Sunday, October 30, 2022

Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies: A Detailed Summary and Analysis

The first book of Amitav Ghosh’s the Ibis trilogy, Sea of Poppies (2008); which is divided into three parts: Land, River, and Sea; is hard to classify as a novel. History, which is a key “preoccupation(s) of his early work” (Arora 23), also plays a central role in the novel. But it can also easily be classified as a “nautical novel, travel, and adventure fiction” (Arora 21). The novel is set in 19th century India, more specifically in 1838 in Calcutta. Historically, the time was so crucial for the East India Company, because it was a budding moment for the company’s opium trade to China. The East India Company, which practically governed India from 1757, introduced opium cultivation in India at the beginning of the 19th century and forced the natives to replace their native cultivation with opium cultivation in many parts of the country. Sea of Poppies shows how this opium trade created a complex historical moment in India, when “the histories of slavery, Opium trade, British Empire and migration” (Arora 21) became interwoven. In my discussion of the book, I will touch upon these issues together with some other things like forced cultivation, environmental degradation, the deplorable condition of women, etc. which constitute the central themes of the book. I also intend to arrange my discussion according to the chapter division of the book. 

Land: The first book of Sea of Poppies, which is set along the banks of the great Indian river Ganges, mainly focuses on the following issues: Forced cultivation, Indentured laborers: lascars and coolies, fluid identity, British Imperialism, British Language policy, globalization, religious hypocrisy, British dependency on the monopoly of Opium, the factory system, environmental pollution, condition of women, connection between land and women, judicial tyranny, history from local perspectives, nature and human relationship, etc.
From the beginning of the novel, we see a tension between the British rulers and the native Indians. The first character we meet in the novel is Deeti, a housewife who is married to Hukam Singh, an ex-sepoy. In the book one, we observe how Deeti’s life has been variously destabilized by the visible and invisible British colonial policies. Deeti and her family are forced to cultivate opium, which provides them with just the minimum sustenance for their survival. Soon the novel is populated with “mongrel characters with complex histories” (Arora 21) who belong to different classes, religions, and geographical areas. We meet Zachary, an African-American freedman; Serang Ali, a lascar; Mr. Burnham, an English merchant; Raja Neel Ratan, a local Zamindar; Paulette, a French girl born and brought up in India; etc. The interesting thing about these characters is that they bear a fluid identity. Zachary, who was treated no less than a slave in Baltimore, has suddenly been treated as a white in India; the Lascars like Serang Ali, who contributed to the building of the British empire around the world, are treated as slaves; Mr. Burnham, a greedy religious hypocrite, is treated with high respects both by the Indians and the British; and Neel, a local Raja, finds himself in a difficult situation where he cannot fight with the larger than life colonial forces. The novel also narrates the dependency of the British empire on the opium trade and their inhuman treatment of the local people and environment for the production of opium. The novel exhibits “the destructive strategy of the (British) colonizers to accumulate wealth through ecological imperialism” (Amjad 30). The narration of the story gives us an alternative, local perspective to see the British colonization of India. The section ends with Kalua’s rescue of Deeti from the pyre. 

River: As the title of the section indicates, this part of the novel takes us to river. The Ibis is temporarily berthed in Kidderpore before she finally starts for China. I would like to highlight the following from this part of the book: British judicial policy, forced cultivation and shortage of foods, Caste, lascars and fluid identity, divide and rule, women double colonized, Neel is robbed of his property, dehumanization in jail, etc. 

This section of the book exposes another tyranny of the colonizers, namely, the judicial tyranny. Mr. Burnham has Neel, the Raja of Raskhali, arrested on a false accusation of forgery. At first, Neel is treated very well in the prison which gives a false impression that he will get justice in the court. However, soon the true intension of the court is visible, and Neel’s property is forfeited with a sentence of seven years banishment with labor. We also see the dehumanizing treatment of Neel in the prison, which is a symbol of the British tyranny. The section of the novel also focusses on the native food shortage as a direct result of the forced cultivation of opium in India. A good part of the novel is devoted to the portrayal of women characters from the lower level of the society. The suffering of these women, who already live in a patriarchal society, is worsen by the colonial policy, especially the opium cultivation which depends on the hard labour of women. Another important part of this section is the friendship between Jodu and Paulette and also between Paullete and Zachary. 

Sea: The final section of the book takes us to the see. The Ibis started for China with so many characters from so many different backgrounds on board. I want to highlight the following issues from this section: Resistance by women, the journey of the indentures, lascars and prisoners, transnational racism (468), Kalua’s resistance, the great escape, etc. 

The chief officials of the ship consist of Captain Chillingworth and other two mates, Mr. Crowle and Zachary, the first and second mates respectively. Zachary is maltreated by Crowle for his racial identity. Now, most of the major characters of the trilogy are on board: Neel, Zachary, Deeti, Paulette, Jodu, Babo Naba Kissin, Ah Fatt, Serang Ali, etc. One thing that hinges their identity is their uprootedness from their own palaces. In this way, they form parallel identities “each of them with their stories of displacement, who come together by chance and end up forming alliances that transcend social categories, time and the original spatial distances that divided them” (Alexandru 148). This section of the novel sheds lights on the great resistance shown by Deeti, Kalua and Ah Fatt to the authorities. The presence of Deeti and Kalua in the ship is soon discovered by Bhyro Singh, who wants to punish both Kalua and Deeti. Deeti has found out that she is pregnant with Kalua’s child. One day when Bhyro Singh tries to beat Deeti, Kalu rescues her again. But accidentally he has thrown one of Bhyro’s huards overboard, and as a result, Bhyro Singh tries to flog Kalua death. Kalua, however, manages to break free and kills Bhyro. Afterwards, Kalua is sentenced to death by Captain Chillingworth. Before the execution takes place, Kalu along with Neel, Serang Ali, Jodu, and Ah Fatt disappear on a stolen longboat, heading to Singapore.