ABOUT THE STORY One of the greatest achievements in the world of the Indian novel—one of startling mimetic depth and variety, as well as linguistic invention and narrative power—reaches its climax with the publication of Flood of Fire, the final book in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy. In this excerpt, taken from the novel’s opening pages, we see Shireen, the wife of the Parsi opium trader Bahram Modi and a minor protagonist of the series’ preceding volume, finally being sucked into the tides of power, trade and migration that roil the trilogy’s characters. The narrative then leaps across to China, where we return to another figure familiar to the series’ readers: Neel Rattan Halder, a royal expelled from Kolkata by the British now ruminating in Canton over his own memories of “Seth Bahram.”
Flood of Fire is now out in India, from Penguin Random House.
Flood of Fire
FOR SHIREEN MODI, in Bombay, the day started like any other: later, this would seem to her the strangest thing of all—that the news had arrived without presaging or portent. All her life she had placed great store by omens and auguries—to the point where her husband, Bahram, had often scoffed and called her “superstitious”—but try as she might she could remember no sign that might have been interpreted as a warning of what that morning was to bring.
Later that day Shireen’s two daughters, Shernaz and Behroze, were to bring their children over for dinner as they did once every week. These weekly dinners were Shireen’s principal diversion when her husband was away in China. Other than that there was little to enliven her days except for an occasional visit to the Fire Temple at the end of the street.
Shireen’s apartment was on the top floor of the Mistrie family mansion which was on Apollo Street, one of Bombay’s busiest thoroughfares. The house had long been presided over by her father, Seth Rustomjee Mistrie, the eminent shipbuilder. After his death the family firm had been taken over by her brothers, who lived on the floors below, with their wives and children. Shireen was the only daughter of the family to remain in the house after her marriage; her sisters had all moved to their husbands’ homes, as was the custom.
The Mistrie mansion was a lively, bustling house with the voices of khidmatgars, bais, khansamas, ayahs and chowkidars ringing through the stairwells all day long. The quietest part of the building was the apartment that Seth Rustomjee had put aside for Shireen at the time of her betrothal to Bahram: he had insisted that the couple take up residence under his own roof after their wedding—Bahram was a penniless youth at the time and had no family connections in Bombay. Ever solicitous of his daughter, the Seth had wanted to make sure that she never suffered a day’s discomfort after her marriage—and in this he had certainly succeeded, but at the cost of ensuring also that she and her husband became, in a way, dependants of the Mistrie family.
Bahram had often talked of moving out, but Shireen had always resisted, dreading the thought of managing a house on her own during her husband’s long absences in China; and besides, while her parents were still alive, she had never wanted to be anywhere other than the house she had grown up in. It was only when it was too late, after her daughters had married and her parents had died, that she had begun to feel a little like an interloper. It wasn’t that anyone was unkind to her; to the contrary they were almost excessively solicitous, as they might be with a guest. But it was clear to everyone—the servants most of all—that she was not a mistress of the Mistrie mansion in the same way that her brothers’ wives were; when decisions had to be made about shared spaces, like the gardens or the roof, she was never consulted; her claims on the carriages were accorded a low priority or even overlooked; and when the khidmatgars quarrelled hers always seemed to get the worst of it.
There were times when Shireen felt herself to be drowning in the peculiar kind of loneliness that comes of living in a house where the servants far outnumber their employers. This was not the least of the reasons why she looked forward so eagerly to her weekly dinners with her daughters and grandchildren: she would spend days fussing over the food, going to great lengths to dig out old recipes, and making sure that the khansama tried them out in advance.
Today after several visits to the kitchen Shireen decided to add an extra item to the menu: dar ni pori—lentils, almonds and pistachios baked in pastry. Around mid-morning she dispatched a khidmatgar to the market to do some additional shopping. He was gone a long time and when he returned there was an odd look on his face. What’s the matter? she asked and he responded evasively, mumbling something about having seen her husband’s purser, Vico, talking to her brothers, downstairs.
Shireen was taken aback. Vico was indispensable to Bahram: he had travelled to China with him, the year before, and had been with him ever since. If Vico was in Bombay then where was her husband? And why would Vico stop to talk to her brothers before coming to see her? Even if Vico had been sent ahead to Bombay on urgent business, Bahram would certainly have given him letters and presents to bring to her.
She frowned at the khidmatgar in puzzlement: he had been in her service for many years and knew Vico well. He wasn’t likely to misrecognise him, she knew, but still, just to be sure she said: You are certain it was Vico? The man nodded, in a way that sent a tremor of apprehension through her. Brusquely she told him to go back downstairs.
Tell Vico to come up at once. I want to see him right now.
Glancing at her clothes she realised that she wasn’t ready to receive visitors yet: she called for a maid and went quickly to her bedroom. On opening her almirah her eyes went directly to the sari she had worn on the day of Bahram’s departure for China. With trembling hands she took it off the shelf and held it against her thin, angular frame. The sheen of the rich gara silk filled the room with a green glow, lighting up her long, pointed face, her large eyes and her greying temples.
She seated herself on the bed and recalled the day in September, the year before, when Bahram had left for Canton. She had been much troubled that morning by inauspicious signs—she had broken her red marriage bangle as she was dressing and Bahram’s turban was found to have fallen to the floor during the night. These portents had worried her so much that she had begged him not to leave that day. But he had said that it was imperative for him to go—why exactly she could not recall.
Then the maid broke in—Bibiji?—and she recollected why she had come to the bedroom. She took out a sari and was draping it around herself when she caught the sound of raised voices in the courtyard below: there was nothing unusual in this but for some reason it worried her and she told the maid to go and see what was happening. After a few minutes the woman came back to report that she had seen a number of peons and runners leaving the house, with chitties in their hands.
Chitties? For whom? Why?
The maid didn’t know of course, so Shireen asked if Vico had come upstairs yet.
No, Bibiji, said the maid. He is still downstairs, talking to your brothers. They are in one of the daftars. The door is locked.
Somehow Shireen forced herself to sit still while the maid combed and tied her lustrous, waist-length hair. No sooner had she finished than voices made themselves heard at the front door. Shireen went hurrying out of the bedroom, expecting to see Vico, but when she stepped into the living room she was amazed to find instead her two sons-in-law. They looked breathless and confused: she could tell that they had come hurrying over from their daftars.
Seized by misgiving, she forgot all the usual niceties: What are you two doing here in the middle of the morning?
For once they did not stand on ceremony: taking hold of her hands they led her to a divan.
What is the matter? she protested. What are you doing?
Sasu-mai, they said, you must be strong. There is something we must tell you.
Already then she knew, in her heart. But she said nothing, giving herself a minute or two to savour a few last moments of doubt. Then she took a deep breath. Tell me, she said. I want to know. Is it about your father-in-law?
They looked away, which was all the confirmation she needed. Her mind went blank, and then, remembering what widows had to do, she struck her wrists together, almost mechanically, breaking her glass bangles. They fell away, leaving tiny pinpricks of blood on her skin; absently she remembered that it was Bahram who had purchased these bangles for her, in Canton, many years ago. But the memory brought no tears to her eyes; for the moment her mind was empty of emotion. She looked up and saw that Vico was now hovering at the door. Suddenly she desperately wanted to be rid of her sons-in-law.
Have you told Behroze and Shernaz? she asked them.
They shook their heads: We came straight here, Sasu-mai. We didn’t know what had happened—the chits from your brothers said only to come right away. After we came they said it would be best if we broke the news to you, so we came straight up here.
Shireen nodded: You’ve done what was needed. Vico will tell me the rest. As for you, it’s better that you go home to your wives. It’ll be even harder for them than it is for me. You’ll have to be strong for them.
They left and Vico stepped in. A big-bellied man with protuberant eyes, he was dressed, as always, in European clothes—pale duck trowsers and jacket, a high-collared shirt and cravat. His hat was in his hands and he began to mumble something but Shireen stopped him. Raising a hand, she waved her maids away: Leave us, she said, I want to talk to him alone.
Yes, what did I say? Alone.
They withdrew and she gestured to Vico to sit but he shook his head.
How did it happen, Vico? she said. Tell me everything.
It was an accident, Bibiji, said Vico. Sadly, it happened on the Seth’s ship, which he loved so much. The Anahita was anchored near an island called Hong Kong, not far from Macau. We had just boarded that day, having come down from Canton. The rest of us went to bed early but Sethji stayed up. He must have been walking on the deck. It was dark and he probably tripped and fell overboard.
She was listening carefully, watching him as he spoke. She knew, from previous bereavements, that she was presently in the grip of a kind of detachment that would not last long: soon she would be overwhelmed by emotion and her mind would be clouded for days. Now, while she was still able to think clearly, she wanted to understand exactly what had happened.
He was walking on the Anahita?
Shireen frowned; she had known the Anahita intimately since the day the vessel’s keel was laid, in her father’s shipyard: it was she who had named her, after the Zoroastrian angel of the waters, and it was she too who had overseen the craftsmen who had sculpted the figurehead and decorated the interior. If Sethji was walking, he must have been up on the quarter-deck, no?
Vico nodded. Yes, Bibiji. It must have been the quarter-deck. That’s where he usually walked.
But if he fell from the quarter-deck, said Shireen, surely someone would have heard him? Wasn’t there a lascar on watch? Were there no other ships nearby?
Yes, Bibiji, there were many ships nearby. But no one heard anything.
So where was he found?
On Hong Kong island, Bibiji. His body washed up on the beach.
Was there a ceremony? A funeral? What did you do?
Toying with his hat, Vico said: We held a funeral, Bibiji. Many other Parsis were in the area; one of them was a dastoor and he performed the last rites. Sethji’s friend Mr Zadig Karabedian also happened to be around. He delivered the eulogy. We buried him in Hong Kong.
Why Hong Kong? said Shireen sharply. Isn’t there a Parsi cemetery in Macau? Why didn’t you bury him there?
Macau was impossible, Bibiji, said Vico. There was trouble on the mainland at the time. The British representative, Captain Elliot, had issued an order asking all British subjects to stay away from Macau. That was why the Anahita was anchored at Hong Kong Bay. When Seth Bahram died, we had no choice but to bury him in Hong Kong. You can ask Mr Karabedian—he is coming to Bombay soon and will come to see you.
Shireen could feel the grief beginning to well up inside her now. She sat down.
Where did you place the grave? she asked. Is it properly marked?
Yes, Bibiji. There aren’t many people on Hong Kong island and the interior is very pretty. The grave is in a beautiful valley. The spot was found by Seth Bahram’s new munshi.
Absently Shireen said: I didn’t know my husband had hired a new munshi.
Yes, Bibiji. The old munshi died last year when we were on our way to Canton, so Seth Bahram hired a new secretary—a well-educated Bengali.
Did he come back to Bombay with you? said Shireen. Can you bring him to see me?
No, Bibiji; he didn’t come back with us. He wanted to stay on in China and was offered a job in Canton, by an American merchant. So far as I know he’s now living in Canton’s foreign enclave.
June 10, 1839
My one regret in starting this journal is that I did not think of it earlier. If only I had embarked on it last year, when I first came to Canton with Seth Bahram! To have some notes to consult would have been helpful when I was trying to write about the events that led to the opium crisis in March this year.
Anyway, I have learnt my lesson and won’t make that mistake again. Indeed so eager was I to start my journal-keeping that I pulled out my notebook as soon as I stepped on the junk that brought me from Macau to Canton. But it was a mistake: many people crowded around to see what I was doing, so I thought the better of it. I realised also that it would not be wise to write in English, as I had intended—better to do it in Bangla; it is less likely to be deciphered if the journal should fall into the wrong hands.
I am writing now in my new lodgings, in Canton’s American Hong, which is where Mr Coolidge, my new employer, has taken an apartment. He does not live in the lavish style of Seth Bahram; his staff have been relegated to a servants’ dormitory at the back of the Hong. But we manage well enough and even though the accommodation is rudimentary I must confess that I am overjoyed to be back in Canton’s foreign enclave—that unique little outpost that we used to call Fanqui-town!
It is strange perhaps, to say this about a place where cries of “Gwailo!”, “Haak-gwai!” and “Achha!” are a constant reminder of one’s alienness—but nonetheless, it is true that stepping ashore at Canton was like a homecoming for me. Maybe it was only because I was so relieved to be gone from Hong Kong Bay, with its fleet of English merchant ships. Of late a forest of Union Jacks has sprouted there—and I must admit that a weight lifted from my shoulders when they disappeared from view: I can never be comfortable around the British flag. My breath seemed to flow more freely as the boat carried me deeper into China. Only when I stepped off the ferry, at the foreign enclave, did I feel that I was at last safe from Britannia’s all-seeing eye and all-grasping hand.
Yesterday afternoon, I went to visit my old haunts in Fanqui-town. It was startling to see how much the atmosphere here has changed in the short time that I’ve been away. Of the foreigners, only the Americans remain, and the shuttered windows of the empty factories are a constant reminder that things are not as they were before the opium crisis.
The British Factory is particularly striking in its desolation.
It is strange indeed to see this building, once the busiest and grandest establishment in Fanqui-town, all locked and shuttered, its verandas empty. Even the hands of the clock on the chapel tower have ceased to move. They are joined together at the twelve o’clock mark, as if in prayer.
Also empty are the two factories that were occupied by the Parsi seths of Bombay—the Chung-wa and the Fungtai. I lingered awhile near the Fungtai: how could I not, when it is so filled with memories? I had thought that by this time Seth Bahram’s house would have been rented out to someone else—but no: the window of his daftar remains shuttered and a doorman stands guard at the Hong’s entrance. At the cost of a couple of cash-coins I was allowed to slip in and wander around.
The rooms are much as they were when we left, except that a thin film of dust has collected on the floors and the furniture. It gave me an eerie feeling to hear my footsteps echoing through empty corridors—in my memories that house is always crowded with people, redolent of the smell of masalas, wafting up from the kitchen. Most of all it is filled with the spirit of Seth Bahram—I felt his absence very keenly and could not resist going up to the second floor, to look into the daftar where I had spent so many long hours with him, transcribing letters and taking dictation. Here too things are as they were at the time of our departure: the large rock the Seth had been gifted by his compradore is still in its place, as is his ornately carved desk. Even his armchair has not moved: it remains beside the window, as it was during the Seth’s last weeks in Canton. In that darkened, shadow-filled room, it was almost as if he were there himself, half-reclining, smoking opium and staring at the Maidan—as though he were looking for phantoms, as Vico once said.