Calcutta, the Opium trade and Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire

Amitav Ghosh
Amitav Ghosh

Calcutta is the port from where Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel embarks on its journey but plays out on the high seas on route to China, which is the setting of the greater part of it, as it plunges into the First Opium War. The one question about  Flood of Fire that Ghosh has been inundated with, repeatedly, from subsequent interviewers is whether the reader will see the same characters reappear or will they be replaced by others. Ghosh has indicated that the characters take on their own minds, emerging as a prominent player in one book maybe, while subsiding into a minor one in another, allowing for others to dominate in the next.

“One of the main characters in this book is Deeti’s brother, Kesri Singh, a havildar who has been mentioned a few times in the earlier books,” he reveals. And like the unfair question asked of a parent to name his or her favorite child, he has been badgered into naming his most loved character from all his creations which forms the crew of the Ibis. Most loved or not, it’s Neel Halder, who stands out. Recently, he called him his “Apu” in reply to a question by historian Sharmistha Gooptu. Like Satyajit Ray’s protagonist in the Apu trilogy based on Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s story, Neel doesn’t just run through all three stories but holds forth. 

Indeed, Ghosh admitted to the Calcutta audience that the idea of turning the story of the crew of the Ibis as it set sail in the first book into a longer and meandering saga didn’t come about until after six months into writing it. It was only when he realized that he did not want to part company with these men and women in a hurry that he decided to spend the next several years getting to know them, letting them crowd around his head, until they became so real that if he were to lose one of them, it would be a personal moment of grief.

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