Smoke, the historical detail never weighs this book down. Let me offer one example: that of caste in the army.
In a superb monologue early on, an army recruiter explains to Kesri’s father that the English, contrary to his anxieties, care “more about the dharma of caste than any of our nawabs and rajas ever did”. Earlier armies, he points out, were routes for caste mobility, but the Angrez are very clear about hiring only Brahmins and Rajputs. “Under the sahib’s guidance every caste will once again become an iron cage,” the recruiter says, and one can only applaud how Ghosh distils years of academic scholarship by the likes of Bernard Cohn into the fictive brilliance of this passage. Later,  a group of Ghazipur-born sepoys decide to act as a caste-panchayat, which is also an informal court martial. And caste is the unspoken reason for sepoys balking at carrying loads.
Why is this important? To anyone who reads the Trilogy—or in fact anyone who’s read In An Antique Land, or The Shadow Lines—it will be clear that for Ghosh, the draw of historical fiction is to create a version of the past in which old shackles are broken, and unexpected connections made. This can lead him to underplay or ignore the ways in which his characters might realistically have behaved with each other. One feels this less in Flood of Fire. Here, when a memsahib recognizes a sepoy, or a Rajput lets an untouchable feed him when sick, the characters are strong enough to make us believe in the uniqueness of their actions. Perhaps because we have seen how stratified their world is, we strive – with Ghosh – for them to forge another.

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