There was once a powerful colonial power. It was said that the Sun never set on the British Colonial Empire. India was the most important colony of this empire but that did not limit the British from seeking to expand their influence and possibly their territories. Thus, the British tried to probe and open the inward looking middle kingdom through trade. But the Chinese empire did not need anything the British produced. The growing imports of tea, silk and other goods from China were being funded by the outflow of silver. The balance of trade being heavily on the Chinese side. It was then that the British noticed a window of opportunity, when they saw the effects and addictive powers of opium in East Asia. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss and instead of silver being the mode of payment, it was soon replaced by opium.
The opium was sourced from India, the jewel in the crown, and farmers from a large tract of Eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar were made to farm opium (Patna Opium). The traditional crops were debunked by Company officials who using money lenders and the zamindars enforced opium cultivation under duress. These developments were taking place at about the same time that slavery was abolished and the colonies in the new world required labour for the sugar, rice and rubber plantations. A number of these colonies like Malaysia, Mauritius, Fiji and some islands in the Caribbean were under British rule. With the prohibition of slavery, the British using intermediaries in India decided to source the labour from India. Owing to the decaying traditional order under challenge from Western values directly enforced by the slowly expanding British influence in India and also due to the economic crisis that large scale opium cultivation resulted in, a large section of the Indian peasantry were in dire straits. The Chinese empire by this time was trying to stop the inflow of opium to stem the rot. The British were soon to send a naval expedition against these Chinese moves which resulted in the first of the Opium Wars in 1839 after which a treaty-port system was enforced and Hong Kong and Macau were ceded to the British.
Amitav Ghosh's new novel, Sea of Poppies, is set in this era. The characters are drawn from the society that was directly influenced by these events. The characters range from peasants in dire straits owing to social and economic pressures, company officials making money out of the opium trade, zamindars who were over time losing their lands due to their extravagance and idleness to sailors who were intricately linked to all parts of the opium trade and empire. However, Ghosh's primary aim has been to dramatise and expound in story form, the processes and individual experiences that accompanied the transfer of the peasantry from UP/Bihar as contract labourers (girmityas) to the (Mareech Dip) Mauritius (Capital is Port Louis: see map). The rest of the details works as a background to a period in history that has not been ignored but has been understated.
It was due to the writings of VS Naipaul, that the world knows in such details of the historical plight of these shipped people. The story of these Indian origin people and the historical events that forced them to these far off islands. A world across the seas, kaala pani (Black Water) in the local language was seen as doom, a loss of caste. But Naipaul himself never really went about re-creating that traumatic experience though his non fiction writings often alluded to it. For someone who actually discovered that diasporic Indian world, the first NRI's, as Ghosh calls them in an interview, through Naipaul's fiction and non fiction writings, Sea of Poppies comes as a much delayed work to fill that lacunae. I have often thought about the travails of the girmityas, often because I was aware that a large section of them came from my part of the world. This is especially true in the case of Mauritius, which has Bhojpuri as one of its major languages, also pointing to the fact that a sizeable section of the population comes from Eastern UP and Bihar. Mauritius has had a chequered colonial history with the Dutch, the French and later the British who after the Napoleonic wars took control.
The novel offers us a over view into the 19th century world of sailing and sailors who were known as lascars. These sailors were a pivotal aspect of the British sway over Asia, through their naval bases, opium trade and the export of manufactured goods from the mills in England and the transportation of raw materials from the colonies. Ghosh offers a gaze into their idiosyncratic world of mixed ethnicities and an improvised and unique vocabulary, used to communicate with each other and their British officers. It is a book of astounding nuance and details. It is perhaps Ghosh's most erudite and specialised book. Narrating in story form, historical events and turning the spot light on forgotten or neglected periods of South Asian history has been Ghosh's forte. From the Glass Palace, where he fictionalised the life and destiny of Indians in Burma, the Hungry Tide, wherein he examined, the tide country, community and developments in the estuaries of the Ganga and Brahmaputra, with the Sea of Poppies, he creates a much wider canvas and Ghosh paints for us one of the most accomplished of English novels to come out of the Indian consciousness in recent times.
Sea of Poopies, the first of a planned trilogy, is about the people who were on a fictional ship called the Ibis travelling, to Mauritius. Ghosh follows the life of the various characters and the turns of fate that brought them together making that momentous and historic journey. There is, Deeti from near Ghazipur who is a runaway with a chamar man Kalua, as she was being sacrificed as a sati when her impotent Thakur husband is dead. The zaminadar, Neel who while being at the receiving end of a racist interpretation of law, basically brought the tragedy on himself by his parasitical existence common to the landed intermediaries in that age. There are some more memorable characters like the half black sailor Reid, an American who is on the ship, the French girl Paulette who has lived her life with a Bengali ayah and is more Bengali than French. Her Bengali brother Jodu, who wants to be a 'lascar' (sailor).
The pain staking research that supports the setting of the novel, its characters and its trajectory is very thorough. I have had the fortune of studying bits of this period in my B.A. and a lot of the dramatic enactment went in to fill in the larger picture I had in mind. There is a character for instance who is half Parsi and half Chinese borne out of wedlock. A significant amount of Parsis (the only Indians permitted to make hay from the opium trade) were involved in the opium trade. The Tata's are supposed to have made their fortune from that very period in British Indian history by smuggling opium to China. The sections around Deeti's life, her escape, her decision to join the girmitiyas are characterised by such amazing detail that I had to call my parents at home and find out the landmarks Ghosh mentions. The description of the poppy fields as a land full of ice due to the white color of the poppy flower and the cultural details (along with a lot of bhojpuri) of the social life then, add to the authenticity of the setting. For me it was Deeti's story and her fortuitous survival instincts which were the lynchpin of the book.
One has often thought of the heart rending journeys these people from my part of the world made to these islands and it was almost cathartic when I was reading Ghosh's dramatisation about it. The facts so far have been that the people recruited by contractors to serve as labourers chose to do so out of economic penury, social evils and also that many were forced into it. The contract labourers 'escaped' from this world to a life in these island plantations which were as bad as living in slave conditions. But what for me was unimaginable was the dislocation of these people whose world view stretched to perhaps the length of the Ganga in philosophical terms and the nearest town in more practical ways. In a telling example when Deeti is told that they are headed for Mauritius, she asks, is it near Dilli (Delhi)!
When the ship sails from Calcutta, the trauma is better illustrated in Ghosh's own words, "Slowly, as the vessel's motion made itself felt in the pit of every stomach, the noise yielded to a pregnant, fearful stillness. Now the migrants began to absorb the finality of what was under way: yes, they were moving, they were afloat, heading towards the void of the Black Water; neither death nor birth was as fearsome a passage as this, neither being experienced in full consciousness(Page 371)." The use of the word consciousness was what I had been looking for, every time I wanted to express the uprooting of these people from their land. The journey was inconceivable even in the common consciousness as exhibited in religious texts, society, culture or philosophy. The geographic and cultural expanse of their dislocation had never been conjured of by the most erudite of their scholars and here, you had individual selves trying to make sense of their predicament. The lack of education, as we understand it today, coupled with the importance of religious rituals at the core of their lives had probably prepared them better for death and birth but not for this turn in their life and their separation from their world, by the banks of the Ganga.
In another moving passage, Ghosh examines the kismet that befell these migrants, "How had it happened that when choosing men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain, the hand of destiny had strayed so far inland, away from the busy coastlines, to alight on the people who were, of all, the most stubbornly rooted to the silt of the Ganga,in a soil that had to be sown with suffering to yield its crop of story and song? It was as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart (Page 399)."
This book is highly recommended. Though it is advised that a background reading of the historical period would be helpful in making sense of the drama that Ghosh has penned for us. At over five hundred pages, it is a thick book but the prose flows effortlessly and it is a page turner. Some of the sections and language though might create problems. I am talking specifically of the lascars/sailors language and the funny mix and pronunciation of words (mix of hindustani and english) used by the British in that era. I would suggest mouthing those words, saying it aloud to get a flavour of the times. They made me feel funny and strange and gave me a pretentious feeling of the linguistic world that was developing due to British suzerainty over India. The book does end abruptly but by then, we well know that our characters on the ship are well on their way to Mauritius. It ends at a point leaving me hungry for the second novel of the trilogy.
A Short Reading List:
Sea of Hope, The Hindu, 1 June 2008
Confronting the Past, The Hindu, 1 June 2008
'Opium financed British rule in India', BBC, 19 June 2008
Opium of the classes!, Business Standard, 21 June 2008
It’s slow addiction, like opium, Aditya Sinha, 21 June 2008