I have read several trilogies but with almost all of their later versions in the series I got the feeling that the narrative had run out of steam, that there was hardly a second or a third installment and one was made only to capitalize on the success of the earlier books. Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire, the third and final book in the Ibis trilogy, which started about seven to eight years back with Sea of Poppies, never made me feel the same way.
The first two books in the series deal with the period leading to the Opium War and the third one – Flood of Fire – with the war. The Chinese authorities alarmed at the damage opium has caused to the youth of the country has decided to stamp out the British merchants dealing in opium from its shores little knowing that about a year or two later the merchants will manage to get the British government to invade China to force opium back on the Middle Kingdom.
And when the invasion comes the Chinese find themselves ill prepared to face the might of British attack. The period leading to the onset of war is revealing in many ways. The man responsible for upsetting the apple cart of opium trade, Commissioner Lin, an upright and incorruptible high official sent in by the Chinese authorities to deal with the menace of opium, is abruptly removed from his position under fabricated charges of foul play and replaced by his deputy, a pliable man, who is also awarded the responsibility to conduct an inquiry into Commissioner Lin’s wrong doing.
What a humiliation! But what is the actual reason for Commissioner Lin’s ouster? The British opium merchants had petitioned the local Emperor that Mr Lin had been obstructing free trade (by preventing them from carrying on their opium trade). Defense of free trade, free will, God's will etc are the ruses used by the British to justify the campaign of war. This is the larger point behind Ghosh’s trilogy: unsavory means imperialism uses for its sustenance and expansion.
Ghosh had turned down the Common Wealth Prize because, as he later said in an interview, it’s a commemoration of the Empire. Ghosh is one of those writers whose subjects change but the central muse remains the same. Take any of his works, and you can trace it back to the effects of imperialism, which includes his latest nonfiction offering – The Great Derangement – where he has blamed imperialism (or its less extreme version capitalism) for the environmental challenges we are faced with.
Despite this larger theme in the background, however, Ghosh has dealt with his character and events with an ideological detachment, just narrating the events as a raconteur avoiding getting self-righteous about anything. As a result, the opium merchants come across not as evil souls but men of their times using a business opportunity.
Almost all significant characters have been carried forward from the second installment – River of Smoke – and some are a continuity of the first. Ghosh has brought them and their related sub plots (and there are many of them) to conclusive end in Flood of Fire. In doing so, however, he has sometimes tried too hard, reading a little contrived in the process.
He has put three important characters to death because their prospects beyond the plot were not too bright or clear. He has made two characters - who had existed in the second version but hadn’t met - fall in love and marry because there was no other visible possibility arising out of their meeting. Many characters which had been given a short shrift in the first and second installments have found sizable space in Flood of Fire.
But that hardly takes away from Ghosh’s strength of characterization. In fact, Ghosh has established his characters with his readers so well that it took me only one or two introductory sentences to recall them upon their first appearance in this edition.
Neel a scion of a feudal family who started off as a debauch in Sea of Poppies and is arrested for being a defaulter goes through a range of experiences in China where he had ended up after fleeing the ship – the Ibis – which was transporting him to Mauritius to be an indentured laborer – completely redeems himself. Zachary a poor but personable American sailor, in the first book, becomes a wealthy businessman in the last. Aaa Fatt an opium addict and a love child of a successful opium merchant gets killed by a mafia don who had started looking for him in River of Smoke – the second book in the trilogy - to avenge the fact that Aaa Fatt had seduced his lover. And like them there are other characters too whose lives are transformed in the course of the trilogy.
Flood of Fire is not bad but the second one of the pack – River of Smoke – is the best of the three books, with its unhurried and intricate narrative without any attempt to be a thriller.