Hardcover, 624 pages
Publisher: John Murray (May 2015)
Selected by Chiki Sarkar
“The first two books in Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy were heady stuff and every bookseller I have visited in the last two years has asked only one question: “When is book three out?” Well, here it is, the best of the trilogy.” —Chiki Sarkar
Amitav Ghosh began working on his extraordinary trilogy, about the British opium trade from India to China in the 19th century, a decade ago. The books tell of the growth of colonialism from the perspective of China and India, while this final installment centres on the First Opium War and the establishment of the colony of Hong Kong. Ghosh tells an epic story peppered with delightful detail: masturbation in Victorian England, the central role of sadhus (holy men) in the Indian army and the thriving opium futures market in the alleys of Calcutta.
The walk from the subedar’s tent1 to his own was one of the longest of Kesri’s life. Despite the lateness of the hour many men were still up, whispering outside their tents. Kesri passed a few sepoys2 from his own company and not one of them uttered a greeting or even looked him in the face: it was evident that they knew that he had been declared an outcast. Everyone drew back, so that an empty space seemed to open around Kesri, following him down the path. It was as if he had become a moving source of defilement.
Kesri could feel their eyes burning into his back; he could hear their voices too, sniggering and whispering. He wished that one of them would say something to his face: he would have liked nothing better than to pick a fight – but he knew there was no hope of that. None of them would offer him that satisfaction; they feared him too much to take him on alone.
When his tent came within sight, Kesri saw that a pack of dogs had gathered around it. They were fighting over a heap of bones and offal that someone had emptied there, in his absence. Knowing that he was being watched, he skirted around the dogs without slackening his step – he was determined not to give them the satisfaction of gloating over his downfall.
Stepping inside his tent, he saw that his belongings were lying scattered about on the ground. His servant had disappeared: it seemed that the chootiya had seized the opportunity to run away with some of his utensils.
Kesri lit a candle and began to gather his things together. As he was picking through the pile he came upon a small picture, painted in bright colours on a scrap of cloth. It was a drawing of a little girl, done in bold, flat lines. He recognized it immediately: it was Deeti’s handiwork; the child was her daughter, Kabutri. Deeti had given it to him at their last meeting in Nayanpur, when Kesri was on leave at home.
Kesri sat down on the edge of his charpoy and stared at the picture, with his elbows on his knees. What had become of Kabutri? And of Deeti?
The tale of her eloping with a lover and boarding a ship for Mareech seemed like nonsense to him, hardly worth a thought. But some of the story’s details were certainly believable: that Hukam Singh had died for instance – his health had been declining for a long time so his death could hardly be counted as a surprise. Nor was it hard to believe that Deeti would try to extricate herself from the clutches of her husband’s family once he was gone.
Clearly something had happened to her, and even though Kesri had no way of knowing what it was, he sensed that it was the cause of his family’s long silence: clearly the matter was too delicate to be disclosed to the paid scribblers who usually wrote their letters for them. To learn the truth he would have to wait till he went home – which would not be for a long time yet.
Kesri fell on his charpoy and lay still, listening to the familiar sounds of the camp: the bells of the watch; the drunken laughter of men returning from the camp-bazar; the horses, whinnying in their enclosure. Somewhere a young sepoy was singing a song about going home to his village.
Subedar is a military rank equivalent to lieutenant.
Sepoy was the term used for an infantry private in the British Indian Army and is still a designated rank in several other armies, such as Nepal’s.