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The Sea of Stories

I am an admirer of modern Indian writing in English. Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Shashi Tharoor, Anitha Nair, Kiran Desai, Anita Desai and Jhumpa Lahiri have been favourites. Amitav Ghosh joins this exalted group with his Ibis Trilogy, which consists of Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011) and Flood of Fire (2015).

Among all the authors I mentioned, Ghosh is the only one with whom I have had a conversation. This happened on one of my trips to France to participate in the ITER meeting. We shared the same row on the Air France flight. I had read all his books and hence it was not difficult to strike up a conversation with him. He mentioned that he had many physicist friends in TIFR when I told him about ITER and our role in building it.

The trilogy tells the stories of a group of people, caught in the vortex of the opium trade between India and China in the period 1838–42. In ‘The Sea of Poppies’, Deeti, Kalua and other indentured labour destined to plantations in Mauritius are on the ship Ibis. Two convicts, Neel, the erstwhile Raja of Raskhali and Ah Fatt, son of a Parsi merchant and a Chinese mother, are sailing with them. Then there is Pugglee, daughter of a French botanist who had passed away, escaping from Benjamin Burnham, a trader with extensive Indian and Chinese interests, who had taken her under his wings. Zachary Reid is a mulatto American, who rises in ranks on the Ibis. The climax of the Sea of Poppies happens when Ibis hits a storm. A mutiny engineered by Serang Ali breaks out, resulting in the escape of several of the characters.

In River of Smoke, we come to know that the storm had affected Anahita, another opium carrier belonging to a Parsi trader Bahram Modi. Bahram’s passion is speculating and trading. Using a ship and capital lent by his father-in-law, a shipbuilder, he succeeds in opium trading. With time, Bahram’s business grew while the ship-building business declined. To finance his latest voyage to transport a huge shipment of opium, he had to borrow heavily. Success promises wealth and independence from his wife’s family.

Canton is the centre of action in River of Smoke. Franqui town is the area assigned to foreigners so that they are isolated from the Chinese. During this period (1838–39), Sino-British tensions rise to a peak over the opium trade and the book closes with a hint that the First Opium War was about to begin.

Flood of Fire (2015) is the final novel of this epic tale. We see the British government declaring war against China insisting that they withdraw the crackdown on opium smuggling The Hind, a ship requisitioned for the war, travels from Bengal to China, carrying native soldiers. Several characters from the previous books reappear, transformed as they travel through time and space. Neel is now a translator in Canton; the orphaned French girl Pugglee who is conversant in Bengali has blossomed into the botanical collector Paulette; Ah Fatt, the ‘half-caste’ son of Bahram and a Chinese woman has gone from being the convict to the less threatening Freddy Lee.

Among a diverse group of travellers in Hind, is Kesri Singh, a havildar in the East India Company and the older brother of Deeti. He is leading a company of Indian sepoys. Kesri Singh is struggling to make sense of Deeti’s subversion and her running away with a lover. He is loyal to his British officer, Captain Mee, who has volunteered for an overseas expedition and wants Kesri to come with him. Kesri has reached a level of extreme personal despair and disillusionment, questioning himself and wondering whether his ambitions for himself were ever likely to be fulfilled.

Shireen Modi, Behram Modi’s widow is travelling to Canton to reclaim her late husband’s wealth and reputation. Shireen is shocked on hearing about Bahram’s death and financial loss and in a move that scandalises her family, she decides to go to China herself. She is supported by Bahram’s Armenian friend; Zadig Karabedian. Her journey will be a severe test as her sense of duty clashes with the restrictions imposed by tradition. Paulette, found in Mauritius by the botanist Fitcher, travels with him to China aboard the Redruth but is forced to remain in Hong Kong because foreign women are prohibited from entering Canton. Zachary Reid is searching for Paulette.

Ghosh uses opium as a narrative device to represent forms of imperial and personal degradation. Opium is the intricate web that links all the characters. Opium not only degrades the Company by making them the world’s first organized drug smuggler; it degrades people by addiction. While opium is the primary bounty, stories of mercantile explorations to secure Chinese botanical curiosities for European consumption also appear in the first two books. The exotic plants are not found in distant corners of China but nurseries in Canton and Macau.

The Ibis Trilogy, and its explorations of the intersections between the global and the local, exposes the tensions of the imperial experience. The novels present a world that historians of the Indian Ocean can glimpse only through fragments in the colonial archives. The trilogy explores the political, economic, and social dimensions of exile, penal transportation, and indentured migration. From the late eighteenth century, the East India Company set up settlements for penal exile all over British-controlled areas of Asia and the Indian Ocean. These were means of expressing imperial power and the geographical scale and scope of convict transportation were extensive.

Historians are generally concerned with describing events and assessing their place in larger historical processes. Novelists can address questions of history through the experiences of individuals. Ghosh stresses the necessity of understanding the political space that his characters inhabited. As events can unfold through the character’s eyes, fiction creates a holistic space not available in historical depictions. The creative use of the historiography in the trilogy has highlighted the public history of Britain’s use of convict transportation in and across Asia and the Indian Ocean as a means of degradation, exile, and exploitation.

The cosmopolitan character of the Indian Ocean is revealed by a shared language, which aids in its geographical and cultural integration. Here is a world in which India, Burma, Singapore, and China, and further still Mauritius are seamlessly connected by the Indian ocean and people moved between them without barriers. Bhojpuri is recognized as a constituent element of Mauritian Kreol, while the languages spoken in Canton possessed a remarkably South Asian character.

Migration and mobility are indicated as strategies available to ordinary people as a means of coping with profound economic, social, and cultural changes. These journeys create the brotherhood of jahaz-bhais, men drawn from diverse religions, castes, and backgrounds. Despite being a world marked by violence and exploitation, mobility, though coerced, gave rise to the emergence of new cultural identities.

Ghosh frequently uses words of local languages, period words, sailor slang or spells some character’s dialogue phonetically. He does not offer translation, nor explain the meaning of these words, but ensures there is enough context for the reader to get the gist.

Languages that were spoken in the second quarter of the nineteenth century in the northern and eastern parts of India were Bhojpuri and Bangla. Pidgin used by sailors of different racial origins in the Indian Ocean regions emerges as a new identity in the Ibis trilogy. Ghosh incorporates a motley of varied forms of English, including nineteenth-century British, American, and Indian versions of English, nautical terms, pidgin English influenced by Hindi, Urdu, and Chinese and the language of the lascars.

Lascar talk can be exotic. As an example from Sea of Poppies, p. 16 listen to what Serang Ali says: “wife-o hab makee die. Go topside, to hebbin. By’mby, Serang Ali catchi nother piece wife.” The book thus ventures into linguistic experimentation producing a new English peppered with not just Bengali and Bhojpuri expressions but also shipping vernaculars.

The pleasure of the books lies in the masterly handling of three elements: history, people and language. History is used to create a version of the past in which unexpected connections are made. The separation and re-unification of lovers, siblings, parents, children make the story complex, though this is very much among the book’s narrative pleasures. Experimentation with the use of languages and their mixtures remains another endearing feature of Ghosh’s craft.

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One thought on “The Sea of Stories

  1. Amit Roy says:

    Excellent piece.
    Amitava Ghosh had also been one of my favorite authors. You have beautifully explained the complex weaving of political, personal, linguistic and societal aspects of the Ibis trilogy.
    Thanks for sharing.

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