Saturday, October 18, 2008

Amitav Ghosh

For me, the topic of displacement of people with the rise of empires almost always brings to mind The Glass Palace, where Amitav Ghosh’s King Thebaw watches the milling crowds at the Rangoon harbor and wonders

“What vast, what incomprehensible power, to move people in such huge numbers from one place to another-emperors, kings, farmers, dockworkers, soldiers, coolies, policemen. Why? Why this furious movement-people taken from one place to another, to pull rickshaws, to sit blind in exile? And where would his own people go, now that they were a part of this empire.”

Ghosh continues building his oeuvre with Sea of Poppies, a tale of mass migration and displacement of Indians with the rise of British power. Set in 1830s, this is the story of the people on the Ibis, a ship that will sail from the Bay of Bengal to Mauritius. Originally a slave ship, the Ibis has undergone a bit of a transformation after the abolition of slavery. When the story begins, a refurbished Ibis - minus the earlier shackles and chains - is ready to transport indentured labor to British colonies, its cargo men and women from agrarian Eastern India and Bengal who will sail to Mauritius to work as labor on plantations. Called girmitiyas (a corrupted derivative of the English “agreement” that they have signed to work as labor), these people will by sailing the Black Waters (Kaala Pani) lose not just their hearth and home forever, but also what is most precious to the Hindus of the time: their caste. Why, then, would they want to leave their land for the unknown?

This is India in the 19th century. The East India Company’s hold on Bengal is complete, and the eastern provinces beyond Bengal are also under the purview of the Company Bahadur’s rule. With policies that enforce opium cultivation and destroy indigenous agriculture and trade, this rule spells havoc for India’s villages and towns. Bearing testimony to this is the motley crowd on the ship, all products of the disaster brought on by opium cultivation and trade.

There is the young mother Deeti who, having lost her husband and her fields to opium, is now on the ship to escape her fate. Forced to cultivate opium as part of the Company’s colonial policy, Deeti and other rural folk have abandoned centuries-old agricultural traditions. Their land yields no grains or fruit, and they have no control over their opium produce either, as it is procured by factories at arbitrary prices. One of the accomplishments of this Deeti character and indeed a major highlight of this book is the detailed description of the Ghazipur Opium factory through Deeti's eyes, based on an account by one J.W.S. McArthur, a superintendent of the Ghazipur Opium factory in the 19th century. His book “Notes on an Opium Factory” couldn’t have been put to better use. The narrative sees Deeti on an errand to the factory into a world of “the uniformed burkundazes at the gate and the stacks of poppy flower rotis” (we are told elsewhere that these are used to package the opium). We see, through her eyes, the huge sheds with lofty ceilings and gigantic scales to weigh the raw opium and “bare bodied men sunk waist deep in tanks of opium, tramping round and round to soften the sludge. Their eyes were vacant, glazed, and yet somehow they managed to keep moving, as slow as ants in honey, tramping, treading.”

It does not escape Deeti’s notice that “the assemblers’ hands moved with dizzying speed as they lined hemispherical moulds with poppy-leaf rotis, moistening the wrappers with lewah, a light solution of liquid opium.”

Further ahead, Deeti crosses into the most sacred sanctum assembly room, where husband Hukam Singh works and where, as per the regulations laid by the East India Company, each package of opium “consists of exactly one seer and six-and-a-half-chittacks of poppy leaf rotis, half of fine grade and half coarse, the whole being moistened with no more and on less than five chittacks of lewah.”

On the ship, too, is Raja Neel Rattan Haldar, the zamindar of Raskhali. In their heydays, the Raskhali rajas were sought and courted by company officials to obtain finances for opium trade with China. As Neel faces financial ruin, the company’s officials bring charges of forgery against him, leading to a deportation sentence to Mauritius. If the Raja’s fall from grace and the deplorable treatment as a common criminal seem too far-fetched, we need only to look into the history of colonial Bengal. Readers with any interest in the history of the time will recall Raja Nand Kumar’s treatment at the hands of the British. In the late 18th century, Raja Nand Kumar fell out of favor with the East India company governor Warren Hastings; Nand Coomar was charged with forgery and kept in jail under pitiable conditions. It is said that Hastings’ closeness to Sir Elijah Impey, then Chief Justice, saw Nand Kumar to the gallows at a time when forgery was not awarded capital punishment.

Also on the Ibis are Pauline Lambert and Jodu. Pauline, the daughter of a French botanist, is raised by an Indian nanny whose son, Jodu, is almost Pauline’s twin. Pauline catches the fancy of Zachary Reid, an octoroon who has sailed with the Ibis from Baltimore. Zachary has by dint of luck and labor moved up the ladder to become the second mate of Ibis on his second trip on it.

Then there are the Englishmen, who seem quite tame in comparison and who (when they aren't going about some nasty business, as company official Mr. Burnham often is) are happily conversing in a Hobson-Jobson kind of language. This is immensely entertaining (“Is this little Rascal your Upper-Roger?”) with tidbits such as "tumashers in the sheeshmulls," "domepoke and chitchky of pollock-saug" from the "bobachee-connahs." Mrs. Burnham gets to mouth funny lines like “there isn’t a rootie in the choola, is there?” and “there is paltan of mems who’d give their last anna to be in your jooties.” Meanwhile, the locals fill the narrative with sprinklings of bhojpuri aisan mat kara and dekheheba ka hois while the seafarers (lascars) have their lascari lingo. This is a wonderful literary device by which as many languages as people inhabit the text.

Of the few reservations I had is the somewhat Bollywood-esquethe handling of villainous character Bhyro Singh's arrival on Ibis. And although zamindars flew kites in the 1830s, how many would, in the slow and easygoing days of early 19th-century Bengal, where time almost stood still, stop to ask for a "ten minute" break (p 155)? Also discussing the price of Patna opium in dollars “four hundred and fifty dollars a chest” (pp239) in the 1830s did seem a bit out of place. These are very minor points, of course, and the fact remains that the Sea of Poppies is a hugely entertaining and enjoyable read - and an absolutely un-put-down-able book. The next two parts of the trilogy will be eagerly awaited.

First Published @ Curled Up with A Good Book


Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Definitely more deserving of the Booker than "The White Tiger", but the Anglo-Indian dialect gets a little tiresome.


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Blogger shampa said...

i thought that adiga's work was more relevant. balram halwai might sound unconvincing given that he talks like "us" but if that is a literary device meant to make his story more legit i am all for it. tho' why he had to talk to chinese premier i never got!!!!

btw am enjoying your "foodie" posts of your blog :-)))


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