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The Beginning of the Poppy Wars: Amitav Ghosh’s “Flood of Fire”

Flood of Fire—the third and final volume of Amitav Ghosh’s dazzling account of British India’s opium smuggling in China—concludes with the end of the first opium war in 1841 when the British will solidify their footprint on several of the islands off the Chinese coast, namely Hong Kong and Macau. The earlier volumes (Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke) focused on the processing of opium in East India and the ethical issues of addicting a significant sub-group of Chinese to opium, after the substance was outlawed in both Britain and India. The cast of characters was extensive (British, Indian, Chinese, and American), and the children of the intermingling of these differing ethnicities was problematic, replicating a Dickensian ploy of misidentity, of wayward children seeking recognition by their fathers, and the attendant prejudice many of these illegitimate children found themselves confronting. At the conclusion of my review of the first two novels (“Before the Opium Wars,” CounterPunch, Oct. 7, 2011), I bemoaned the delay that would be necessary before the third volume would be published.

That day has finally arrived with mixed blessings. If you’ve already read the first two volumes, you will no doubt have to refresh your memory about the early activities of Ghosh’s characters, mostly on a ship known as the Ibis. The vessel is nowhere in sight at the beginning of Flood of Fire, though various characters from those novels are readying their return to China, anticipating a brush-up with the Chinese because of the Emperor’s recent banning of opium, confiscation of ship loads of opium, and the destruction of it. The British and their Indian sepoys who will undertake most of the fighting are determined to reopen China for the extremely lucrative opium market and seek compensation for all the opium that was destroyed. So it’s about profits, as usual, which it always is. When was it ever any different?

Much of the early part of the novel focuses on Zachary Reid, a young man from Baltimore, who was earlier on the Ibis, and because of a series of mishaps finds himself working for Benjamin Burnham, a rich opium-trader, in Calcutta, restoring one of the businessman’s houseboats. floodfireZachary lusts after a woman with whom he had an earlier relationship, spending much of each day masturbating. With her husband away, Mrs. Burnham develops an attraction to Zachary, and rightly understanding the younger man’s sexual urges, begins confusing him with pamphlets she insists he must read. (One such title: Onanism, or a Treatise on the Diseases Produced by Masturbation: or, the Dangerous Effects of Secret and Excessive Venery.) In the absolutely hilarious events that follow, Mrs. Burnham seduces Zachary, telling him that he is wasting his vital juices, which can easily be directed at a willing female instead of his hands. These scenes continue—perhaps too long—with Victorian terminology for various sexual acts, as well as comic overtones. Shades of The Autobiography of a Flea or Fanny Hill.

Zachary will eventually be hired by Burnham, as the supercargo on the Hind that will carry the financier’s chests of opium to China on the assumption that British troops will be able to restore the opium trade. On that ship will be two other main characters: Havildar Kesri Singh, one of the leaders of the Indian battalion, and Shireen Modi, whose husband lost everything when the Emperor confiscated the earlier ships of opium. Bahram was killed but Shireen discovers that her husband had a son from a liaison with a Chinese woman. Since she and Bahram only had girls, she intends to seek out her deceased husband’s half-caste son—and, possibly, benefit from any compensation that may eventually be provided by the Chinese government, should the British prevail. Kesri is also drawn to the voyage on the Hind because of family matters. The resumption of the opium trade is the objective of all of these characters and others on The Hind and the additional ships that will also make the voyage to China.

Ghosh’s plotting relies on dozens of cliffhangers as he juggles the various stories and sub-stories of his very complex plot. (Again, impressive shades of Charles Dickens’). If nothing else, the book is a page-turner. But there is much else, including the mishmash of various idioms (British and Indian especially) but also of rank and class. In short, the dialogue is a constant delight, especially that of speakers with the most incredible names. For example, this random paragraph: “Baboo Nob Kissin clasped his hands together, in an attitude of prayer. ‘Do not worry, Master Zikri—if you channelize energies and indulge in due diligence, you will excel in this trade. You will even surpass Mr Burnham. For thirty years I have done gomustagiri—all the know-hows are in my pocket. I will intimate everything to you. If you burn the candle and by-heart all my teachings then you will quickly achieve success. Must exert to win, no?’’

Of course, the British win, defeating the Emperor’s forces, and reestablishing the lucrative opium trade in China. But this is achieved not so much by British force as the huge number of Indians who fight for them, even though in scene after scene the British scream out racial slurs at the very men who make the endeavor (and its result) possible. The novel, then, circles around the very curious relationship between the British and their Indian subjects. How could so few British subdue the millions and millions of Indians for so long? Was this possible in part because both countries had rigid class systems? And, as a variation on that, consider Ghosh’s observation in the Epilogue to his novel: “So it was the Chinese who had to pay [in huge compensation] for the catastrophe that had befallen their country.” You conquer a people and you make them pay for it.

Clearly, Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire are all of a piece. They need to be read, quickly, one after the other. Fortunately, that is now a possibility. You will not be disappointed.

Amitav Ghosh: Flood of Fire

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 624 pp., $27

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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