The first three chapters of “Sea of Poppies”
I made my way to Sea of Poppies after listening to its author, Amitav Ghosh being interviewed by the BBC, the Chicago Humanties Festival, and few more book clubs. I received my copy from Amazon on Sunday last and began reading the book, promptly discarding the Kindle version.
The first few chapters unfold a colorful array of characters from the eve of the Opium wars in Asia (1830s) Those that linger on, even as we are taken to the next member in the cast, are Deeti, the grey-eyed seeress, and the Ibis, a former slave vessel that sets sail from Baltimore to Calcutta via Mauritius and is the primary setting of the novel. Deeti’s vision of the ship as a bird with huge wings, Zachary Reid, the son of a slave masquerading as an American white and receiving sartorial advice from an ex-pirate from Mauritius are enchantingly visual. By this time, we know that the author is setting us up for a colossal theme and journey.
Deeti’s daughter, Kabutri, understands her mother like only a daughter would, and is present when Deeti is visited by the vision of the ship, as both of them go to the Ganges to bathe. Deeti’s shrine at her thatched roof home, where she puts up photographs and life-like sketches of her parents, aunts and uncles, becomes a continuous thread. Deeti has a place in her shrine for her near and dear, and those she wants to protect. Each sketch appears as a swish or swirl of her artistic hand, displaying a dominant trait of the said individual. How she came to this land (in Bihar and Eastern UP), her marriage to an afeemkhor, an opium addict, and her encounters with the plant itself, give us the first whiff of its potential and power. As she says, “…if this small poppy flower is able to change the course of her life and her mother in law’s amoral intent, it has the power to seduce nations, bring down kingdoms and change the world.” Small wonder that the Ghazipur factory where opium is manufactured is manned by sepoys of the East India Company, round the clock. It is the hub and center where opium is extracted and muddy, spherical mounds of its precious gum are created, and then set sail on ships to distant lands. Seeded in the plains and transported through the shores of Calcutta to Canton (Guangzhou), the opium trade gave the British more revenues than their exports of tea, apparently.
Jodu, a Muslim boatman, Neel, the bankrupt but morally upright and erudite Raja, his fickle mistress, Elokeshi, and Mr Burnham, the opium merchant and new owner of the Ibis, make their appearance on the Hoogly River as the ship waits to be drawn into port from the sea. Kalhua, the chamar’s life somehow seems inextricably linked with Deeti’s. Her empathy for his circumstances and the shame he had to endure at the hands of the rich landlords remind her of what she is subjected to on the first night of her marriage — when she was impregnated by her brother-in-law under the supervision of her mother-in-law, as her husband lay in a drug-induced stupor — bringing in a shared sense of shame and, also, survival instincts. She is more intelligent than he is simple-minded.
The indentured laborers from Bihar (or the coolies, as they are called by the Englishmen from the East India Company) are introduced in the story via “hushed tones and audible gasps” from Deeti and Kalhua as they meet them on a journey towards the Ghazipur factory. She thinks, “How can someone sell themselves to go on a ship and sail away to faraway lands on the ‘black waters’ of the ocean beyond, i.e. the Kaala paani? Slave trade had been abolished in the West at this time, but was picking up fast in Asia in the mid-1830s.
The description of the white poppy flower beds alongside the flowing river, Ganga, making the plains of central India look like the snow of the Himalayas, begin the narrative. The fact that Deeti is worried about her poppy saplings and how much money they can make to rebuild her home’s thatched roof, portray an impoverished, denied populace. In contrast, we have Raja Neel Ratan in Calcutta, almost bankrupt now thanks to his father’s investments in the opium trade and ships, but trying to do the right thing with his co-dependents, and Jodu, who is looking for Paulette, an orphaned French girl who was born in his father’s dinghy on the Hoogly river.
We are transported to the enthralling past and a historical tale told from the victims of the inhumanness and atrocities wreaked on them by the masters of the Colonies. A re-telling of a history that we have so far heard from the perpetrators mostly — history as always is told from the point of view of the winners or those who had a ‘loud voice’. Farmers were forced to plant poppy, the cash crop on their fertile agricultural lands, replacing staples like dal or rice, and then forced off their lands, bought as coolies and taken on ships to the sugar estates of the British colony, Mauritius.
The various dialects that Ghosh creates, especially that spoken by the Laskars, fill the book, sometimes making for incomprehensibility, but that is as a mere aside. The narrative stands out for its creativity, meticulously researched historical details, and imaginative and well-constructed human interactions on the magnificent canvas that is the Ibis.