What happened to our memory of history? How many people presently reading Amitav Ghosh‘s magnificently detailed and peopled trilogy covering the beginnings of the opium industry knew how deeply mired in the filth of coercion, bribery and corruption lay British Capitalism? FIFA is nothing, a mere pinprick compared to this.
Beginning with A Sea of Poppies, which covers the industry from the Indian end, we meet Deeti. She is a young married woman, her husband – partially lamed during combat in some war or other – works in an opium factory packing processed opium for export. Deeti grows and harvests opium, like many other farmers, coerced into the crop by bribery, trickery or desperation.
In the old days, farmers would keep a little of their home-made opium for their families, to be used during illnesses, or at harvests and weddings; the rest they would sell to the local nobility, or to pykari merchants from Patna. Back then, a few clumps of poppy were enough to provide for a household’s needs, leaving a little over, to be sold…
…those toothsome winter crops [wheat,dal,vegetables] were steadily shrinking in acreage: now the factory’s appetite for opium seemed never to be sated. Come the cold weather, the English sahibs would allow little else to be planted; their agents would go from home to home, forcing cash advances on the farmers, making them sign asámi contracts. It was impossible to say no to them: if you refused they would leave their silver hidden in your house, or throw it through a window. It was no use telling the white magistrate that you hadn’t accepted the money and your thumbprint was forged: he earned commissions on the opium and would never let you off.
Eventually there is a turn in Deeti’s fortune and her adventures through the several books begin. It begins with her vision of a ship. The ship exists, it is the Ibis.
The Ibis has sailed from Baltimore, by the time it arrives in India, Zachary Reid is second mate, having joined the ship as ship’s carpenter. This has been a slaving vessel, but once she arrives in India she has been refitted to ship girmitiyas (indentured workers – a euphemism for slaves) to Mauritius and opium destined for China. When she finally sails, on board are several other main characters in this trilogy but I am avoiding plot spoilers here so I will not list them; suffice it to say they comprise the characters that we will meet during the narrative and whose careers (or careerings) we will follow, in River of Smoke and then Flood of Fire.
There is something else that I want to say about this completely engrossing narrative. Amitav Ghosh makes no concessions to the reader’s ignorance of certain vocabulary, there is no glossary but the whole text is littered with “foreign” words and phrases. Here are a few examples: bojha = bundle, munshi = secretary, gomusta = general manager (of home, office or factory). These are picked at random, there are many more and once we arrive in China – more still. Personally, I am glad that there is no way of looking every word up, it makes one concentrate on the sense and then by the second or third reading, you know exactly what is meant. Any one who arrives at the end of the trilogy without a sense of what any of these words means simply hasn’t been paying enough attention.
One of the features that has appeared in the reviews of Flood of Fire, the most recent volume, is an immense admiration for the humour. In spite of the fact that the background to this story is dark, there was nothing remotely romantic or pretty about the trade in opium, especially once it was being traded in China, at the same time Amitav Ghosh gets quite a lot of fun out of the preposterous hypocrisy of the British and Anglo-Indian “aristocracy” in India. There is a perfectly marvellous amount of adultery, of mixed race sex and denial. Mr Seth Bahram, an exceedingly rich (and ruthless) trader, has important family connections in India but also has a liaison, and a son, in China. Another character, Zadig Bey has a family in Egypt but has abandoned them for his second, illegitimate, family. His justification being that his Egyptian family are surrounded by relatives and will be cared for, his illegitimate family will have no such support and will be outcasts.
Mrs Burnham, the English wife of Benjamin Burnham, another trader, being left alone for months at a time eventually falls into the same trap – the scenes between her and her singularly inappropriate lover are quite brilliant: funny, touching and full of the most vivid and ripe euphemisms: “Oh look! I see a helmet! A brave little havildar has climbed up my chest and is raising his head above the nullah, to take a dekko!” I am not going to explain…the episode of cunnilingus later is liberally scattered with bizarre vocabulary, and as for the prophylactic!!! But, at the same time, in case of mistakes in public the two lovers continue to address each other very formally – Mr and Mrs!
If you imagine a figure of eight, made up of stranded cotton with India at the outermost curve on one side and China at the outermost point at the other and Ibis at the crossover, you will get the faintest grasp of the complexity of this historical fiction, the background of which is the Opium Industry.
I believe that the original plan was to cover the story right up to the modern era, but the first three volumes have only got us to the First Opium War (1841), the war dragged on for another eighteen months after the ending of Flood of Fire finally concluding with the Treaty of Nanking (1842) which officially recognised the formal ceding of Hong Kong as a separate trading area open to foreign trade. Amitav Ghosh has admitted that he may not complete this work, but I do earnestly hope that there will be at least one further volume.
There is no glossary, as I said before, but an eye-watering bibliography. This is historical fiction of the best kind – properly researched. If you have not started, please be inspired to start now.