Seeds of hope

In Sea of Poppies, Ghosh has produced his most incisive engagement with imperialism.

At its best, his writing illuminates the connections between small human stories and massive historical changes...

Last year, Britain celebrated the 200th anniversary of its abolition of the slave trade whereby millions of Africans were captured and transported out of their homelands to work in colonial plantations. Britain had been vastly enriched by the trade but public outrage had been mobilised by exposes of repugnant practices including tossing dying “merchandise” overboard to claim insurance money.

Those who had profited from the unpaid labour of millions, however, had no intention of sacrificing their lucrative commerce after slavery itself ended in 1834. Petitioned to protect the interests of plantation owners, the British government came up with a scheme to harness cheap contract labour from India and China. Though technically paid and voluntary, extremely harsh conditions and debt traps could make the experience of indenture little better than that of slavery. Indeed, some of the ships that had once transported slaves were now deployed to carry millions of girmitiyas from India across the ocean to places like Mauritius, Trinidad, Fiji and Guiana.

It is one such ship, the Ibis, that is at the heart of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, the first in a projected trilogy, painted on a magisterial canvas stretching from agrarian North India and Bengal to China and Mauritius. This breadth is reflective of Ghosh’s subject — the enormous reach of British imperialism from the Americas to Asia, Africa and Australasia and the globe-spanning displacements that millions endured. Celebrating the global presence of the Pravasi Bharatiya, generally symbolised by the successful techie in Silicon Valley, we often forget how costly, wrenching and terrifying migrations were for so many who undertook it, often under economic and social duress. Poverty, widowhood and caste violence drive two of Ghosh’s characters to the Ibis which puts them in hitherto unimaginable proximity with a Bengali zamindar convict, cheated by a British merchant. In turn, the Raja develops an unlikely friendship with a Chinese-Parsi afeemkhor, an addict produced by the British opium trade inflicted on China. Reeking of defecation, disease and death, the hold of this ship produces new and fragile communities, bringing together Hindu peasants and Muslim lascars, high-caste and low-caste, wives and widows, black men and white women. The stories of these engaging (and some particularly eccentric) characters shape this novel.

Like other Ghosh novels, Sea of Poppies uses “the imagination with precision” (to quote The Shadow Lines). Historical research and imaginative license work together to illumine the nuances of existence in another time. There’s no place here for literary myths about entire novels emerging unbidden from the heart. A labour of love it may be, but writing certainly involves hard work, the author’s and that of others whom he acknowledges. Ghosh’s trademark passion for language extends here to Bhojpuri and creoles, both of which immensely enrich the novel though the simultaneous (and occasionally quaint) translation from the Bhojpuri can feel a touch intrusive. Despite a few bumpy moments in the beginning, the story is compellingly told as it heads for open sea. A less intrepid novelist might have hesitated before depicting a sati, particularly one that seems slightly surplus to plot requirements, but it is made plausible within the larger narrative context.

Having turned down a Commonwealth Prize for The Glass Palace because he did not wish it to be “incorporated within that particular memorialisation of Empire”, Ghosh has, in Sea of Poppies, produced his most incisive engagement with imperialism yet. At its best, his writing illuminates the connections between small human stories and massive historical changes, including shifting economic practices, social relations and race hierarchies. Yet, this is no morality tale with Good Indians and Bad Angrezis. We are reminded that all societies are marred by inhumane and exploitative practices, though there is also resistance to them. Colonialism and its claim to bestowing freedom through subjection would not have survived without collaborators, both willing and unwitting — the high-caste subedars who bludgeon the indentured into submission as they do the chamars of their villages, the zamindars who buttress British mercantile enterprises, and even the impoverished poppy growers whose poorly-remunerated crops fuel addiction and misery thousands of miles away in China. But their stories are also, finally, narratives of resilience, transformation and that sustaining human resource — hope for a different future.


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