- - Thursday, October 29, 2015



By Amitav Ghosh

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28, 616 pages

Back in the 1980s, Shankur Bajpai, then India’s ambassador in Washington, asked me why, given my interest in his country’s history and literature, I had never visited it. My answer: I was afraid that if I ever dived into India, I might never come out. The place is that fascinating; not for nothing did Nirad Chaudhuri, that brilliant, irascible Bengali man of letters, title a collection of his essays on India, “The Continent of Circe.” For thousands of years, India has intrigued and enticed outsiders, from ancient Aryan invaders to Mogul and British overlords. All of them came, saw and were conquered. Each alien group left its mark, but India transformed its conquerors at least as much as they transformed India.

Consider the English language, one of India’s two official national languages. However mixed the impact of the British Raj was, it produced a vast, highly intelligent native elite fluent in English. This is one of the main reasons that India today is a competitive global player intellectually, commercially, diplomatically and scientifically, all fields in which English is the international language of choice. Educated Indians’ mastery of English has had the same effect in literature, with dozens of talented novelists from the Subcontinent — all writing in English — achieving international acclaim.

Indian input has also enriched the English language. One of my favorite books for dipping into is “Hobson-Jobson,” a dictionary of Anglo-Indian words and phrases, complete with scholarly etymology and running to over a thousand pages. First published in the 1870s at the height of the British Raj, it was happily reprinted in paperback by Wordsworth Editions in 1996. “Hobson-Jobson” traces words we now take for granted in English — “pajamas”, “bungalow” and “jungle” to cite a few familiar examples — to their Indian roots. It also includes thousands of less familiar words that many of us would not recognize today but which were familiar to most Anglo-Indians and educated Victorians when the dictionary first appeared.

A prime example is the word “tamasha” for which there is no one-word English equivalent. A tamasha can be a parade, ceremony or celebration, a lavish banquet or a noisy bust-up — or any crowded, colorful group activity in between. Love for a “burra [big] tamasha” is an enthusiasm shared by Indians high and low. Tamasha is also the ideal word to describe the historical novels of Bengali author Amitav Ghosh.

His latest offering, “Flood of Fire” is the third, and presumably concluding, volume of a series centered around that beautiful but deadly flower, the opium poppy. The previous two volumes, “Sea of Poppies” and “River of Smoke,” were both widely read in America. All three trace the development of the opium trade — producing the drug in India and selling it throughout Asia with China as the biggest market — that laid the foundation for some of the greatest financial fortunes in Britain and led, among other things, to the founding of Hong Kong after the First Opium War. In that war, a small but better trained and technologically superior Anglo-Indian expeditionary force inflicted a humiliating defeat on the giant Chinese Empire.

As is inevitable with the third volume in a trilogy, Mr. Ghosh has to spend a lot of time backing and filling for the benefit of new readers. Those already familiar with his work may find this repetitious and more than a little tedious. But the action involving both the real historical events and a very colorful cast of fictional characters seldom flags. And what a cast of characters it is: an opium-addicted, half-Chinese bastard offspring of a Parsee merchant, the merchant’s spirited widow and her unlikely Armenian knight errant, a callous sepoy (Indian mercenary) officer in the service of the British East India Company who loses a leg but saves his soul, a star-crossed English officer and his doomed lady love, an ambitious, none-too-scrupulous mulatto merchant seaman from Baltimore, to cite only a handful. All are drawn with a mixture of Dickensian humor and Joycean word play. The only downside is the author’s tendency to get a bit preachy from time to time, applying 21st-century attitudes to 19th-century situations — small gusts of hot air in between all of the flood and fire — and a rather clumsy, implausible erotic episode that reads like a bad parody of Victorian “curiosa” crossed with “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.”

But, flaws and all, “Flood of Fire” is still a truly grand tamasha, filled with people and events going through fascinating transitions, many of which helped to shape the global age we live in today, both for better and worse.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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