Amitav Ghosh’s The Ibis Trilogy (2008; 2011; 2015)

Can you be trusted to finish a series? My track record with them is spotty, at best. But I’m working hard to improve my reputation. This year, I started and finished reading Amitav Ghosh’s trilogy, each volume over 500 pages (but the page-turning sort of pages). Hopefully the other series are gaining confidence in me as a reader, but I’ve got years of “making-up” to do.

In Sea of Poppies (2008), readers first meet Deeti, who lives on the outskirts of Ghazipur, fifty miles east of Benares. She keeps house and assists with the poppy crop, while her husband works in Ghazipur’s opium factory.

“The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny, for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast?

The ship which appears in her vision is the Ibis, on which Zachary Reid is travelling, his first sea voyage, to India in 1838. Zachary was eager to try sailing, having worked for eight years in the Baltimore shipyards, and the Ibis has a new English owner, who is eager to refurbish the old slave transport vessel for use in the opium trade. (Slavery has been abolished and the Ibis is not a fast enough runner to escape the boats which patrol to enforce the legislation.)

Zachary has remarkable opportunities in this new owner’s rush to assemble a skeleton crew. Shorthanded and troubled, the crew flounders and Zachary moves quickly through the ranks, even more easily when the ship reaches its destination where it is forgotten that Zachary was registered ‘black’ on the manifest, for here he possesses a skin colour light enough to command some authority.

This is the kind of story which truly unfolds. It feels simultaneously old-fashioned (in sentence structure and time period) but contemporary (in its use of humour and scenic displays).

Not only do readers experience life on-board but we have glimpses, also, of life in prison, on a colonial estate, on the waterfront, and in an opium factory.

Although Deeti and Zachary play significant roles throughout the novel, other characters move into the heart of the narrative as well. Including the man who will eventually construct the glossary which is included as the back of the novel.

How fitting, for language plays a crucial role in drawing readers into Sea of Poppies. The glossary is ostensibly assembled from scraps of paper accumulated over a man’s lifelong curiosity about words.

The glossary is not necessary for readers to enjoy the story, but it does offer another opportunity for insight, not only into this man’s character but also in terms of the novel’s preoccupations. In the most obvious sense, in a quest for understanding (between individuals, between cultures):

“To set sail is to find oneself foundering not just in a new element, but also in an unknown ocean of words. When one listens to the speech of sailors, no matter whether they be speaking English or Hind. one is always at sea: not for nothing is the English argot of sail known as a ‘sea-language’, for it has long slipped its moorings from the English one learns in books.”

The definitions frequently include explanations of caste and social status, both on- and off-ship. Sometimes the definition is more about the character than the word’s etymology. For instance, the definition of ‘sahib’, which also reveals the novel’s preoccupation with class and status:

Sahib – This word was a source of bafflement to Neel: ‘How did it happen that the Arabic for ‘friend’ became, in Hind. and English, a word meaning ‘master’? The question was answered by a grandson who had visited the Society Union; on the margins of Neel’s note he scribbled: ‘Sahib’ was to the Raj what ‘comrade’ is to Communists – a mask for mastery.

Language continues to play an important role in the trilogy’s second volume, River of Smoke (2011). And not only because of the ways in which it supports the underlying themes of exploitation and profit. “Really, there was no language like English for turning lies into legalisms.”

Even though there is no glossary in this volume, one of the secondary characters from the first volume moves to the heart of the action now, because of a remarkable ability to communicate. This leads to administrative work which affords readers an inside-scoop, inviting them into corners of the story which would, otherwise, remain unobserved.

The character’s “job was further complicated by the Seth’s habits of dictation: he always composed on his feet and his restless pacing seemed to add to the turbulence of his words, which often came pouring out in braided torrents of speech, each rushing stream being silted with the sediment of many tongues – Gujarati, Hindusthani, English, pidgin, Cantonese.”

This gives a hint of the continued richness of the story’s setting, which moves from India to China. An outline of the plot could suggest that the action here is land-based, but that’s not accurate either.

“In a way, Fanqui-town is like a ship at sea, with hundreds – no, thousands – of men living crammed together in a little sliver of a space. I do believe there is no place like it on earth so small and yet so varied, where people from the far corners of the earth must live, elbow to elbow, for six months of the year. […] threshold of the last and greatest of all the world’s caravanserais.”

Here, again, we gather in a confined space and matters of legality impact business decisions for several main characters, some new and some familiar. What is certainly familiar is the continuing controversy surrounding the production and sale of opium, which the Chinese government has vehemently prohibited and which the colonial powers are determined to continue distributing, legally or otherwise.

In the third volume, Flood of Fire (2015), the parallels between an outlawed-but-still-ongoing slave trade and an outlawed-but-still-ongoing opium trade are undeniable. Despite its firm rooting in 1839-1841, the ideas and preoccupations of this trilogy are startlingly contemporary. And, throughout, the themes of language and status, passion and ambition are also ongoing.

“Thinking about this I realized that I too would protest if Sanskrit or Bangla words like yavana or joban were translated as ‘barbarian’. I think that Compton is right when he says that the reason the English use this word is because it is they who think of us as ‘barbarians’. They want war, so they are looking for excuses and even a word will do.”

The kaleidoscope of voices is every bit as rich and varied in this volume. Even without a glossary, readers can situate themselves easily and find the exchanges as fascinating as young Raju (a recurring character, although one you might have expected to meet again):

“The banjee-boys were a high-spirited lot; to Raju even their quarrels were interesting – not least because of the way they spoke. Their argot was like some brightly coloured kedgeree, studded with nuts and raisins, but also filled with grit: chummy expressions like ‘yaar’ and ‘men’ rolled off their tongues almost as often as swear words like ‘bahenchod’ and ‘chootiya’; ‘motherfucker’ and ‘arse-hole’.”

In this volume, there are (once more) two significant female characters and their roles change, too, in unexpected ways: “The very textures and colours of the world around her seemed to change and things that had been of little concern to her before – like business, finance and politics – suddenly seemed to be of absorbing interest. It was as if a gale had parted the purdahs that curtained her world, blowing away many decades’ worth of dust and cobwebs.”

Amitav Ghosh’s female characters are as fully realized as his males and the cast truly feels like an ensemble; even the selfish and ornery characters are credible and complex, but the overarching sense is of compassion, and this is reflected in the resolutions offered as well. Some of the characters’ roles and positions, motivations and inclinations, alter substantially throughout, so it makes a very satisfying read over a few months, over a time span in which one can feel immersed in that world; however, having said that, I wonder if the books wouldn’t satisfy on an individual basis as well, so rich is the storytelling therein.

Have you read any of these, or any of Amitav Ghosh’s other novels? Or, are they on your TBR?

2018-06-20T18:00:48+00:00

17 Comments

  1. Kat July 10, 2018 at 11:01 pm - Reply

    I love Ghosh! I was rooting for him when he was a finalist for the Booker and he didn’t win, alas. One of my favorites is The Hungry Tide (hope I have the title right) but The Glass Palace seems to be the favorite here.

    • Buried In Print July 11, 2018 at 12:29 pm - Reply

      That’s good to know; it might be a publishing quirk that The Glass Palace was more readily available than the earlier title? Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Helen July 1, 2018 at 3:11 pm - Reply

    I read this trilogy a few years ago and enjoyed all three books. I loved the richness of the language and the diversity of the characters. These are still the only books I have read by Amitav Ghosh, but I do want to read more.

    • Buried In Print July 10, 2018 at 4:53 pm - Reply

      It sounds like The Glass Palace would be a good choice, but I also want to look into some of the others, seeing how many of them exist.

  3. The Reading Life June 29, 2018 at 11:17 pm - Reply

    A few years ago I read, really liked and posted upon the first two installments of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, The Sea of Poppies and The River of Smoke. The final book in the trilogy Flood of Fire came out earlier this year. I want to read it for sure but I will wait until the price drops from $14.95, which is too high for an E Book of a novel.

    I did not really have any plans concerning reading more of the works of Ghosh until I received notice that his set in Burma historical novel, The Glass Palace, covering the period around 1890 to 1990 was temporarily marked down from $11.95 to $1.95. I like historical fiction set in South and South East Asia and I felt this would be a good book so I acquired it. I was right. It certainly was.

    The book reminded me of the just published masterwork by Anne Proux, Barkskin in that it is very much about the logging industry, in this case Burmese teak, and is a multi-generational family saga. As the story opens, our lead character is a deck hand on a riverboat. The boat is badly damaged and the young man, maybe fiveteen, is told to go ashore and find work for the thirty days it takes to repair the boat. He is an Indian, looked down upon by many Burmese and is directed to a food shop of an Indian lady who hires him and gives him a place to live. He decides to stay on and he meets a man who will change his life and play a big role in his future. He will become the father he never had.

    There is a lot of very interesting material in The Glass Palace about the teak logging industry. In one fascinating and quite gruesome section we learn how anthrax impacts and ultimately kills elephants. Moving the huge logs down river is hard dangerous work.

    We learn a good bit about the Burmese royal family, displaced by the British and sent into exhile in India when the British take over.

    India soldiers serving in the British army play a big role in the story. Indians see this as a mark of family honor but the Burmese see them as contemible slaves set to be kill for the English.

    There are a lot of personal entanglements and romances in the novel, sometimes they worked, sometimes they did not.

    The segments involving war against the Japanese were very exciting.

    • Buried In Print July 10, 2018 at 4:49 pm - Reply

      The Glass Palace sounds like a great match for me, too, and I see that Ali also recommends that one. Thanks for outlining so many aspects of the story without any spoilers!

      I like the way he examines systems, which brings to mind David Simon, the film storyteller (“The Wire”, etc.), who also views systems (thriving and dysfunctional) through webs of characters to whom you become attached at the individual level. I wouldn’t have thought I’d find incarceration or the opium trade of interest, but it turns out that I do, when I begin to see how all their moving parts connect with other aspects of social interactions and political change, so I can assume I’d find the teak industry interesting too, just as you have!

      It’s interesting that there seems to be another water-soaked element to this other narrative; I think of those regions of the world being very land-focussed, but Ghosh’s stories seem to be filled with fluidity.

      Something else that seems to interest him is the idea of synchronicity, the way in which one key connection or relationship can make/break fortunes, and while some of his characters are obviously ambitious (and some inherently privileged, even if that state does not persist throughout the story), many of them are just hard-workers, with integrity and determination. That appeals to me too.

      I appreciate the warning about the grim section of the elephants’ story; I won’t let this deter me from reading, but it’s good to be somewhat prepared for the difficult reading. (Some of the fight scenes and other grisly bits in the trilogy were disturbing too, but, as you say, he can make things very exciting and you remain engrossed in the story despite some bloody bits.)

      His ideas about romance suit me; it seems as though he does not believe that there is a happy-ending for every romance-seeking person (which would stretch credibility) but that he tries, as an author, to settle people, so that they have a resolution which fits, even if it’s not entirely happy (alongside SOMEthing happy for SOMEone!).

  4. roughghosts June 27, 2018 at 7:46 pm - Reply

    I have heard so much positive feedback about this author and, as you know, I have a fondness for India. When I was riding the ferries in Calcutta, my friend suggested that the opening of the first book would be of particular interest due to the setting. But size is a factor. At some point I hope to pick up the first one and see where it goes from there. I don’t feel obligated to complete a trilogy if I don’t want to, or to let it stretch out. After all, the books came out over a number of years.

    • Buried In Print July 10, 2018 at 3:40 pm - Reply

      If you’d asked me at the beginning of the year if I was really going to read all three this year, I probably would have sounded pretty committed but as those projects unfold I tend to get distracted by other reading; I’m really surprised that I finished them in such quick succession (given that I’ve always got so many in my “current” stack at one time, which means the biggest ones move very slowly). So I do agree with others who have said that they are not the typical chunky read. After the first two chapters, I was returning out of sheer pleasure, regardless of how awkward it was to read at night/on the go. Given your recent travels, I’m sure you would find a different kind of pleasure there and find this way of absorbing the history rather inspiring as the writing style seems in contrast to your own.

  5. Naomi June 27, 2018 at 10:12 am - Reply

    As you know, I tend to avoid series – put together, I find the length overwhelming. However, there are some that sound worth it, and I love the sound of the time and setting in these.
    Did you go into these without having read any of his other books?

    • Buried In Print June 27, 2018 at 11:34 am - Reply

      Not a one, but a few bookfriends (Eva, Aarti, Mel) had said not to be put off by the length, which is exactly what was worrying me, that I resolved to give the first one a try, not being sure whether I would finish the series, let alone all in a half-year’s time. Knowing how much you loved Small Island, I am sure that the relationships and journeys here, that these characters make, and the trials endured, would translate into a gripping read for you as well, and the first volume is particularly engaging, with all the sea adventuring! But I also know just how many books you have lined up ahead of you…

      • Naomi June 27, 2018 at 7:23 pm - Reply

        Okay, okay… I’m off to add them to my list! I do love that first cover!

        • Buried In Print July 10, 2018 at 3:29 pm - Reply

          I can hardly wait to hear what you think and which characters/storylines are your favourites! 🙂

  6. annelogan17 June 26, 2018 at 4:43 pm - Reply

    I’ve never heard of this trilogy but it sounds right in story and plot. I actually really like when books include glossaries, although I tend to discover them once I’ve done reading, which is really of little help haha

    • Buried In Print June 27, 2018 at 11:27 am - Reply

      At times it is fascinating and at other times it’s just very interesting, but considering how long it is, I am amazed that my attention never flagged: I did not want to let these characters go without knowing what was to happen to them. Maybe a little badge on the cover, like those old P.S.Bookclub circles, that says “Glossary Included”? 🙂

  7. heavenali June 26, 2018 at 11:51 am - Reply

    I read two or three Ghosh novels years ago, The Glass Palace I particularly remember enjoying. I hadn’t realised his latest novels were a trilogy. I’m not sure why but I have never really fancied reading them.

    • Buried In Print June 27, 2018 at 11:24 am - Reply

      If you liked the others, maybe there is something about the cover art which is not inviting for you as a reader? Although, as Naomi mentions below, their size is another factor.

      • Heavenali June 27, 2018 at 11:31 am - Reply

        The size is a factor too. I think at one time I read so many India set novels I put myself off them a bit.

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