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Amitav Ghosh, the author of “Flood of Fire”, spoke at the Brooklyn Public Library last Fall. This novel was the last of his Ibis Trilogy about the Opium War. The first novel in the series was “Sea of Poppies” which was short listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Mr. Ghosh read  from the opening in the book, which describes the spectacle of the parade of the full paltan of the Bengal Native Infantry’s 25th Regiment.

“Few were the tamashas that could compare with the spectacle of the Bengal Native Infantry on the march. Every member of the paltan was aware of this- dandia-wallahs, naach-girls, bangy-burdars, syces, mess-consummers, berry-wallahs, bhisties- but none more so than Havildar Kesri Singh, whose face served as the battalion’s figurehead when he rode at the head of the column.”

Most of Mr. Ghosh’s talk involved the culture and history of early 19th Century in India and China, the British East India Company, and a multi-media presentation of Kolkatta (Calcutta), where the author lives when he is not in Goa or Brooklyn. While reading this novel I thought it suitable for a mutli-media electronic version, if it would be commercially viable: background history, culture, and language could be explored as well as the author’s notes and a hyperlinked dictionary of foreign language terms. For epic historical fiction such as this novel, publishers need to push the envelope.

Although about 600 pages, it is a fast read. I was not much of a reader when I was younger and particularly avoided long books. Nonetheless, James Clavell’s novel “Tai-Pan” about the rise of the trading house (Hongs) Jardines Matheson & Co. in Hong Kong altered my mind. There is historical connection between this novel and “Tai-Pan” because the Thirteen Factories in Canton (Guangzhou) during the Qing Dynasty preceded the foreign-owned hongs created in Hong Kong after the First Opium War and the so-called peace treaty of Nanking, where the British forced reopening of the opium trade and the cession of Hong Kong to their Empire. This is the period and historical plot line for “Flood of Fire”. British Imperialism entailed commercial interests- through the East India Company in India and China- directing British foreign policy. The East India Company had its own army in addition to the British army.

In other respects the cultural feel of the novel reminded me of Naguib Mahfouz’s wonderful Cairo Trilogy: “Palace Walk”, “Palace of Desire” and “Sugar Street”. Although the Cairo Trilogy was a generational saga based in Egypt, the characters and description of the venue created the atmospherics that Mr. Ghosh does for India, Britain and China leading up to the First Opium War.

The novel has a traditional format: a cast of limited principal characters whose seemingly divergent plot lines ultimately intertwine. It is fiction, so inevitable connectivity requires a suspension of reality. The main characters are Kesri Singh, a sepoy in the East India Company army of the rank of Halvidar (akin to a non-com, such as a Sergeant) and Captain Mee his British superior officer; Zachary Reid an American sailor who is charged with criminal conduct on the Hind en route to India; Shireen Modi, the widow of a wealthy Indian opium trader who mysteriously dies near Hong Kong after the Chinese seize the opium of traders; and Mr. and Mrs. Burnham, a wealthy British opium trader and his wife. There are a host of other lesser characters and their family relations. There is also romantic interests principally in connection with Mrs. Burnham.With a glossary you will learn a lot about the military organization of the East India Company’s army, as well as Hindi and Chinese language. Some you can interpret from the sentence structure, but others require a dictionary. You can read the novel and understand it without looking the words up. The usage of the language creates the atmosphere, but it can be burdensome at time.

The prose is not exquisite, nor is it intended to be. Mr. Ghosh is a story-teller and he is impart historical fact based on extensive research. It is a worthwhile read.

 

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