The final journey

Lead review

The final journey

This novel brings to life an exciting chapter in history, as it traces the events culminating in the Opium Wars of the 19th century, the British acquisition of Hong Kong, and the rise of British imperialism. This painstakingly researched finale to the monumental Ibis Trilogy extends far beyond dry scholarship. Rich descriptions, memorable characters and exciting action; this novel has it all. Rife with minute linguistic, cultural and military details, this is a fascinating read.

History’s mysterious twists and turns, the ironies, fallacies, tragedies and triumphs, are dramatised through the perspectives of interesting characters. They range from fugitives on the fringes of society, to the super rich movers and shakers of world affairs. Diverse as they are, they are tied by the bond of the Ibis, the slave and opium transporting ship, in which they or their dear ones sailed at some time, and where they shared secrets. Through their stories, we see the interconnectedness of things: of how the British enforced cultivation of opium-yielding poppy in the plains of Bihar can have profound effects in distant China.

Zachary Reid is a young American sailor from Baltimore. The son of a white man and his African slave, Zachary is assumed to be a white man wherever he travels. Compelled to work as a ‘mystery’ or artisan in order to pay off his debts, he has a torrid liaison with his employer, Mrs Burnham. Their affair flourishes under cover of amusing euphemisms and subterfuges. Mrs Burnham gets after Zachary with crusading zeal to cure him of an ‘ailment’ which is considered a normal sexual activity today. Such touches lend comic relief, and prevent the narrative from being weighed down by the gravity of unfolding historical events.

Zachary’s ambitions are fuelled by proximity to the Burnhams’ riches and influence. Following Mr Burnham into the lucrative opium trade seems to be the best way for a talented but poor young man like himself to make a mark in life. His initiation into drug dealing happens in the lanes of Calcutta. “Through the odour of dust and dung he recalled the perfumed scents of Mrs Burnham’s boudoir. So this was the mud in which such luxuries were rooted? The idea was strangely arousing.” By the end of the novel, Zachary evolves from “an ingenuous, good-natured boy,” into a man of the times, who does not know the meaning of ‘enough’. “Anyone who thwarts my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must expect to be treated as such.”

Shireen Modi is the sheltered widow of a prominent Bombay-based merchant and opium trader. Braving social ostracism, she dons western clothing and journeys alone to China to clear her beloved husband’s lost reputation, and claim compensations due to him. She witnesses the war for supremacy in the opium trade in China, and the birth of Hong Kong. On the personal plane, this model Parsi wife learns to overcome her shock upon learning of her husband’s parallel life. She reaches out to her husband’s son by a Chinese woman, and opens herself to a new life and love.

Havildar Kesri, the son of a farmer from Bihar, runs away from home to join the British army, the rising power in India. As he travels to China to fight for his British employers, he realises that “in a lifetime of soldiering he had never known what it was to fight” in the way Chinese soldiers did. “For something that was your own; something that tied you to your fathers and mothers and those who had gone before them, back into the dimness of time. An unnameable grief came upon him then…”

Bankrupted and disgraced by the British whom he once so admired, Raja Neel Rattan Halder resurfaces in China as a fugitive from British injustice. He becomes Ah Neel, the linguist and translator who compiles and assimilates information for the Chinese rulers. His diaries and commentaries add depth and perspective upon the advances of the East India Company into China, and the onset of war. His little son Raju travels all the way from Calcutta to China in search of his father, who is reported to have drowned. Raju’s experiences first as a ‘kid mutt’ or servant to Zachary, and then as a fifer in the British army, lends further depth to the story. 

Ghosh sketches the larger sweep of history, showing the sinister nature of imperialism, and how commerce and the profit motive can be at the root of shaping international policies and war. Battles shape the course of history.

“I suppose this is much how things were in Bengal and Hindustan at the time of the European conquests and even before,” Neel notes in his journals. “The great scholars and functionaries took little interest in the world beyond until suddenly one day it rose up and devoured them.” Baboo Nob Kissin Pander’s observation of the innocent Zachary’s rapid transformation into “a perfect embodiment of the Kali-yuga” is thought-provoking, but lightened by Baboo’s comic speech and persona. Such passages of reflection and commentary are never too long. They are alternated with battle scenes and action in bedrooms and ballrooms, in military barracks and ships. The rich use of various languages and dialects enlivens the story and prevents it from sinking under the weight of scholarship and political commentary.

Flood of Fire
Amitav Ghosh
Penguin
2015, pp 624, Rs 799

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