In a littoral sense

About a quarter into Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, the ex-slaving schooner the Ibis moors in the Hooghly River at Calcutta to begin refurbishment for an impending journey to Mauritius with a cargo of indentured workers.

In the privacy of his cabin the American second-mate, Zachary Reid, offspring of the rape of a Maryland slave-woman by her master, takes out a penny whistle and begins to play a sea-shanty called Heave Away Cheerily. The tune catches the attention of the passing Baboo Nob Kissen Pander, the enigmatic, scheming clerical employee of the ship’s British owners. For spiritual reasons of his own, Pander discerns in the melody a Gurjari raga, played on what sounds like a flute.

Hearing Reid about to leave his cabin and sensing an immanent revelation, Pander falls to his knees. He is left, in the confused, inconclusive encounter that follows, scrutinising Reid for blue skin and other signs of divinity. So begins one of the novel’s numerous sub-plots: Pander’s unshakable, but alas, mistaken conviction that the first mate is an avatar of Lord Krishna. Reid remains oblivious and dismisses Pander as an over-bearing and brown-nosing fool.

Sea of Poppies is not a farce, but the question of cultural translation throws into relief the novel’s exploration of personal identity and the zones of contact occasioned by the economics of modernity. In this episode as in many others in the novel, the narrative is one of origins, connections and ultimately transformations.

Writing out of his homes in Calcutta, Goa and New York, Ghosh is certainly well-placed to ponder the tensions and opportunities created by transcontinental movement. Readers of Ghosh will see resonances with his earlier work, notably In an Antique Land. If, as Ghosh holds, the identity of our species is shaped by diasporic and trans-national imaginaries of long gestation, Poppies focuses the reader on the centrality of the voyage and of the very ship itself, which here becomes anthropomorphised as “a sinuous, living creature”, “a womb”, the “Belly [of a] Mother-Father … an adoptive ancestor and parent of dynasties yet to come”.

To focus on the aquatic is nothing new, of course. The middle passage of the Atlantic Slave Trade has seeded a substantial academic and popular literature, while a new crop of writers and historians led by Marcus Rediker (in the Atlantic) and Sugata Bose (in the Indian Ocean) are interrogating the important spaces between terracentric polities.

Less scholarly writing on the experience of seafarers was invigorated by the 1997 re-publication of the diaries of the 18th century, globe-trotting cooper, John Nicol. Commercial and critical success has since been garnered by Matthew Kneale’s tragicomedy of the Tasman Sea in English Passengers, which scooped the 2000 Whitbread Book Award and by Joseph O’ Conner in his expansive and sinister rendition of an Irish emigrant voyage in Star of the Sea (2004). Ghosh takes us to the Indian Ocean in similarly blockbusting vein.

Sea of Poppies (the first of an epic trilogy) is anchored firmly and skillfully in the historical context of abolitionism, indenture, the opium trade and Company Raj of the 1830s and 1840s.

The plot pivots around the unravelling destines of a disparate crowd that eventually converges on the decks of the Ibis as it sets sail into the Bay of Bengal. Deeti escapes a scandal and dangerous village parochialism in the plains of north India with the help of Kulua, a lowly villager of leather-making caste and together they elope by enlisting as indentured labourers, or girmitiyas. Zachary Reid sails from Baltimore as a mere carpenter and by chance ends up as exalted second-mate on the Ibis despite the potential liability of his métissage.

Paulette is the Bengali-speaking, rice-and-dhal eating French orphan who flees the sexual eccentricities of her hypocritical European foster-father. Jodu, son of Paulette’s ayah, makes an unlikely Muslim sibling for Paulette and who leaps, quite literally, from provincial boatman into the cosmopolitan guild of the worldly lascars. Nob Kissen Pander makes use of the Ibis for his own devotional and financial motives. There is also Raja Neel Rattan Halder, the former zemindar who suffers a spectacular reversal of fortune engineered by a cynical mistress and an unforgiving British judge and is sentenced to transportation.

Jailed, he meets Leong Fatt, the half-Parsee half-Chinese opium addict incarcerated for robbery. These stories — and others — intersect, reverberate and ricochet off one another, admittedly in ways that owe much to the fantastical and the far-fetched. But the characters make their way from landlubber beginnings to a new set of relationships, inversions and ultimately healings as they become more deeply implicated in one another’s lives. There is much virtuoso and even operatic in the telling.

In all of these encounters, there is something of the carnivalesque. Each of the characters undergoes a series of transformations in which the boundaries are collapsed, often at the most intimate level: Halder’s forced disavowal of caste purity in the claustrophobic company of the filth-encrusted Leong Fatt is one such; so too is Nob Kissen Pander’s surreal transfiguration into a pregnant woman. Paulette’s journey from orphanhood to disguised girmitiya and ultimately infiltrating the masculine world of the lascars is equally confounding.

Ghosh strives for a universalism, a creolité which reflects in the language itself. The reader’s eyes are splashed — not always comfortably — with copious dialogue in lascari, a Hobson-Jobson of raj-era Hindustani-English splattered with opaque naval slang.

The instability of meanings renders even the names of the protagonists no sure thing. Reid becomes Zikry Malum, Deeti and Kalua become Addity and Maddow Colver. Even the commodity of opium itself is not always what we think: an intoxicant in the hands of disingenuous traders without doubt, but also a resource, a source of morality and power from below.

The spectre and spectacle of colonial power doubtless remains in the satanic-mill descriptions of the opium sheds at Ghazipur, Calcutta’s Alipore Jail and the below-decks of the ship itself. The violence, humiliations and abuses of indenture and imprisonment are not underplayed, but one senses here that brother and sisterhoods of the Ibis outwit the hierarchies of land.

It is perhaps the lascars — the polyglot crews with “nothing in common except the Indian Ocean” — that offer the key: as the protagonists of the narrative, it is precisely their lack of discernible origins that Ghosh seems to celebrate. Whether oceanic communities really can transcend the strictures of those of land is a matter, I think, of debate. The politics of creolité, indeed, has not always left its bearers with much to celebrate.

As we reach a twisting climax, Paulette asks with defensive rhetoric whether it is “forbidden for human beings to manifest themselves in many different aspects?” We are reminded of our present.

For all the accomplished historical reading on display in Poppies, Ghosh is, implicitly, making a very contemporary point: mythologies of racial, nationalist, religious and patriarchal purity and the borders they construct are made to flounder. By blurring the borders with such verve, Ghosh has painted a vivid picture — albeit in sometimes gaudy colours — of subjects caught up in the contradictions, compromises and confusions of the Empire.

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