Himalaya Watch

People, issues. Debates, perspectives. Details, nuances. A crisp view from the top.

Visit the new professional website of Jiwan Kshetry

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Understanding South Asia through Fiction: Sea of Poppies

How Amitav Ghosh uses a plot from early 19th century India to capture the essence of South Asian societies over the centuries in 'Sea of poppies'.

Books: the noble reflections of society and people

How do you understand a society, and a people? Apparently, there are many ways of doing so. A year back when I shared a typically provocative article by Arundhati Roy in Outlookmagazine titled 'Capitalism: A Ghost Story' in twitter, a friend from Egypt was astonished. Apparently, he had much more pleasant impression of India as a democratic and just society. I have similar experience with other foreigners who have romantic ideas of Nepal and get easily disappointed once they are physically here. As such, a comprehensive understanding of societies is possible with multiple approaches to understand different aspects of them and each such medium has its own merits and demerits. 

In my experience, books are one thing whose importance can be matched by no other means of knowing a society and a people. Authors are thus people whose expertise on a particular domain of the society gives us the opportunity to learn many things in little time and at a small cost. In the list of people who have helped me understand India and the subcontinent, Jawaharlal Nehru comes at the top and his voluminous book 'Glimpses of World History' is one book that profoundly helped me grasp history, not as a discipline that you merely study but as something that you study and relate with your present life so as to understand the world around you better. I have read the book more than once and recommend the book for those who do not dread a book looking at its size. (In fact, I first read the book when I was yet to abandon the idea of authoring a book and have written a couple of lengthy articles inspired by- and rather copying from the book!)

When I fetched 'Sea of Poppies' by Amitav Ghosh from a small book stall behind Hotel Taj in Mumbai along with Vinod Mehta's 'Lucknow Boy', I had no idea what exactly I was expecting from the two books, and the authors. Nearly frustrated with my failure to understand Mumbai better with the physical presence there and dragging the not-exactly-enthusiastic feet, thanks to sleep deprivation, I was looking for an alternative way of understanding India. Neither of the two authors let me down and moreover, I discovered more in each than I could have ever expected.

Among some historical events that I could not fully grasp despite Nehru's impeccable approach of keeping them in their spatial and chronological perspective were the two opium wars that Britain had fought with (and humiliated) China about the middle of nineteenth century. Was it not simply absurd to fight a pacific power just to force opium on its people? My traditional understanding of the British drive to push the frontiers of the empire was that it needed more territory in the world under its control both to secure the raw materials as well as to sell the commodities with the onset of Industrial Revolution. What were the British doing then, cultivating poppy in India and selling the opium to China, that too forcibly? I was clueless for long. But Amitav Ghosh answers the question brilliantly, and more convincingly than you could ever imagine.
Amitav Ghosh
(Image by David Shankbone  Source:Wikimedia Commons)

Sea of poppies: a timeless mirror to Indian society

For fear of unduly lengthening this article, I only briefly outline the narrative of Sea of poppies and reproduce some lines which, even though parts of fiction, could well be the real lines taken from history of the subcontinent and essentially capture the realities of those days. The story follows an ordinary character named Deeti from the Bhojpuri hinterland in Bihar near a famous opium factory in Ghazipur. Having married a 'Afeemkhor' or opium addict, an impotent man, and giving birth to a girl child as a result of a rape orchestrated by the family, she faces all the hazards associated with the British drive to cultivate poppy in fertile plains of Bihar. Passing through the labyrinth of humiliating life (which can be grasped only by reading the book), she somehow ends up in a ship to Mauritius where the British need indentured laborers to work for their sugarcane fields. In a parallel story, Neel Ratan, a king-like feudal lord with the title of 'Halder of Raskhali' also ends up in the same ship after the British treacherously dismantle his fortunes in order to snatch the huge swathe of land his zamindary held and sentence him for 7 years in Mauritius island. 

It is simply impossible to capture the essence of the book in this short review. Suffice it to say here that Ghosh goes to extraordinary length to depict the lives of people of every rung of the economic ladder in India of early nineteenth century. At a more subtle level, Ghosh persistently seeks the answers of many timeless questions related to the South Asian societies: why does a large majority of people have to live a life of perpetuating misery and torment? What are the social and cultural imperatives of our societies that make any genuine betterment in people's lives exceedingly difficult? What exactly was the nature of feudalism that crumbled over those decades to give way to the machinations of the expanding British empire?

Moreover, while South Asia has seen many changes over the two centuries since, there are many things that have seen no meaningful change. Even today, the caste and clan factor plays a decisive role in Indian politics, nearly as much as it did in the remote past. Inter-religious rift is only widening across the entire region. While the traditional feudal lords have disappeared in the urban area, they thrive very much in the vast agricultural hinterlands in India (reportedly, the situation is much more worse in Pakistan with the marriage of convenience between the politicians and the zemindars). Moreover, not-so-traditional lords with political connections and substantial muscle power govern huge chunks of informal or 'black' economy with large number of rural poor in India and elsewhere being badly terrorized by so called 'loan sharks' with such shady business. Leaving aside a significant number of Indian populace that has moved into 'middle class', the predicaments in the lives of hundreds of millions of Indian poor is now nearly as bad as that of their predecessors two centuries back. Thus even though the narrative of 'Sea of poppies' revolves around the life in the subcontinent in early nineteenth century, the relevance of Ghosh's insights about the society are well relevant to contemporary societies.

Lines from fiction that could be from a history book

Ghosh answers the question as to why the British fought the Opium wars with China perfectly in the book through one character named Mr Doughty: To put the matter simply, there is nothing they (the Chinese) want from us- they have got it into their heads that they have no use for our products and manufactures. But we, on the other hand, can't do without their tea and their silks. If not for opium, the drain of silver from Britain and her colonies would be too great to sustain.

It is, however, obvious that the British did not sell this argument to justify the wars. Here is how they justified it, again in Mr. Doughty's words: There is no recourse. Indeed, humanity demands it. We need only think of poor Indian peasant-what will become of him if his opium can't be sold in China? Bloody hurremzads can hardly eat now: they will perish by the crore.

These few sentences perfectly capture the British attitude towards their Indian subjects: 1) the Indians were nothing more than the 'hurremzads' that approximately translates into 'bastards' for all practical purposes; be it a lowly peasant or the erstwhile king or a zemindar 2) The British saw no paradox in labeling them as bastards and again planning a full-fledged war with China allegedly to save 'crores of these bastards from perishing' 3) While the British themselves were instigating famine in Indian agricultural heartlands by displacing food crops with poppy, they could well use the excuse of avoiding famine by selling opium to justify an egregiously unjust war on China. And moreover, things as solemn as humanity and the 'word of god' were used to justify the British activities in India. In fact, the whole European mission at 'civilizing the barbaric races' was founded on precisely this kind of deceit and exploitation.

But even among the British, not everyone was convinced by the official justification of the war and the overall misery that they were breeding across the world and Ghosh is shrewd enough to represent the dissenting voices as a character named Captain Chillingworth says: The truth is, sir, that men do what their power permits them to do. We are no different from the Pharaohs or the Mongols: the difference is only that when we kill people we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is the pretence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history (emphasis added).

A recapitulation of Ghosh's accomplishments in the book: a holistic view at South Asian societies

Very early in 'Sea of poppies', when the poppy fields in the Indian plains came everywhere in the narrative in relation to a point of time in history, I had guessed it somehow related to the poppy cultivation in relation to the so called 'Opium wars'. But I had absolutely no clue as to how that could relate to the entire narrative of British colonization of Indian subcontinent. After completing the book, I had to remind myself that this is indeed a work of fiction and not history proper. I doubt there is any better fictional articulation of a historical development in relation to any other part of the world. Even the seminal fictional work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 'One hundred years of solitude', in retrospect after reading Ghosh's 'Sea of poppies', looks not-exactly-impressive in terms of ability to sustain the attention of the reader amid the jumble of characters.

Here I will reproduce a part of the narrative that tells the essence of British victory in India; demonstrating in a symbolic act, how exactly were they able to dismantle and enslave the once mighty and glorious Indian civilization. 

Neel Ratan, the disgraced zemindar whose land is usurped by one official of East India Company, is forced to live with a peculiar mate in his prison cell awaiting the transportation to Mauritius island. Aa Fatt is an opium addict going through a nearly fatal withdrawal to the narcotic in the isolated cell of the prison. For sake of his own health, Neel Ratan is forced to cleanse some kilograms of filth from the body of Aa Fatt (something that would be never imagined from a feudal lord who was bathed by slaves himself until weeks back) and soon the latter recuperates. Over weeks, Aa Fatt comes to life and tells his tale of a tortured life as a son of an Indian businessman and a Chinese unmarried mother. The tale of Aa Fatt's torment helps Neel to withstand his own tragic fate and the two become very very close friends. 

While transporting the two convicts in ship among other indentured laborers, the officials find it unacceptable that there be a strong bond of friendship between the two convicts, an unusual thing by any standard. Many of their attempts get simply wasted because none of the two would get provoked against the another. Finally, one Indian official bets with his British boss that he would break the friendship between the two. And he does so spectacularly. 

One night, the two convicts are summoned to the officer's deck and the Indian officer first tries to gently provoke the two against each other. As expected, the maneuver fails. Then the official shows his ingenuity: he shows Aa Fatt a piece of opium and makes handcuffed Neel to fall on the ground. In a master stroke, he unleashes his trap by asking a hesitant Aa Fatt to urinate over Neel's body for which he would give him the piece of opium. Aa Fatt, gone insane and blind instantaneously at the possibility of having to ingest that magical thing called opium, urinates over the body of the lying friend. 

Having sacrificed the intimate bond of friendship with Neel with a stream of urine, Aa Fatt gets the real taste of his betrayal when he ingests a piece of 'goat shit' instead of opium as the prize for his bravado. At the end, no longer the friends, each of the convicts is turned back to their cell, thoroughly humiliated and disgraced. 

In fact, I have never read such a fitting analogy to the realities in South Asian history. First the British made Hindus and Muslims urinate at one another while comfortably supervising the game. All the way, people across the existing rifts based on caste, clan, region, religion were feverishly prompted to urinate on one another ensuring that no unified front against the colonists was possible. The disgrace and humiliation, and the resulting mutual hatred had reached such a point by the time they left the subcontinent in mid-twentieth century that the horrific partition of India was mother of all other horrors in the history of the subcontinent. Even after that, the rival states of India and Pakistan find themselves urinating on one another even at slightest provocation.

And moreover, no one knows how long this urinating game will continue and people in the subcontinent will keep creating enemies within the societies. Perhaps, this is legacy of British colonialism that will outlast every other legacy.

('Sea of poppies' was first of the 'Ibis trilogy' by Ghosh published in 2008. Good news is that the second volume of the trilogy 'River of smoke' is already out, published in 2011. I am yet to read the new volume but strongly recommend both the volumes for everyone interested on South Asia.

The other works of fiction comparable to Ghosh's novels are the works of Tarun Tejpal. I have read one 'The story of my assassins' by Tejpal and reviewed it in my blog.)



Anonymous said...

This article will assist the internet users for
creating new webpage or even a weblog from start to end.

Here is my web page ... wealthwayonline.com

Anonymous said...

This paragraph will help the internet people for creating new weblog or even a weblog from
start to end.

Also visit my site ... Sidney Crosby Authentic Jersey

Anonymous said...

Hey are using Wordpress for your site platform? I'm new to the blog world but I'm trying to get
started and set up my own. Do you need any coding knowledge to make your own blog?
Any help would be really appreciated!

Feel free to surf to my web page: Oakley Holbrook

Anonymous said...

What a data of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious familiarity regarding unpredicted feelings.

My web blog Abercrombie

Anonymous said...

This excellent website definitely has all
the information and facts I wanted about this subject and
didn't know who to ask.

My weblog :: Louis Vuitton Handbags Outlet

Anonymous said...

Heya i am for the first time here. I came across this board and I
find It really useful & it helped me out a lot. I hope to give something back and aid others
like you aided me.

My web page Cheap NFL Jerseys

Anonymous said...

I am genuinely glad to glance at this weblog posts which
consists of lots of valuable information, thanks for providing such data.

My web-site; Michael Kors Outlet

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the marvelous posting! I quite enjoyed reading it, you may be a great author.
I will be sure to bookmark your blog and will eventually come back in
the foreseeable future. I want to encourage continue your great job, have a nice holiday weekend!

Also visit my web-site; slc-wireless.com

Anonymous said...

What a data of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable experience on the topic
of unexpected feelings.

Also visit my web-site ... tit-association.eu

विजय कुमारको खुशी पढेपछि

जीवन, खुशी अहंकार

जीवनमा अफ्ठ्यारा घुम्तीहरुमा हिंडिरहँदा मैले कुनै क्षणमा पलायनलाई एउटा विकल्पको रुपमा कल्पना गरेको थिएँ, त्यसलाई यथार्थमा बदल्ने आँट गरिनँ, त्यो बेग्लै कुरा हो त्यसबेला लाग्थ्योः मेरा समग्र दुखहरुको कारण मेरो वरपरको वातावरण हो, यसबाट साहसपूर्वक बाहिरिएँ भने नयाँ दुख आउलान् तर तत्क्षणका दुरुह दुखहरु गायब भएर जानेछन् कति गलत थिएँ !

Read more from Dashain Issue

Debating partition of India: culpability and consequences

Read the whole story here

Why I write...

I do not know why I often tend to view people rather grimly: they usually are not as benevolent, well-intentioned and capable or strong as they appear to be. This assumption is founded on my own self-assessment, though I don’t have a clue as to whether it is justifiable to generalize an observation made in one individual. This being the fact, my views of writers as ‘capable’ people are not that encouraging: I tend to see them as people who intend to create really great and world-changing writings but most of the times end up producing parochial pieces. Also, given the fact that the society where we grow and learn is full of dishonesty, treachery, deceit and above else, mundanity, it is rather unrealistic to expect an entirely reinvigorating work of writing from every other person who scribbles words in paper.

On life's challenges

Somebody has said: “I was born intelligent but education ruined me”. I was born a mere child, as everyone is, and grew up as an ordinary teenager eventually landing up in youth and then adulthood. The extent to which formal education helped me to learn about the world may be debatable but it definitely did not ruin me. There were, however, things that nearly ruined me. There came moments when I contemplated some difficult choices. And there came and passed periods when I underwent through an apparently everlasting spell of agony. There came bends in life from which it was very tempting to move straight ahead instead of following the zigzag course.

Read more