Saturday, April 11, 2009

Book Review: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh’s novels are all meticulously researched and Sea of Poppies is no exception. With the opium trade and the opium wars as a background, the book explores in detail the East India Company-run opium factory at Ghazipur, the workers whose lives depended on it and its produce. At another level, it also tracks the origins and journey of the first batch of the Indian Diaspora, the indentured laborers of the nineteenth century. This class of people, who supplied cheap labor in the British Empire after slavery was abolished, traveled under horrendous conditions to escape the poverty and deprivation in their native land. The book chronicles well, the life and ambitions of the grandiose empire builders and the effect of their actions on ordinary Indian people.

Against this background, Sea of Poppies paints a poignant picture of the human devastation caused by imperialism. The fertile farms of the Ganges plain are blooming only with poppies - beautiful, deadly, denying the peasants the crops to sustain them and indebting them to moneylenders and landowners, themselves indebted to the buccaneers of the East India Company. Skillfully and seemingly randomly, Ghosh assembles those who will set sail in his narrative of the Ibis, an old slaving ship that is taking indentured laborers to Mauritius.

The characters are many and diverse and yet richly etched. He begins in the villages of eastern Bihar with Deeti, soon to be widowed; her addicted husband, who works at the British opium factory at Ghazipur; and Kalua, a low-caste carter of colossal strength and resource. Moving downstream, we meet a bankrupt landowner, Raja Neel Rattan; an American sailor, Zachary; Paulette, a young Frenchwoman, and her Bengali foster-brother Jodu; Benjamin Burnham, an unscrupulous British merchant, and his Bengali agent, Baboo Nob Kissin; and an assortment of nautch girls and Indian sepoys and soldiers in the service of the Company.

As they sail down the Hooghly and into the sea, their old family ties are washed away, and they view themselves as jahaj-bhais (ship-brothers) who will build whole new lives for themselves in the remote islands where they are being taken.. Cut off from their roots, in transit, and looking ahead to a fresh start, the migrants are prone to invent new names and histories and innovatively try to recreate rituals surrounding marriage , funerals and other rites of passage which can no longer be performed in their original form.

The novel closes with the Ibis in mid-ocean in a storm. Serang Ali, leader of the lascars, has abandoned ship, along with the convicts and the condemned; the first mate as well as the subedar are dead; of the key figures only Deeti, Paulette, Nob Kissin and Zachary are left, watching from the deck the disappearance of the long boat and those close to them. the deliberately ambiguous ending of the novel which leaves the reader speculating about the fat of those left behind on the ship as well as those who have sailed away on the boat seems to have in its kernel the seeds of the other parts of the trilogy that Ghosh is said to be writing around the them of the opium wars.

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