In 1992, at the age of thirty-six, the Kolkata-born novelist Amitav Ghosh published a sort of breakthrough book that was a mixture of travel writing, investigative reporting, and history. The muskily titled In an Antique Land has as one of its points of departure Fustat in Old Cairo, a place greasy with dust and pollution where, as the narrator tells us, were found “huge quantities of Chinese pottery” and “valuable fragments of Indian textiles.” Ghosh locates this dun-brown wasteland in Egypt’s sprawling capital at the center of medieval global trade routes: attesting to an Indian Ocean world that melded Islam, Confucianism, and Hinduism long before the divisions erected by twentieth-century area studies. Indeed, the Afro-Asian Middle Ages were defined by a rich confusion of accommodating cultures, without the communal partitions wrought by modernism. In this early book, Ghosh was well on his way in a lifelong project of revealing the most exquisite of cultural subtleties: to wit, he would write about institutions of servitude that were far removed from the current definition of slavery, and about Jews who spoke Arabic and were influenced by Sufism, all in a universe of flexible, paper-thin hierarchies. In unraveling this Indian Ocean world of the Middle Ages—and later of the nineteenth century—Ghosh has shown us again and again where globalization might be headed, given a few more decades.

In much of this, Ghosh’s preoccupation has been less with aristocrats than with traders. It is a healthy preoccupation, since it allows him to rescue seemingly unremarkable individuals from the anonymity of history. It makes him an obscurantist in the best possible way. For example, there is his story of a merchant on a caravan traveling from Upper Egypt to the Red Sea in Sudan in 1183, as manifested through the surviving notes that the man took. Ghosh’s worldview is akin to that of another contemporary Indian Ocean novelist, Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in 1948 in Zanzibar, who allows one of his characters to declare: “This is what we’re on this earth to do. To trade.” Trade, not ideology, not revolution, not politics even, is what normal men do, in other words. And trade, even when it is nefarious as in the opium business, is the throbbing engine that motivates many of Ghosh’s plot lines.

Ghosh is a traveler and social anthropologist who can listen for hours to people’s stories and piece together the minutiae of their lives—lives lying behind a screen of exotic mystery that has for too long distorted the reality of the Orient. He is guilty neither of orientalism nor—despite his implicit and explicit criticisms of European imperialism—of gratuitously bashing the West. Ghosh’s art is a diatribe-free zone.

Ghosh’s craftsmanship reaches an apex in his epic Ibis trilogy, about an old slave ship and its crew plying the Indian Ocean to play a role in China’s nineteenth-century Opium Wars. The first volume, Sea of Poppies, was published in 2008, and the second, River of Smoke, in 2011.

These two volumes are typical of Ghosh: he paints a heterogeneous cast of individuals—a convict, an orphan, a widowed poppy grower, a horticulturist, an opium trader, among many other characters—all deliciously sketched as if in oily brushstrokes against a geopolitical panorama focusing on the commercial links between India and China during the unraveling of one of the last great chapters of European colonialism. Again, no lectures, for in the second volume the reader finds himself frantically sympathizing with a money-is-everything opium trader and his awful fate.

Ghosh shows us geopolitics not from the vantage point of generals and strategists, but from that of impossible-to-stereotype individuals desperately adapting and thrashing about in historical currents. And there is both the travel writer and set-director about him. Ghosh’s Canton, with its noisy backstreets, “vast honeycomb” of shanties and godowns, and foreign enclave with their mahogany-paneled, porcelain-cluttered “factories,” evinces both the banging clash and artful confluence of civilizations.

Yet the first two volumes were also atypical of the author in their very scope and ambition. It is a wider canvas and yet so much more textured than his previous works, particularly in the way he compresses time (and centuries, even) through the brilliant use of rare dialects and local terminology. Whereas The Glass Palace, his sweeping Bay of Bengal saga, published in 2000 about the Indian middleman minority in British Burma, was mainly cinematic, the first two volumes of the Ibis trilogy go further in the way of a complex plot and elaborate nuances of characterization: it’s like dipping into an Asian War and Peace and occasionally discovering the circuitous intricacies of Henry James. To say you’re hooked on a writer is not necessarily a compliment, since in many cases it indicates an escape from serious thinking. But Ghosh is one of the relatively few novelists who should be required reading for contemporary Asian area studies.

The third volume of the Ibis trilogy, Flood of Fire, is bigger in size and with many more plot mechanics, crowding out the Jamesian character subtleties, yet with the same delicious landscapes that resemble a “scroll-painting.” And, as with the first two volumes, Flood of Fire is a catalogue of all the superstitions, narrow-mindedness, cruelties, eroticism, and heartrending love that allow the reader inside the past in a way that most conventional historians—or old photographs even—cannot match.

Flood of Fire is the most political of the three books, and it is clear from the narrative that Ghosh is no fan of empire, even as he is impressed at times with the way it functioned. But he is simply too fine a novelist to say that outright. Instead, he provides a singular, frankly objective dissection of the British imperial system and how it actually worked.

While the opium trade seems altogether noxious according to our own contemporary sensibilities, in the eyes of the British in 1840, as the author explains, the trade would, it was hoped, allow for a new, more efficient pattern of war-making that would, in turn, combine business and military affairs, opening the immense market of China to the world. “It was misguided, even sinful . . . of the Chinese government to cite the public good in opposing the free flow of opium,” says one of the author’s characters. “The truth was that the best—indeed the only—way that the public good could be arrived at was to allow all men to pursue their own interests as dictated by their judgment. This was why God endowed Man with the faculty of reason . . .” Of course, this may be sophistry in order to justify the strong (imperial Britain) dominating the weak (a tottering imperial China), though the author is careful to point out that such were not universally held views among the British, as even some of their own soldiers were against the dirty businessof drug-dealing. What makes his commentary of the drug trade all the more powerful is that he situates it amid all the other horrors, heroism, faux idealism, and drudgery of empire, as seen from the perspective of both British opium traders and Indian sepoys and havildars (sergeants).

Objectivity abounds. On one page, one of Ghosh’s characters observes: “it is true that many people have become rich by helping the British. . . . And there are others [in Bengal] who are happy to have them just because they have brought peace and security.” Yet, on the next page a character relates the insulting manner of British non-commissioned officers towards the natives.

Concerning the British East India Company, as rapacious as it was, for Indian recruits it offered a world of professionalism and material benefits unavailable elsewhere at the time. There was extra dispensation “for marching and another for campaign rations; still another for uniforms.” As for battle booty, “the splitting of the spoils was always scrupulously fair.” There were also pensions and land grants for retiring troops. Concerning the weaponry, the English sword was meant for impaling with the tip and not for cutting with the edge, so that East India Company troops could advance shoulder to shoulder without endangering each other at the start of battle. This was merely one detail in an ingenious system of technique, hierarchy, and loyalties. Indeed, great civilizations, as Ghosh intimates, make war well, since war requires mastery of technology, complexity of coordination, the utmost precision, as well as self-confidence and tactical creativity. Thus, “a battle was a distillation of time: years and years of preparation, decades of innovation and change were squeezed into a clash of very short duration,” radiating forwards through the decades so that the fate of millions could be determined by a small number of men in the span of a few hours or minutes. “Nothing could be a greater injustice, yet such had been the reality ever since human beings first walked the earth.” Art requires not just empathy but cold-blooded analysis: that is, intelligence. Ghosh, unlike so many in the fiction business these days, does not fail in this regard.

The Company was not only a war-making machine but a profit-making one. The opium business required a meticulous system of agents, loans, and crop management. It was cunningly exploitative. Unfortunately for the farmer, “there were so many middlemen—sudder mahtoes, gayn mahtoes, pykars, gomustas—to be paid off that he often ended up earning less than he had spent on his poppy crop. The Company on the other hand would earn eight to ten times the cost-price. . . .” From the point of view of many of the novel’s characters, not only the British ones, opium was not a vice, but a legitimate commodity from which careers were made. It meant wealth, and more. “By the time the last lot of opium was sold Zachary . . . felt drained; no less spent than he was after a bout of love-making.” There is, too, the author’s darkly sensuous description of smoking “the flaming pellet” itself, whose “consistency was almost that of a liquid, dense, oily and intensely perfumed; it poured into his body like a flood, coursing through his veins and swamping his head.”

Ghosh’s trilogy from beginning to end is built on research. A budgerow (houseboat) in Calcutta is minutely described with all its head-works, stem-cheeks, gammonings, hawse-timbers, knightheads, and bobstay pieces. The hardships of sepoys and havildars are described down to the mud that had caked “into a second layer of skin” between their toes. Few tricks, moreover, are as difficult for a novelist to pull off—even as the result must appear effortless—than bedroom scenes. Ghosh succeeds grandly—and comically—in demonstrating the increasing emotional texture of a rather kinky relationship between a poor young sailor and an older, voluptuous society woman.

Ghosh’s completed trilogy couldn’t be more timely. The collapse of distance wrought by early–twenty-first-century weaponry has created a new and unprecedented strategic geography encompassing India and China, as Indian warships prowl the South China Sea, Indian missiles can hit Chinese cities, and Chinese fighter jets based in Tibet can include India in their arc of operations. Yet, for most of history India and China have had relatively little to do with each other, separated as they are by the high wall of the Himalayas. The maritime opium trade, in addition to the spread of Buddhism in middle antiquity, represents an exception to this rule, bringing as it did Indian-grown opium to Chinese markets via the Bay of Bengal and South China Sea. Thus, the Ibis trilogy places India and China together on one rather incestuous canvas. It is a canvas that now embodies the centerpiece of American strategy, which is about getting India and China right: to wit, using India to balance against a militarily rising China, even as we attempt to fit them both inside a unified Asian security system. Any work of art or strategy that advances the primacy of India and China in our thinking is a help, therefore. This is a remarkably hard task, made, perhaps, just a bit easier by inculcating a rich historical perspective among our diplomats and other officials of the kind that Ghosh offers.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 10, on page 81
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