There is no greater leveler than misfortune.And in all probability, the British rule united us is more ways than one.A Rajput rural woman, a princely Zamindar, a priest, a French woman, a half-black American all come together in life changing journeys in the “Sea of Poppies” by Amitav Ghosh.The book is the first of his Ibis Trilogy,which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2008.
Set during the time when the East India company was just spreading its tentacles and imposing opium cultivation on the farmers, the story charts its course through its various characters who hail from different strata of a checkered society.
Deeti,the Rajput wife of an ‘afeemkhor'(an opium addict), who resolves to perform Sati in an age-old tradition in her husband’s pyre – more to evade the clutches of her lecherous brother-in-law than any allegiance to devout faith, is snatched from the jaws of death by none other than the village cart driver who incidentally is also a ‘Chamaar’ – Kalua. They are then on the run from a caste strangled village, men for whom caste and honor were not boundaries to be broken.
The author sensitively portrays the life of a lower caste person through the life of Kalua, who despite being of an impressive physical strength, silently bears autrocities meted out to him. At one instance,Deeti unwittingly becomes an audience to the humiliation of Kalua – “So it could happen to a man too ? Even a powerful giant of a man could be humiliated and destroyed in a way that far exceeded his body’s capacity for pain”
Neel Rattan Haldar, a zamindar, has everything he could ask for albeit for one small problem. He is debt-ridden to a ruthless British Planter. Overnight his fortunes turn and he’s at the mercy to a fate more pathetic than a ‘Chamaar’. He’s incarcerated on false charges and sentenced to deportation. “So it was that for Neel, no aspect of his captivity held greater terror than the thought of sharing a shit-hole with dozens of common prisoners”
Till the end the thing that troubles him the most is the loss of his caste more than his riches.
A french girl,Paulette, is raised in a surprisingly liberal manner by a doting father, but loses her independence with her father’s death and is thrust into a British planter’s household. In a life stifled by orthodoxy,coming face-to-face with the perverted nature of her benefactor, proves to be her undoing.
A man who is a ‘white’ for all practical purposes but with one minor difference, he is ‘half-black’- a mulatto American – a fact that made all the difference, that makes him appreciate the feelings of suppression which transcends language.Zachary Reid is portrayed as an interesting mix of youth and maturity, of innocence and experience.
We make the acquaintance of a strange character – the character of Gomushta Baboo Nobokrishna Panda. Despite all his religious idiosyncrasies, we would have relegated him to a character of not much consequence, if it were not for his rather pivotal role in the lives of the key protagonists. He embodies a sort of religious fanaticism who’s searching for his elusive god mother Taramony and in the process, is convinced of the rebirth of Krishna as Zachary Reid.
The myriad characters all come together in ‘The Ibis’, a ship – a white winged bird in flight, denoting escape from some, torment for others .The ship invokes both fear and fascination for its taking them to a destination and fates unknown.
Irrespective of their background caste,race or religion, in the ship, they are only fellow ‘jahazis’ and in its hold, isolated by the past and the future, there is only one defining language that unites – that of a basic humanness and the insurmountable divide of the good versus evil.
Amitav Ghosh weaves magic with his vivid portrayal of characters and the depth he creates in each one of them.The characters too, are carefully chosen from different classes of people to create the rich tapestry that is the ‘Sea of Poppies’. He uses a lot of Hindi-anglicized words to depict the language of the British in India at the time and though authentic that helps portraying the culture and language necessary for creating an alluring background, the unaccustomed words did create a hurdle in the otherwise smooth flow of reading.Since I failed to locate a glossary for such words in the book, it might pose a hurdle for the non-Hindi speaking readers, though in some cases, obvious assumptions can presumably be made.I relished reading it and though the story shifts across various characters and places as it spans Ghazipur to Calcutta to the rolling high seas, there was no disconnect as they seamlessly join to create a vibrant story.
This is not a new book and I am sure many of you might have already read this.But as they say, a good book never gets old and every book will be read at its own time. So, if you have already read it, do put in your comment to share how you felt about it.