If you have picked up Amitav Ghosh’s latest in the Ibis Trilogy, Flood of Fire, STOP. First revise the first he wrote, Sea of Poppies, then skim through the second, River of Smoke and now you will be ready to read his last and final in the trilogy, Flood of Fire, but remember, you must start from the last, the Epilogue, first.
The enormous research done to write this book will dawn to the reader, only when this is read and absorbed thoroughly. Having said that we are to remember that the full Ibis Trilogy was written from the journal notes, jottings, ‘jack-chits’, pictures, documents that was the collection of the bankrupt landowner we met in Sea of Poppies, Raja Neel Ratan and his son, Raju, during the years that Neel ran a printing press in Shanghai, with his partner, Compton ( Liang Keui – Ch’uan ) in the years 1838 to 1841, years leading up to the first Opium War. In June Neel fled on the Ibis, which resulted in the first book, Sea of Poppies.
Now enter the pages with much hilarity in waiting, for while the Flood of Fire finally is a book that describes the war, it is as much a book of passion and fire of the flesh in the medley mix of characters who make themselves available to the reader, and if one has read the first, then you know them all, but their lust for money and for love is made available in this one, so much that it is hardly possible to leave the book for a minute, after it is in your hands.
Take for example, Mrs Catherine Burnham married to the wealthy unscrupulous British merchant, Benjamin Burnham for his wealth and power, must satisfy her lust for flesh with the young American sailor Zachary Reid, working as a mistery ( carpenter ) on her husband’s budgerow. His passions really were for Paulette Daughty, a young French woman, grown up with a wet-nurse in Kolkata, but instead of finding its end there, Zachary is in the grip of Mrs Burnham and is richly rewarded with forbidden love and sex in the confinement of her boudoir . You must remember her husband has his own afflictions, that being what was revealed to us in Sea Of Poppies, when the poor Paulette was in all her naivety made to spank Benjamin Burnham on his bottoms and scold him in a strange ‘play’ until, Mr Burnham fell on the wooden floor spent and heaving…
Not that only, Mrs Burnham’s unfinished business with Captain Mee, the only man she told Zachary she had ever loved also comes up momentarily but again meets failure because the two main characters, Mrs Burnham and Captain Mee, decide their own future at the end of the book.
Here, Zachary left in the lurch, with a lot of experience and a taste of wealth, pursues his old love, Paulette who is ignorant of the age and maturity of Zachary’s sexual age by now, since she last knew him on the Ibis, is not yet ready to marry Zachary.
Leave that as it may, the other surprise waiting for the reader comes from Mrs Shireen Modie, wife of Bahram Modi, the Parsi Opium trader from Bombay, who finds herself going to China, to meet her husband’s son, Ah Fat, also known as Freddie, when Bahram Modi has passed away under strange circumstances, and of whose ‘other life’ Shireen is not aware, until, Zadig Bey, friend of Bahram Modie informs her about it. The rather protected Shireen with two daughters has suddenly having to wake up to a lot of stuff, her protected life had hidden from her. But in the journey she finally finds her own new life with Zadig Bey, as if to say, that she had moved on, since her husband’s death, albeit with his friend.
There are a few things in this book that are of concern to me. These are of course not to do with his writing style, which is simple and absorbing. But it has to do with his treatment of the characters, who are women in particular.
For instance: Mrs Catherine Burnham. She was bold and no matter how deceitful and cunning, she had made her peace with a young man’s flesh, that being Zachary’s who was at her husband’s service. If Ghosh had deemed it such that her primary passion for Captain Mee would be thwarted early in her life, when both of them were young, then, why was it not possible for him to ensure that the passion continued between the Mistress and her husband’s servant, thereby bringing in a new and fresh angle to this association?
Second, why did he make Shireen Modie marry once again, when she was a wealthy widow, with two daughters and in the face of facts that Parsis in India are known to befriend spinsterhood as bed partners gladly? Also, for the fact that she showed desire to open a hospital in her late husband’s name, with the monies she received, she had a worthwhile cause to fall back upon, than becoming a wife again. She was used to living alone for long period of time, when her husband was alive and out on business.
Last but not the least, the last act of sin, was to have taken the entire family that made up Shireen’s husband’s ‘other life’ in China, extinct.
Ah Fat, are men who write such books that will go down in history as one of the greatest trilogies written in fiction, finally, conservative men?
What reasons have you, Amitabh Ghosh, for the above considerations? Or for that matter, if you were his voice, dear Reader?
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