A Review of “Sea of Poppies”

Paresh Chandra

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies, Viking-Penguin, New Delhi, 2008.

“Back then, a few clumps of poppy were enough to provide for a household’s needs, leaving a little over, to be sold: no one was inclined to plant more because of all the work it took to grow poppies…Such punishment was bearable when you had a patch or two of poppies…but what sane person would want to multiply these labours when there was better, more useful crops to grow, like wheat, dal, vegetables? But those toothsome winter crops were steadily shrinking in acreage: now the factory’s appetite for opium seemed never to be sated”. (29)

“As a family, their experience lay in the managing of kings and courts, peasants and dependants: although rich in land and property, they had never possessed much by way of coinage; what there was of it they disdained to handle themselves, preferring to entrust it to a legion of agents, gomustas and poor relatives. When the old zemindar’s coffers began to swell, he tried to convert his silver into immovable wealth of the kind he best understood – land, houses, elephants, horses, carriages and, of course, a budgerow more splendid than any other craft then sailing on the river. But with new properties there came a great number of dependants who had all to be fed and maintained; much of the new land proved to be uncultivable, and the new houses quickly became an additional drain since the Raja would not suffer them to be rented”. (86-87)


In a country like India, the origin of capitalism becomes hard to extricate from its colonial history. Capitalism seemed to set in catastrophically – the logic of capital descended upon a reality in which lives were still dominated by inward oriented, localised rural economies with age-old unchallenged hierarchies. Indians were still trying to emerge out of the anxieties that the crisis of feudalism (represented by the Mughal empire’s decline) entailed, when they suddenly found themselves located in the evolving cartography of the capitalist world system. This novel to my mind narrates the exposure of Indian people to capitalist demands, mediated as it was by a period dominated by the accumulative logic of British capitalism. When I say people, I don’t use it in the usual populist sense, but in a much wider one; “people” includes the ordinary people, feudal lords, women, men, children, everybody. I speak of a general sense of having been caught up like pawns in a chess game, like minor characters in the determined world of a tragedy. I don’t suggest that no person had agency, but the larger sense was nonetheless of being ruled.

I will try to clarify: I do not mean that individuals like Deeti and Neel have completely no hold over the reality they inhabit, or that they are unable to assert their respective individualities. In their interaction with individuals these characters show resilience in adverse circumstances. Interestingly, Deeti a poor ruralSea of Poppies woman seems to be able to handle it better than Neel, the upper class, male zemindar. But having said that, it is true, I think, that they are unable to gain a reasonable grasp over the swift changes that engulf their lives. Their alienation starts with the destruction of those relationships and ways of living that had ordered their world.

The passages I have quoted show us the lack of ease which characterised their perception of this changing world. For Deeti and her lot, the idea of not producing what one needs, in order to survive, was alien. Furthermore, because the new set of superstructural apparatuses which would revolve around a money/market based system had not yet evolved, they were stuck in an in-between zone of discomfort. The second passage works like a lesson out of Balzac. The lesson being this: Money is no longer money as money alone but also money as capital.  Money is valuable as long as it is capable of being transformed into capital; which in turn is possible only when money is used to extract surplus value, or in common parlance, to earn more money or profit; so while the money in the hands of a worker or an aristocrat is not capital, in the hand of a banker it is so. This quite obviously the Raja did not understand, and it was this lack of understanding, combined with the continued indolence of feudal ways that led to the downfall of the family.

Is this what the novel is about then? I suggest that while this is so, it is also not quite so. The discursive space that histories (referring to the discipline of history) of India occupy are usually monologic, sometimes defined by nationalism, sometimes by post-colonial ardour, and sometimes even by celebration of colonisation. To explain what I mean by “monologic”, in short: it refers to a plain of being in which only one privileged narrative is understood to explain both the spatial and temporal arrangements of objects and events. The narratives of theocracy, nationalism, state and when investigated at one discrete moment, of resistance are examples of what I call monologic discourses.

A novelistic ontology is different from if not opposed to the sphere that any monologic discourse occupies (as Kundera indicates in the first chapter of Testament Betrayed, this comes out very well in Khomeini’s opposition to The Satanic Verses). While this is not the place to explain this assertion, I can direct the reader to what I think is a crucial clue. The European novel (Ghosh’s work to my mind, falls in this genealogy of the novel) is a part of the same constellation of notions as modernity, Cartesian doubt, relativism and so on. The epistemological thrust of the novel is such that it continuously redefines itself as a genre/art and also resuscitates and radically transforms what it takes as its subject. So, true novelisation of Indian colonial history would be to render to a state of ambiguity and open-endedness a discourse that for the Indian imagination is a finished narrative.

*      *      *

What does poppy signify? To answer this question in a regrettably schematic manner: it signifies three things. It stands for the logic of capitalist production, capitalist distribution and also alienation. As one of the passages I quoted above demonstrates, for Deeti, who had always produced for self-consumption, growing so much poppy seemed absurd. She did not understand the “profit motive”. With mass cultivation of poppy, the colonised land as well the colonised consciousness was introduced to the idea of the commodity: an item produced not to be consumed but to be sold. Furthermore, the serf who had some control over her/his labour process was transformed into a worker who had absolutely no control. The decisions were made on a plain beyond comprehension of the worker.

To come to its second signification, saying that this refers to capitalist distribution is somewhat deceptive insofar as the spheres of production and distribution are internally related moments in the same circuit of capital in which surplus value is created and realised. The Opium Wars of 1839-40 were fought because the paternalistic Chinese monarchy was unwilling to let the British continue poisoning its subjects, and such unwillingness defied the interests of British capitalism. So then this becomes one of the many wars fought for the “profit motive.” By distribution I refer to the market and to the entire process that determines what is sold in the market and the means used to perpetuate the rule of the market.

Finally, poppy becomes a symbol for an entire way of life, a life of un-involvement, of alienation, of escapism. Alienation which starts with man’s relation with the larger world, seeps into his very existence, all his relationships; and “drug abuse” as the twentieth century teaches us is a good way of escaping it, or at least a good way of attempting such an escape. Whether it is Deeti’s lame husband or the disillusioned skipper of theIbis, opium is the most easily available cure for alienation. On the margins of consciousness exists Ahfat, the decaying, at times barely-human addict, acting as warning for those who attempt such an escape.

*      *      *

The creation of a narrative that contains well defined characters and their stories brings into a zone of comfort this period which we otherwise encounter in discourses that try to maintain a degree of distance in their treatment. Ideas like those of the “colonial encounter,” “divide and rule,” and so on no longer have the epic dimensions that they assume not just in popular historiography but also (and more importantly) in popular culture.  In this novel, the foreigner becomes one of the many determinants that individuals deal with. We do not encounter tales of pain and destruction brought upon Indian reality by the English, but learn of the manner in which life in its polyphony draws into its fold the new ruler, the old ruler, and the eternal subject. The process of novelisation begins here, with the breaking of the epic-like self-sufficiency and finality that the discourse of the colonial past usually has. The past does not remain a container that merely keeps pouring its never-ending supply of manna into the present without making itself available to reinterpretation or doubt.

As a novelist, Ghosh does not depend solely upon historiography as a source of history. Half-consciously if not consciously there is a lot he takes from novels of the past. His subject matter takes him to a period of time when Indian history was very directly linked with that of England, and quite understandably, his characters bring to mind types from literature, especially novels, of those times. The Burnham-Kendalbushe pair reminds us of the Bounderby-Gradgrind alliance – entrepreneurial and accumulative skill combined with a proper ideological defence. The afeemkhor thinker, Captain Chillingworth, who seemed to have learnt with experience the hollowness of evangelical zeal and had seen the true logic of colonialism, could well have been a character out of Conrad. It is actually through a tracing of these lineages that one finds the actual novelistic tradition within which to place this work. The difference is that while the centre of Conrad’s work was the construction or deconstruction of the European consciousness in the colony, the centre of Ghosh’s work is the reconfiguration of the colonised subjectivity under the influence of colonialism.

In an interactive session with the author (which I happened to attend) held in New Delhi, following the release of Sea of Poppies, a gentleman made an observation concerning the description of the opium factory (a passage that Ghosh chose to read out). He said that parts of the description struck him as remarkably similar to Dante’s description of Hell. Interestingly Ghosh’s response (if my memory serves me right) was something to this effect: this semblance might be present and discernible, because of the place that Dante has come to occupy in our consciousness. It is an interesting comment because in it Ghosh places himself and his reader, quite willingly, in a history influenced by European culture. Ghosh is an Indian writer, who acknowledges his debt to European literature, writing a novel which according to me falls in line with the European novel, at least one of whose major subjects is the colonisation of India. I make this observation because I think it is crucial for our understanding of the fact that while there might be nothing ambivalent about Ghosh’s indictment of certain English characters or the logic of colonialism, he is nonetheless not revisiting colonialism to mourn the loss of a pre-encounter state.

*      *      *

The ship is a dual metaphor. On one hand it is a metaphor for a journey, in this case an unfinished one since the novel ends in the middle of the ocean. On the other, it becomes a metaphor for fate, insofar as once they are on the ship, the direction in which the people move is determined by the movement of the ship, and hence, it becomes possible to discern who has greater agency and authority within the limits set by history. At the same time the ship is not merely a metaphor, but is also the seed from which the narrative germinates. I suggest that the ship came first and everything else later. The writer begins with a ship that is going to make a journey from India to the Caribbean (of course broadly speaking the writer has already decided what he wants to write about). On exploring the ship he finds a set of people on it, namely, a bunch of Indian (to be) indentured labourers, Indian soldiers in British employment, a few prisoners, captain, steward, seamen and so on. Here onwards he charts the histories of these characters. That they meet on this ship is no artificially contrived coincidence, since they are simply a bunch of passengers on a ship, a very commonplace occurrence. The history gets an interesting twist when the ship is revealed to be one of those that served in the Middle Passage in the transfer of Africans to the Caribbean and to America as slaves (Zachary’s story is a similar twist).

Before getting on the ship, Ghosh explores the sequences of exploitation and suffering that characters undergo, in which the role of the new rulers and of older prejudices is clearly discernible. At this point, the Ibiscomes like the saving ark to Kalua and Deeti, a phenomenal reconstituting of the slave ship. Furthermore this ship then becomes a site where camaraderie is created – a carnivalesque demolition of older hierarchies takes place.

“On a boat of pilgrims, no one can lose caste and everyone is the same: it’s like taking a boat to the temple of Jagannatha, in Puri. From now on, and forever afterwards, we will be ship-siblings – jahaz-bhais and jahaz-bahens – to each other. There will be no differences between us.

This answer was so daring, so ingenuous, as fairly to rob the women of their breath. Not in a lifetime of thinking, Deeti knew, would she have stumbled upon an answer so complete, so satisfactory and so thrilling in its possibilities. In the glow of the moment, she did something she would never have done otherwise: she reached out to take the stranger’s hand in her own. Instantly, in emulation of her gesture, every other woman reached out too, to share in this communion of touch. Yes, said Deeti, from now on, there are no differences between us; we are jahaz-bhai and jahaz-bahen to each other; all of us children of the ship”. (356)

This carnival is a life-in-death situation, where pain and pleasure do not merely coincide but relate to each other symbiotically. It is symbolised by the wedding that takes place on the ship; this wedding modelled on the archetypal village wedding evokes the parting pain of the bride and an immediate parallel is found in the plight of these people who are exiled forever. And yet it is this exile that is also redeeming.

“Talwa jharaile
Kawal kumhaile
Hanse roye
Biraha biyog

The pond is dry
The lotus withered
The swan weeps
For its absent love

In the escalating din, Deeti’s song was almost inaudible at first, but when the other women grew aware of it they joined their voices to hers, one by one, all except Paulette, who held back shyly, until Deeti whispered: It doesn’t matter whether you know the words. Sing anyway – or the night will be unbearable.

Slowly as the women’s voices grew in strength and confidence, the men forgot their quarrels: at home too, during village weddings, it was always the women who sang when the bride was torn from her parent’s embrace – it was as if they were acknowledging, through their silence, that they, as men, had no words to describe the pain of the child who is exiled from home.

Kaise kate ab
Biraha ki ratiya?

How will it pass
This night of parting?” (398)

The moment of carnival is an extended one, or rather becomes extended as it is transformed into a coalition of the suppressed in the face of hierarchies present on the ship. It is the struggle between this coalition and individuals like Hukam Singh who have power on the ship that takes the novel to its end. Of course this struggle actually takes place on the level of individual conflicts, which however also become representative of a larger struggle because of the nature of the said alliance of the oppressed.

Though the locus of this discourse is openness, the logic of the plot takes it, and that is quite inevitable, towards some sort of resolution. The denouement, the final movement on the ship contains as it were, a series of encounters and discoveries, which push the narrative towards a crisis. At this moment the novel reveals itself as a fast moving human drama that it gives indications of becoming throughout. Taking this text to be a novelisation of history seems problematic now, because this final portion does not quite fit in. However as I mentioned earlier it is precisely this concern with individuals (which is after all what novels are about) which takes the novel away from the discourse of historiography and allows history to be the subject of a novel. History here, is not a modern revision of Fate, and becomes something that people make, significantly, not in the way they want to. These characters are not the heroes of history as say Victor Hugo’s might have been, and that is precisely why the Sea of Poppies moves, to repeat what to my mind is important, towards a novelisation of history. “Historic figures” are the products of the discipline of history and are determined, and external determination is opposed to the space that novelisation creates. The coda of Napoleon’s narrative would coincide with that of the historical event he was the hero of. But the ending of Deeti’s or Neel’s narrative would necessarily not fit into the limits of any monologic narrativisation of that period.

The period that Ghosh chooses catches colonialism in a stage where the “tragic onset” has already taken place and it is already to an extent part of the local environment. Deeti’s shrine becomes the storage place where the past, the present and the future, all come together. The gods under attack and the reality that was, bits and pieces of reality that is and the future beyond the seas, which is strangely a return of the reality that was, though as a reduced pastiche of itself – for crossing the kaalapaani implies crossing the boundary beyond which that past cannot truly exist. In the final image of the novel, beneath a lightening lit sky, stand four figures. The Indian “foreigner” Paulette, Baboo Nob Kissin, a man who personifies modernity’s farcical reduction of religion and is also something of an entrepreneur; Deeti, a woman who has made the decision to leave behind a daughter, marry a lower caste man and then to cross the black waters; and, Zachary, a fair skinned son of a black mother – another product of colonialism. A lot of 20th century literature has been written around the descendents of this bunch of people. Ghosh’s characters are quite simply products of a changing reality: whether they are the rubble left after history’s rampage or individuals signifying a new stage of becoming remains ambiguous.

Note: While I have tried to treat this book as complete in itself, the fact that it was introduced to its readers as the first part of a trilogy does not let analysis remain unaffected. As a result even as I try to make certain surefooted assertions, other observations remain like loose ends, which I cannot tie without reading the sequels. For instance, there might be more that needs to be said about the significance of poppy to the work, but I think it depends largely on how the sequels work out.

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