Amitav Ghosh, “Flood of Fire” (2015) – The “Ibis” trilogy concludes with the end of the first Opium War. The series had lingered on Calcutta and Canton, two important sites of their era of globalization, and ends with the creation of a third, colonial Hong Kong. There were three main viewpoint characters in this outing. Shireen Modi is the wife of a Parsi opium merchant who died in Canton under mysterious circumstances. Kesri Singh is a proud sepoy (and relative of some of the characters in the earlier books) sent out to fight in the war. Zachary Reed is a part (and secretly) black American sailor who decides to get into the opium business. Their ultimate fates can be seen as representing three different responses to the massive forces in which they and everybody else were/are swept up. Shireen goes the path of cultural mestizage when she married an Armenian merchant; Kesri goes for escape when his unit is accused of crimes a white British unit did, fleeing for Mauritius and pastures new. Most disturbing is Zachary, who spent the previous two books as a basically relatable character, whose descent into the amorality of the opium trade and of capitalism more generally leads him to become an avatar of the “kali yuga” or age of waste of Hindu mythology.
There’s a lot of loose ends by the close of the book, most of them intentional. There’s some head scratchers- like I could have sworn Karabedian, Shireen’s Armenian beau and friend of her late husband, already had two families, one in Cairo and one in Colombo. Surely that should have come up somewhere? Or is that just a surprise for Shireen to find out about? Similarly, Zachary’s descent sometimes seems a little hasty, but I guess the combination of dashed love (he had a bad affair with a memsahib) and the opium trade will do that. All in all, the Ibis trilogy is more than the sum of its parts. The immersion in another world it provides — one with many parallels to our own — and its compassionate understanding of a vast swath of human reactions to the inhuman forces that move us all overcome whatever minor quibbles I can make. The series is well worth the investment in time they take. *****