Monday 21 May 2018

Book Review 4 : The Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh

A Review. 

Talwa jharaile
Kawal kumhlaile
Hanse roye
Biraha biyog

The pond is dry
The Lotus withered
The Swan weeps
For its absent love

Kaise kate ab
Biraha ki raitya?

How will  it pass
This night of parting?
                     (Page 415)

Reading a book that was shortlisted for a Booker Prize has its own share of perils and thrills. One concedes to the fact that one is in for an emotional roller-coaster ride of largely unexplored territory as far as events or characters are concerned. And this one does not disappoint the reader on either counts.
This is Book 1 of the trilogy, all of a whopping 533 pages of fine print. This is my first book by Amitav Ghosh, so I didn’t know what to expect.  Perhaps that’s a good thing, because I turned each page with increasing awe. But then, owing to my past experiences with offerings of Booker Prize winners, I knew enough to expect only the unexpected.
The first thing that struck me was the writing style. Unapologetically ‘Indianised’ is what comes to mind when you turn the pages. Ghosh has a liberal sprinkle of Indian words, including the desi slang of various regions of India that form the backdrop of the characters. The Indianized form of English spoken by the British makes for amusing and entertaining reading.
Although Ghosh makes the minimal effort to accommodate the non-Hindi speaking readers, they are nevertheless left to wonder and figure out what all those desi terms are supposed to mean. The lingo of the seamen, as well as the accent, across different strata of society is articulated to the minutest detail.
The rich customs & cultural traditions of Northern and North Eastern India are brought alive in delightful songs. The Bhojpuri lyrics add a vibrant touch of nostalgia and colour to the predominant emotions felt by the characters and captures the intrinsic role of music in the various rituals of India.
The angst of the local populace, across all strata of society, trapped within the colonial imperialism of the British is palpable and heart-rending.The heartbreaking toil of labourers in the opium factory owned by the British, the rampant child-labour where children were ruthlessly employed in highly dangerous and pitiable conditions, tugs at the heartstrings more than once.
Ghosh is adept at the art of bringing visualizations alive, be it the slave ship, ‘Ibis’ or the mighty Ganges. To most Indians who are accustomed to the holy river being a symbol of divine purity of Hindu Mythology or a polluted entity of Modern India, Ghosh shows the reader the green beauty of Sunderbans delta of the Ganga. And while the reader is still basking in the perceived wonder, the pages progress to the 'Black-water', that sends shivers up the spine. The grim foreboding of the characters as the ship traverses from the Hoogly (a tributary) into the dark water of the vast bay, is bound to leave goosebumps on an unaccustomed reader’s skin.
There is not a single emotion that goes unexplored in this book. And this exploration is in no means subtle or kind to the weak-hearted reader. Harsh realities hit the characters with the surety of a sledgehammer in the gut, even as the reader hopes against hope for a miraculous postponement or even a respite from the inevitable fate that awaits them, at each turn of the page.
Spanning from motherhood to the heart-wrenching angst of separation from her child, to the the sexual curiosity of a conjugally deprived woman; the glorious highs offered by Opium to the desperate withdrawal from a near-fatal addiction; the downfall and consequent redemption, that transpires in a shockingly lurid fashion, of a landlord from the arrogant promiscuity offered by affluence to the pitiable reduction to a defrauded convict; the  sheer daring deeds of action of previously subservient women trapped in a misogynist world… the novel has it all, and then some.
And as most historical books do, the pages reassert the fact that despite the century old change in the India of 1800s and that of today, the challenges faced by women have not changed, although their conditions have somewhat improved.
Once again, here is a book that showcases that love transcends even the worst possible borders walls and borders erected by society, even as one still wonders of it is indeed love, or sense of protective instinct towards a helpless woman that propels a low-caste man to risk his own life to save a widow from certain death.
The most thrilling scene in the book is the one in which the low-caste worker Kalua rescues the main protagonist Deeti from certain death. A huge man wielding a spinning wheel of his cart as a formidable weapon while he grabs a woman from the sati pyre makes for an electrifying read. The articulation is brought to life in a manner which is no less exhilarating than an action packed climax of a Bollywood blockbuster. Except that, unlike in the climax of a film, the runaway couple flee from the frying pan right into the fire…
Lucid descriptive prose, with explicit lingo of sailors in generous dosages of Hindi dialect, allows the readers to live each scene of action. The depiction of life on a ship, sailor’s woes and the challenges of raging storms allow reader to live the fear and tumult of life at sea. 
Despite the large number of characters, the awe-inspiring or foreboding personality traits of every single one of them is communicated with clarity that proceeds as a delicious revelation from page to page. Added to this is a vibrant range of cultural, religious and language nuances make this novel a pot-pouri of delightful phenomena.

The Key Characters:

There are perhaps times when the reader is annoyed by the number of characters in the story. One is reminded of Agatha Christie’s overload of characters, that were perhaps deliberately intrinsic, to sustain the confusion that forms the backbone of any murder mystery. The Sea of Poppies, however, has its own aura of suspense that relies on ‘what happens next?’ It takes a while for one to get used to recalling the individual quirks & traits of one too many a character. As the novel proceeds, each character is more of a revelation. Each of them does manage to make a real impact, having been given ample credibility and importance when the need arises in the storyline.
Deeti is the most interesting of them all. Although her ‘visions’ into the future hovers on supernatural, one soon realizes that her clairvoyant ability does not extend to allowing her to read into specific events in the future, but are rather limited to apparitions of vivid nature. Her ‘Shrine’ of her doodling expertise leaves the reader with a sense of insatiable mystery, that has no sight of resolution, at least not in the first book of this trilogy.
Kalua instills conflicting emotions of pity and pride in the reader; pity for his pathetic treatment as a low caste worker in an archaic society and pride at his twin strengths of body and mind. He makes the reader root for him till the very end, especially during his inhuman flogging and the final thrill of his brilliantly calculated murderous escape.
Paulette steals the heart as the sweet and charming French orphan, struggling to cope with the turn of events her botanist father’s death thrusts her with. Her reluctant submission to authority clubbed with wily manipulations with her foster guardians, the Burnhams, and then, the sheer courage, planning, cunning maneuvering and aplomb with which she pulls off her grand escape onto the Ibis is highly amusing.
Jodu, the playmate and confidante of Paulette, is also the son of her devoted nurse. He is the quintessential happy-go-lucky boy, who eventually pays the price of his nonchalant flirtations with the forbidden class of women. His deep brotherly bond & protective instincts towards Paulette are endearing.
Neel Rattan Halder, the rajah of Rakshali dynasty, evokes disdain at first, with his philandering and arrogant aristocracy, even as he is saddled by irrevocable debt.  He becomes a victim of devious colonization tactics and ends up in pathetic conditions as a convict. His eventual redemption of sorts, with his ministrations to his co-convict Ah-Fatt tugs at the heartstrings and endears him to the readers.
Zachary, the American sailor is a revelation, especially towards the end. Although he has come abroad the Ibis to escape from the drudgery of ruthless racism faced by a mulatto like himself, he surprises with his realism and candid bravery at the end of the novel. His attraction to Paulette provides a welcome light-heartedness amidst the serious circumstances of the story. His progression to become the second mate on the Ibis with the lascar chief Sarang Ali’s help, add  political flavor to the operations of the Ibis.
Nob Kissin Baboo, an administrator of Mr.Burnham, induces a mix of ridiculous humour at first, that then progresses to foreboding when his character is enveloped by a dark obsession. A vishnavite who is deeply in love with an older woman, who is long since dead, hallucinates her presence within himself and then comes to believe that Zachary is an reincarnation of Lord Krishna himself.

The Storyline:

The Ibis is a former slave ship of the 1800s, that has set sail from Calcutta to Mauritius. The story revolves around the lives of characters who reside on the banks of their lifeline, the Ganges, all of whom eventually end up on the labor ship .
There are two main criteria that forms the backdrop for the plot in the story.
The first one is that it is set during the time when the East India Company indulged in rampant opium trade between the Indian and Chinese borders.
The second criterion revolves around the slave trafficking that the British transported to the island of Mauritius, to labour in their sugar plantations.  
How fate conspires to fling them all together, as the crew of the Ibis on her first voyage across the Hoogly river and then into the ocean on her journey towards Mauritius, forms the crux of the story.

Deeti is cheated into a wedding with an impotent man and impregnated by more devious means of Opium drugging by her mother-in-law and brother-in-law. Kalua becomes her savior when she is almost consumed by the funeral pyre of her dead husband. They elope, only to be chased relentlessly by her husband’s family, and thus end up on board the Ibis.
        Jodu gains passage onto the Ibis as a lascar.  Unknown to him and Zachary, Paulette smuggles herself on board the Ibis in disguise, in a bid to escape sexual harassment from her guardian Mr.Burnham.
Neel is sentenced to prison on Mauritius for seven years, framed by the British in a forgery case and is sent on to the Ibis for penal transportation, along with another Cantonese convict, an opium addict called Ah Fatt, for whom Neel becomes the savior.
A host of twists in the plot ensures that each of the characters is subjected to a series of trials and tribulations, that result in brutal violence, unmasking of disguised crew, an attempted rape, a flogging, a couple of deaths and finally a daring midnight escape of some of the key characters towards Singapore.

The Conclusion:

As with all Winners or shortlisted Booker Books, this is one story that is bound to stay with you, long after you return the book to its owner or to your bookshelf. In my case, certain scenes in this book shall remain in my memory for many more years to come, if not forever.


‘The British rule in India could not have been sustained without Opium – that is all there is to it, and let us not pretend otherwise. You are no doubt aware that in some years, the Company’s annual gains from Opium are almost equal to the entire revenue of your own country, the United States? Do you think British rule would have been possible in this impoverished land if it were not for this source of wealth?’

‘These ills you mention are merely aspects of the fallen nature of man. And would every member of the parliament bear the blame for every fatality should their efforts fail? The answer is no. No. Because the antidote for addiction lies not in bans erected by the Parliaments and emperors, but in individual conscience-in every man’s awareness of his personal responsibility and his fear of God.’

Suraj Dikhat Jawe toh Rasta mit jawe – When the sun rises the path will show itself - and so strongly did she believe this that not even at the worst of time did she allow her hopes to slacken.

‘Puggly...!’ Mrs. Burnham gasped, fanning herself with a pillow. ‘I must know the worst...Puggly, tell me the truth, I conjure you: There isn't a rootie in the choola, is there? Surely not..there isn't!’

‘Oh dear, dear Puggly!’ The BeeBee dabbed her streaming eyes and gave Paulette a pitying hug. ‘Of course you're furious! Those budzat sailors! With all their udlee-budlee you'd think they'd leave the larkins alone!’

‘Times change, Raja Neel Rattan,’ Mr.Burnham said. ‘And those who don’t change with them are swept away.’

 If the Black Water could really drown the past, then why should she, Deeti, still be hearing voices in the recesses of her head, condemning her for running away with Kalua?

‘The noise never failed to amaze him: the whiplash crack of the sails, the high pitched shriek of the wind in the rigging, the groan of the timbers and surf-like pounding of the bow-waves: it was as if each ship were a moving tempest and he, an eagle, circling close behind to hunt in the ruins of her wake.’


Photo clicked by : ©Chethana

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