04 September 2008

Highs, Sea: Sea of Poppies

Sea of Poppies
By Amitav Ghosh
Viking/Ravi Dayal
Pages 515
Rs 595

Opium was once what oil is today: an addictive substance fueling personal and imperial fantasies. The first major enclaves of the British Empire in India, Bombay and Calcutta, were built on opium. The British Empire in India drew its power from the substance, much in demand then as an analgesic, a narcotic, and an addictive stimulant that produced countless junkies, but also some great poetry. The British held a monopoly over opium production in India. Vast swathes of fertile land along the Ganges were turned into seas of poppies. The farmers who cultivated poppy were no more than slaves forced to provide the cheap labour and land for poppy cultivation that fed the British opium factories in India. The British used this dope and the profits from it to cause mischief in China -- opium became the opiate of the Chinese masses.

It was a British policy, much like their divide-and-rule in India, to turn the Chinese into junkies -- in one stroke carve out a market and an empire. That was until the Chinese got wiser and put the spanner in the Limeys’ work. In the early 19th century, the trade almost ground to a halt as China embargoed the British opium. The worst affected were the opium farmers, already chronically indebted thanks to the unfair terms dealt to them by the British. Mouthing free trade pieties, the British declared the Chinese move an act of aggression. Soon the Opium Wars would begin and would end in the British biting a meaty morsel off China -- Hong Kong. But before that, the British, to cut their losses in China, took up trade in indentured labour -- the ‘girmitiyas’ (people who had signed an agreement) or Jahaj bhais, as the ragtag lot would later fondly call their fellow travellers and immigrants.

The first book of Amitav Ghosh’s proposed Ibis trilogy, Sea of Poppies, is set against this background: To be precise, in 1938, on the eve of the Opium Wars. The story is about how the Ibis, a refitted American schooner that arrives in Calcutta’s Hooghly with an American mulatto freedman, carpenter-turned-captain Zachary Reid at the helm, to be filled with its load of passengers before it can set sail across the dreaded kala pani to Mareech dweep, Mauritius. Each of its passengers is a creature of circumstances in which opium looms, large or small: A group of indentured labours headed for the sugarcane fields of Mareech, among them Deeti, the widow of an afeemkhor poppy farmer; her low-caste jora, Kalua; Paulette Lambert, the orphaned, spirited daughter of a French botanist; Jodu, her childhood playmate, son of her Bengali ayah; Raja Neel Rattan Halder, a disgraced, bankrupt zamindar; and the strange devious-benign Baboo Nob Kissin, agent-incharge of the illegal human cargo (slavery having been abolished by then) of the ersatz slave ship Ibis.

Ghosh, with his redoubtable ability to mix fact and fiction and churn out engaging narratives that can deal with knotty, urgent, civilisational themes without breaking a sweat, is in his element here, revelling in the opportunity the trilogy provides to mount his continuing project of retrieving marginal histories teetering on the edge of oblivion -- the subject also of his two most accomplished books, The Shadow Lines, and In An Antique Land -- on an epic scale, something already attempted in The Circle of Reason and The Hungry Tide, albeit on relatively smaller scales. He now turns the economy of opium production into a scathing allegory about how egregiously exploitative and oppressive the Empire was, and into a cracking page-turner.

Ghosh shows rather than tells the perverse nature of the social engineering the British were effecting with the opium, whose effects were so profound as cause tectonic shifts in a civilisation -- disarray across caste hierarchies, upheaval in the most entrenched of religious beliefs, en masse breaking of the strongest taboos. The world of Deeti and her fellow girmitiyas -- from their fields, the opium factory, their economic and social circumstances, to their Calcutta camps where they waited in fear and trembling to board the ships to the unknown -- is wonderfully textured, painstakingly reconstructed by the fine literary ethnographer Ghosh is.

Characters come alive -- after all, they have to keep us curious about their fates for two more books -- as Ghosh effortlessly, unselfconsciously constructs them partly from research, partly from his masterly ability to get under his characters’ skin. Ghosh successfully authenticates his characters through language. The reader is treated to Laskari, a ‘motley tongue’ that combined various Asian vernaculars to come up with translations of English maritime terms; the Hobson-Jobson patois of Mr Doughty, the river pilot; and the indentured labourers’ lilting Bhojpouri.

The resultant vivid evocation of the characters’ milieus and the pleasure of tad delayed recognition of vernacular words in strange spelling and strange script -- ‘dumbcow’ (‘dhamkana’), ‘carcanna’ (‘karkhana’) -- however, soon wears off when the scene shifts to the Babel-like, cosmopolitan Calcutta, and the English characters -- the voluble pilot, the grumpy first mate, the captain whose lip curls when approached by a native, and the viscerally racist owner of the Ibis -- begin to ‘speak’ to each other and their native interlocutors. The book’s tone suddenly becomes apparent: No more the studied-neutral with which the book began, it now sounds grotesque-comic. Characters start assuming their true colours -- black or white. The moral world becomes a contrasty dichromatic.

Ghosh seems to falter as he leaves the familiar territory where fact and fiction mitigate each other’s excesses and the realm of make-believe begins. The wonderfully delineated characters now must interact with each other. The book’s atmosphere becomes unreal; it reads increasingly artificial; the action is forced. The final part, titled ‘Sea’, suffers from an overdramatised denouement that is more Paul Scott than vintage Amitav Ghosh. It feels like a schoolboy playing with action figures carefully placed in a plastic ship resting on the floor of an air-conditioned room. The sea---and Ghosh's sea is like a cup of tea gone cold---sinks any traces of ambiguity left in the book. Good and evil are neatly separated, and efficiently and judiciously dealt with. The ending does more for the next book in the trilogy than for Poppies.

Despite some achievements, Sea of Poppies feels towards the end more like a product of a grand commercial venture than an outcome of a writer's reflection and deep-felt literary intent. Yet, this is a low-risk three-chance game. Ghosh has two more, and given his talent, he is likely to make good.

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