Amitav Ghosh is a difficult writer to follow. Not because his fiction is a sneaky lesson in history. Or because he is unapologetically “literary”. Not even because he couldn’t care less about pandering to the market.

He is a difficult writer to follow because he will first give you a perfectly crafted book and make you fall in love with his characters, foibles and all. Then, he will make you wait forever to see where the cast, the story, the conflict are all going. After a seemingly interminable wait of seven years, the last part of his Ibis trilogy – Flood of Fire – is finally out. And it is unputdownable.

Plotting the territory

The settings of Ghosh’s books are always evocative. So, while he takes us through poppy fields in Bihar and to Deeti’s cave in Mauritius in the first two books, here he swerves right into action mode with a description of the pomp and tamasha that was the Bengal Native Infantry in Assam.

The point of view is that of Havildar Kesri Singh, Deeti’s brother (only mentioned in passing so far) an NCO in the British army. As the story progresses, it is with a deep sense of comfort that the reader discovers characters from the earlier books. There is Zachary Reid, making his way ahead in life, getting progressively whiter; Neel Rattan Haldar, still stationed in China, and our primary, if mostly epistolary, link to happenings in the country; Jodu and Ah Fatt, and as a neat little surprise package, the almost shadowy wives in the earlier books, who come into their own and leave a significant impact on the plot.

Flood of Fire is essentially a narrative of war. As Ghosh has said in one of his introductions to the book, it tells of “a war that has disappeared into the farthest recesses of memory.” While the author traces the exact course of the battles that constituted the First Opium War (1840-42), he also establishes a direct link between the destinies of India and China, entwined by the forces of capitalism (“Free Trade” as Mr Burnham insists) sweeping over them and the resultant exploitation and destruction of their native economies and to some extent, cultures.

Like Kesri Singh, all readers of Ghosh’s history-telling are forced to wonder: “So much death; so much destruction – and that too visited upon a people who had neither attacked nor harmed the men who were so intent on engulfing them in this flood of fire. What was the meaning of it? What was it for?” Striking an almost philosophical note, Baboo Nob Kissin, another returning character, goes on to link this capitalistic greed with pralaya, the end of the world. And we watch in fascinated horror as an ancient civilisation is brought to its knees.

Subaltern histories

A brilliantly incisive historical tool that Ghosh uses in this particular novel is the exposition of the subaltern narrative. Flood of Fire tells the stories of those on the fringes – the sepoys, the small-time traders, the opium addicts, the scribes – those witnesses to history who are largely ignored when it comes to official accounts. Approximately 400 soldiers from the Bengal Infantry crossed the seas to fight the war in China. In passages like this one, extracted from a sepoy’s letter home, Ghosh lays bare the condition of Indian soldiers fighting in hostile conditions for the barest of rewards:

“We are going to a place that is very far. We know nothing about it. If I do not return I want to make sure that my field with the mango tree goes to my brother Fateh Singh. It saddens me that I have not fulfilled all my obligations to my family. For that reason alone will I regret my death.”

Feminist appeal

Another (and perhaps my favourite) aspect of the novel is its quiet feminism. Without making a big deal of it, Ghosh gives us the gift of two strong, iconoclastic characters, both introduced in earlier books as wives, languishing in the background.

Shireen Modi and Catherine Burnham acquire not just a voice but a past in the case of one, and a future in that of the other. What begins as a jarringly realistic picture of repressed Victorian sexuality (making a clever reference to the period’s irresponsible diagnosis of “hysteria” in women) morphs into a married woman’s dissenting step out of her dissatisfying marriage and towards the pursuit of pleasure.

That it meets a Maggie Tulliver-like end is to be blamed on narrative convention, perhaps. Sadly, Ghosh doesn’t allow us any entry into Deeti’s life/mindscape. And without generating any spoilers, let me also affirm that he does give Paulette’s story a sort of dénouement, letting her embrace the independence she had always craved.

The end

Of all the Ibis books, Flood of Fire is perhaps the most dramatic. It has it all – deaths, the supernatural, romance, good old bawdiness, escapes, battle scenes, reunions, heroes turning dark, revenge, transformations, redemptive arcs, what have you. If you loved Sea of Poppies but could work up only lukewarm affection for River of Smoke (as I did, I must confess), Ghosh will carry you back to the beginning with this wonderful tale that, like the Ibis, changes courses, deflects and digresses, charges through choppy waters and at the end, leaves you with the sense of an adventure just beginning.

Flood of Fire, Amitav Ghosh, Penguin India, Rs 799.