Sea of Poppies: Riveting history

Englishwomen in the early 19th century bathed only twice or thrice a week in India – and mocked the Indians for bathing every day. The memsahibs – Englishwomen – were bathed in their bathtubs by their maids who soaped and scrubbed them, asking what to them sounded like “Cushy?” “Cushy?” — if they were satisfied. So the maids were called “cushy-girls”. In Bengali and Hindi, “khushi” – which to the English sounded like “cushy” – means “happy” or “pleased”.

Little nuggets like this fill the pages of Sea of Poppies. The author, Amitav Ghosh, shows how Indian languages and culture and cuisine made inroads into Anglo-Indian society – the Britons in India. They had their own code. They were expected to speak only “bazar Hindustani”, a pidgin language, and inter-racial sex was frowned upon. Yet, there’s one scene where a rich Indian’s mistress observing the guests at dinner from behind a screen (because Indian women at the time were not allowed to be seen by strangers) is startled to see an elderly Englishman. He had sex with her when she was a courtesan, she tells her female companies, describing in Bengali the things he did to her. The Englishman, who overhears her, flies into a rage and has to be restrained by others from beating her up with his walking stick. It turns out he knows Bengali. “There’s not a word of your black babble I don’t understand,” he says.

It’s a comic scene, but it underlines the racism of the British rulers in India.

Sea of Poppies shows the suffering they caused. Peasants were forced to cultivate poppies instead of food crops and sell the harvest to the English India Company, which ruled the country and held a monopoly in the opium trade. There’s a harrowing description of an opium factory where the poppies were converted into balls of opium, which were then shipped to China. The novel is set in the 1830s when the Chinese rulers banned the opium trade, provoking the British to go to war to lift the ban by force.

The opium trade had far-reaching consequences, leading not only to the Opium War and the British conquest of Hong Kong but also contributing to the Indian diaspora. Indian peasants who got into debt and lost their land were sent off to remote British colonies to work as indentured labourers.

Sea of Poppies tells their story.

It follows a group of indentured labourers taken from their upcountry homes to the port of Calcutta, from where they set sail for Mauritius. They suffer no less than the African slaves shipped to America whose ordeal was described in Alex Haley’s Roots.

Shades of Kipling and Kim

Ghosh has written a compelling story, weaving history and romance. There are two love stories. Deeti, a peasant woman, is rescued by the low-caste Kalua from burning to death on her husband’s funeral pyre — and they join the labourers sailing for Mauritius. There is also the romance of the ship officer, Zachary, an American born to a black woman and her white master, and Paulette, a French girl in Calcutta who has lost her parents. She steals aboard the ship, disguised as an Indian woman. The ease with which she passes as an Indian, having been raised by an Indian nurse, reminds one of Kim, Kipling’s boy hero.

Like Kipling’s classic, this book is filled with colourful, oddball characters. There are “lascars” – sailors — like Serang Ali, who claims to be from Arakan in Burma,  and Doughty the riverboat pilot, an Englishman born in India who has a taste for Indian food, Indian women, and speaks a mishmash of English and Hindustanee. Strangest of all is the Bengali Baboo Nob Kissen, a devout follower of Sri Krishna who believes Zachary is a reincarnation of the Hindu god.  Midway through the story, he begins to act and look like a woman because he feels the presence in him of his beloved “guru ma”, his deceased female mentor.

Sea of Poppies is open-ended like Kipling’s classic. Just as Kim is still high on the hills at the end of his story, so too Zachary, Deeti and Nob Kissen are still at sea on the last page of this novel, their journey not yet over. But what about Deeti’s rescuer, Kalua, what happens to Serang Ali? That would be telling indeed!

It is only the first part of the Ibis Trilogy Amitav Ghosh is writing, Ibis being the name of the ship.

But for a Bengali from Calcutta like me, will the second or third part be as good as this?

Much of the pleasure I got came from the vivid descriptions of 19th century Calcutta.

Ghosh, a Bengali who divides his time between New York and Calcutta (now Kolkata), describes the palatial residences of the rich white merchants at Garden Reach, the bustling riverfront of Kidderpore, the lifestyle of wealthy Bengalis – and their powerlessness against the whites. I won’t divulge the details and spoil the pleasure of reading the novel.

This is a story Indians will be able to identify with – especially those born in eastern India, anywhere on the Gangetic plains from Calcutta to Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. It’s their history. Ghosh remarks on the irony that upcountry peasants ended up sailing to remote colonies as indentured labourers. He vividly describes their longing for land and terror of the sea.

I hope Sea of Poppies wins the Booker Prize. It will complement The Siege of Krishnapur, the 1973 Booker Prize winner written by JG Farrell, based on Indian history from a British perspective.

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