Book Reviews

Picture of Human Destruction

in Amitav Ghosh's 'Sea of Poppies'

This terrific novel unfolds in north India and the Bay of Bengal in 1838 on the eve of the British hit on the Chinese ports known as the foremost opium war. Ghosh begins in the villages of eastern Bihar with a panorama of characters like - Deeti, soon to be widowed; her opium addicted husband, who works at the British opium factory at Ghazipur; and Kalua, a low-caste carter of immense vigor and resource. Moving downstream, we meet a bankrupt landowner, Raja Neel Rattan; an American sailor, Zachary Reid; 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 array of different minor as well as major characters, who contribute to the color and texture of this great work.

This novel is a complete package-of surprises, love, hate, revenge, sex, egotism, friendship, kinship, and many more, which are explored by the reader as the pages are turned.

The novel begins with Deeti, a straightforward, religious lady, gentle mother and a competent housewife. Married to Hukam Singh, a crippled worker in the Ghazipur Opium Factory, on her wedding night she finds her husband’s treatment quite strange and opposite to what she was anticipating: …she had seen nothing of the house as she went to the garlanded marital bed, but her nostrils had been filled with the smell of fresh thatch … her neck and shoulders had tightened in anticipation of the grip that would push her prone on the bed. (Sea of Poppies, 32) But instead he speaks to her about different qualities of opium he possessed; he even offers her a taste of it, its later the inopportune Deeti figures out that, she was drugged with opium by her husband, so that her brother-in-law could consummate the marriage in place of her impotent husband. This evil design was devised by her mother-in-law who had every intention of assuring that whatever had happened on her wedding night would be repeated so that she can bear more children.

Throughout her life Deeti and her parents felt that Saturn (Shani) ruled her life. Her prospects had always been bedeviled by her stars, her fate being ruled by Saturn- Shani-a planet that exercised great power on those born in its influence, often being discord, unhappiness and disharmony. (Sea of Poppies, 30) Her husband is not fit enough to work in the fields so he works in an Opium factory in Ghazipur.

One day Deeti gets the news of her husband being unwell and is asked to fetch him back, with Kalua’s help, she gets to the factory. Over here Deeti rushes in terror through every particular shed of the factory in looking for of her dying husband. Poppy flowers, sap and trash are processed before Deeti’s shocked rustic eyes. Ghosh has beautifully sketched the agricultural calendar, the beauty of poppy flowers, seeds, and the sap feels so real as if the reader is holding them in his/her hands. On the pretext of visiting his sick brother Chandan Singh visits her place, this leering, slack-jawed brother-in-law is the real father of Deeti’s daughter Kabutri.

Even after seven years he keeps on coming in hope that one day Deeti would give in to carnal pleasures, or the hardships of cultivating poppy would break her and would make her ready to make a son with her brother-in-law as it’s feasible to conceive while her husband is alive. Chandan Singh tells Deeti that: … if you conceive a son while he is still living, he will be his father’s rightful heir. Hukum Singh’s land will pass to him … or will become mine on his death. Jekar khet, tekar dhan–he who owns the land, owns the rice. When I become master of this house, how will you get except at my pleasure? (Sea of Poppies, 157) He assures her that if he is pleased to his heart’s content she will be looked after. But he is humiliated by her and driven out. When her husband dies, Deeti sends Kabutri to stay with her relatives.

Deeti looks almost certain to meet her doom when she chooses to go through with the customary Sati Pratha as she feels it’s better to have an honorable death instead of an immoral life; she wants to die Hukum Singh’s widow rather than living like a kept of his scoundrel and pervert brother. But then Kalua, the ox man from the neighboring village, comes to her rescue from the burning pyre of her husband. He expresses his true feelings, when Deeti asked her about saving her, “It was myself I saved today, he said in a whisper. Because if you had died, I couldn’t have lived; jinda na rah sakela …” (Sea of Poppies, 179)

The couple flees and unites, they love and respect each other; moreover Deeti needed a man in her life to protect her from prowling men and other possible perils a lone woman has to face. This is not acceptable to their fellow villagers. In order to escape Deeti’s in-laws, she and Kalua become indentured servants on the Ibis - a ship which now becomes their new home and even their parents. … this vessel that was the mother-father of her new family, a great wooden mai-bap, an adoptive ancestor and parents of dynasties yet to come: here she was, the Ibis. (Sea of Poppies, 356-57)

They board the ship in anticipation of a life afresh and to elope from the bloodthirsty relatives of Deeti’s husband Hukum Singh. Zachary Reid, an American sailor born to a slave mother and a white father, receives a lot of attention. He has been on the Ibis since the schooner started her strenuous journey, and hopes to die with it. He maintains that in his lifetime he has never seen a more commendable item than the Ibis and it is no less than a mother to him, supporting him in his lonely and dark hours and rejoicing with him in his exuberance.

With the support of the head of the lascars, Serang Ali, he becomes the second in command of the ship, when it was refitted to carry indentured labor to the island of Mareech or Mauritius instead of the tradable opium. Neel Rattan Halder, a wealthy rajah whose empire has been ruling the zemindary of Rakshali for centuries, is confronted by Mr. Burnham with the need to sell off his estates in order to pay for the debt he had incurred when trading opium with China at the height of the opium trade. But now that the opium trade has come to a decline, as a result of the confrontation shown by the Chinese authorities; they had no intention of trading tea and silk for opium because it was not their priority even a requirement but ironically enough British couldn’t survive without Chinese silk and tea. As a result Neel is left with no money to clear his loan.

When Mr. Burnham proposes to settle the load for Halders zamindary, Halder refuses the deal as the zamindary is his family’s familial chattels and selling it would mean turning his back on his many dependents like widow women, servants, living in his home and zamindary. And more over: ‘Mr. Burnham,’ Neel said, ‘the zemindary of Raskhali has been in family for two hundred years; nine generations of Halders’ have sat in its guddee. How can I give away to settle my debts?’ (Sea of Poppies, 121-22)

Neel cannot give away his zemindary as his son is the rightful heir, along with his unborn children. He is tried for forgery, but it is a sham trial orchestrated by Mr. Burnham and his allies, the heights of betrayal was that the cheaters used Neel’s kept Elokeshi – a bloody selfish opportunist, who in her affidavit spoke of every minutest detail which was enough to ruin all of Neel’s chances. The court punishes him by sentencing him to work as an indentured laborer for seven years in Mauritius, making a mark with ink on his forehead – “forgerer, alipore 1838.” (Sea of Poppies, 292)

We come across a strong emotive scene where we find Neel being visited by his wife Malati and son: Malati assures him saying, “… we’ll be all right, she said insistently. Don’t worry about us; we’ll manage. It’s you who must be strong. For our sakes, if not your own, you have to stay alive: I could not bear to be a widow, not after all this.” (Sea of Poppies, 270-71) To them he promises that he’ll come back alive what so ever be the circumstances, but her wife and son would have to put up with Parimal-his secretary was too much to bear especially when they belonged to royal stature. It is then he is sent to jail where he is supposed to wait for the ship that is going to deport him to his destination for seven years across the Black Waters, it’s here that he meets Ah Fatt, a half-Chinese from Canton, half-Parsi opium addict, his sole companion in prison since the two will eventually be transported together to the Ibis.

The novel also features Paulette, a French orphan, who has also grown up in India. Her father was an unconventional but kind botanist and her mother died in childbirth - in Jodu’s father’s boat when he was trying to make Lamberts cross the river in order to get some medical help. She is brought up by Jodu’s mother and her father but Mr. and Mrs. Burnham take Paulette into their home after her father’s demise. She becomes determined to run away because Mr. Burnham has behaved in an obnoxious manner with her in private. Also, he is trying to get her married to his friend, the stern, elderly Justice Kendalbushe. Paulette for this purpose sought help from Reid, as it happens, Paulette had met Zachary Reid, the American sailor, at a dinner at the Burnham’s; she was instantaneously drawn to him, and he to her. She has resolved to travel to Mauritius, as her great-aunt did-for two long years she kept her façade of being a boy, but on failing in her endeavor she goes to Mr. Burham’s gomusta Baboo Nob Kissen Pander – who was visited by Mr. Lambert to sought a safe passage for his daughter Paulette to Mauritius - which was her native place, it was a week before his death and the matter was settled in lieu of a locket.

Unlike her great-aunt Paulette resorts to conventional Indian mode of ghungta, she did it in the hope of finding a better future with gomusta’s help. Though she needs help still she manages to uphold her honor and self-respect; she doesn’t want anybody’s pity. Along with Jodu, her childhood friend (or brother, as both Jodu and Paulette are brought up under the care of Jodu’s mother following the death of Paulette’s mother at childbirth), she boards the Ibis, unaware of her destiny.

Paulette easily disguises herself as an Indian woman, using her glib Bengali, bright vermilion alta to color her feet and her arms and hands were covered with intricate, hennaed designs, ghungta to cover her face, which she learned in childhood growing up at close propinquity with Jodu and his mother. Paulette’s rearing in India has also made her feel more at ease with Indian etiquettes, food, and clothing than with Western ones. She felt far more comfortable in a saree than a gown. On their way across the Black Waters, these characters are exposed to sati or widow-burning, a shipboard mutiny, murder, a court case, jails, kidnappings, rapes, floggings, a dinner party and every refinement of sex. Sea sickness killed a few and the fortunate rest recovered from it.

Where people were dying, Heeru is proposed marriage and dying Sarju - a mid-wife declared Deeti pregnant. Munia and Jodu’s misunderstood love ignites fire; Deeti is on the verge of being raped and losing her child at the hands of Bhyro Singh – her husband’s uncle. But before he could attempt anything Kalua saved his wife and his unborn child from that molester by killing a silahdar and ringing the warning bell. Ah Fatt killed Mr. Crowle for humiliating him and making him piss over his dear friend Neel; taking advantage of his weakness for opium.

On the other hand when Kalua was being punished by Bhyro Singh, Kalua killed him by breaking his neck. The mob wanted the killer dead and, “Deeti’s unborn child has taken fright and was trying to shut out the voices that were clamoring for its father’s death.” (Sea of Poppies, 491) All this made Deeti sick and she staggered in the arms of other women. Paulette on the other hand not only wants to save her half brother Jodu but even wants to help her Bhauji (sister-in-law) as everybody addressed Deeti, by saving her husband Kalua from their looming death.

As the stories amalgamate, each carrying its contribution of joys and sorrows, the Ibis becomes an asylum to those in penury. After much discord and slaughter on board the ship, Neel, Ah Fatt, Jodu, Serang Ali and Kalua manage to escape, unaware of the destination the sea waves will carry them to, but to their consolation they have a chance to survive and unite with their family in near future. Janet Maslin of The New York Times - remarks that - By the time this book ends, the reader has been caught up in a plot of Dickensian intricacy, the Ibis readied for whatever its mission may be, and the characters firmly enveloped in new, self-created identities.

A sense of relief pervades when Paulette and Reid are found in each other’s embrace. Ultimately they realize their love for each other. Where they found their destination, Mr. Crowle meets his death, along with Bhyro Singh, Neel, Ah Fatt, Jodu, Serang Ali, and Kalua set off from Ibis to find their fate. Deeti is satisfied as she knows her jora (husband) can now survive. They all achieve their destination in a way after sailing across the Black Waters. To express the theme of the novel the most apt quote that comes to the fore is of Michael Binyon, in The Times (London) — “India in the 1830s is wonderfully evoked—the smells, rituals and squalor . . . Coarseness and violence, cruelty and fatalism, are relieved with flashes of emotion and kindness.

This is no anti-colonial rant or didactic tableau but the story of men and women of all races and castes, cooped up on a voyage across the ‘Black Water’ that strips them of dignity and ends in storm, neither in despair nor resolution. It is profoundly moving.”

The Kirkus Reviews declares Sea of Poppies as - A historical novel crammed almost to the bursting point with incidents and characters...this astonishing; mesmerizing launch will be hard to top. Sea of Poppies is a historical novel, which means that the story is only half the story.

Ever since Walter Scott published Waverley in 1814, readers have turned to historical fiction not just for flee from a straitened and predictable present, but also for order. Thus, he dramatizes (or rather romanticizes, in the sense of makes a novel out of) two great economic themes of the 19th century: the cultivation of opium as a cash crop in Bengal and Bihar for the Chinese market, and the transport of Indian indentured workers to cut sugar canes for the British on such islands as Mauritius, Fiji and Trinidad.

In The Washington Post – Shashi Tharoor rightly says that, His descriptions bring a lost world to life....At times, Sea of Poppies reads like a cross between an Indian Gone with the Wind and a Victorian novel of manners…his novel is also a delight. At a more everyday level, Ghosh fashions an index of early 19th-century Indian cuisine, servants, furnishings, sacred worship, and naval commands, man and woman attires and under linen, trades, nuptials and last rites, botany and horticulture, opium farming, intoxicating drinks, grades of clerk and, criminal justice, sexual practices, conventional medicines etc. Against the inhuman background of poppy cultivation, Sea of Poppies paints a heartrending picture of the human destruction of this trade.

The fertile farms of the Ganges plain are blooming only with poppies - beautiful, lethal, denying the peasants the crops to uphold them and indebting them to moneylenders and landowners, themselves indebted to the East India Company. Dexterously and haphazardly, Ghosh brings together those who will set sail in his narrative of the Ibis, an old slaving ship that is taking indentured laborers to Mauritius. This running from pillar to post takes them from one dead dark life to yet another of similar fashion. We follow each of the characters, through clashes of standing and convention, ruled and rulers, munificent sentiments and rapacious pretense, to the momentous vessel. India in the 1830s is marvelously evoked - the smells, rites and nastiness.

Above all, the striking language brings the homely flavor: thug, pukka, sahib, serang, mali, lathi, dekko and punkah-wallah still hang on to, English ears, resonance of the Raj. But the clothes - zerbaft brocade, shanbaff dhoti, alliballie kurta, jooties and nayansukh - or the ranks and offices - dasturi, sirdar, maharir, serishtas and burkundaz, and the Indian slangs and abuses are honestly unfathomable. And that is Ghosh’s ploy: we hang on to at what we can, but waves of narrative wash over us, just as they did over those trapped up in a colonial history they could neither organize nor identify with.

Work cited:
Ghosh, Amitav. Sea of Poppies, Noida: Gopson Papers Ltd. 2008.
and by Dr. Archana , Lucknow


More by :  Prof. Dr. Ram Sharma

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