Friday, July 22, 2016

Migrations and Identities: A Study of Sea of Poppies

Samata Biswas

(Samata teaches English at Bethune College and can be reached at

“...the Ibis was not a ship like any other; in her inward reality she was a vehicle of transformation, travelling through the mists of illusion towards the elusive, ever-receding landfall that was truth”(422-423)[i].

Set in the 19th century, immediately before the first Opium War, Sea of Poppies chronicles the journey of Ibis, from the coast of Calcutta to Mauritius. Central to the novel is Ibis, once a vessel that carried slaves, now fitted for human cargo, and later, for opium. It brings together merchants, indentured labourers and their guards, convicts undergoing a sentence of kala-pani, lascars who ply their trade, one white woman trying to build an independent life in another country, a black man passing as white- the link between the different sections on board etc. The narrative is at pains to underscore the idea that on board the ship, everyone, especially the marginalised are part of a unified community of forced migrants irrespective of the reasons behind their migration and their previous situations in life. This article teases out the tensions inherent in the creation of a homogenous migrant identity.

Baboo Nob Kissin, the wily gomusta travelling aboard the Ibis, slowly realising his woman self, first through acts of cross dressing and then, a changed physiognomy- views the ship as a powerful force, giving birth to new identities for himself as well as for the convicts, Lascars and the immigrants. In extension, the ship serves as a powerful metaphor for the passage, the experience of forced migration, within the novel- and the craft of fiction itself, both, in several broad sweeps, obliterating difference and engendering new, multiple identities.

This difference in their identities (predominantly linguistic/ religious) and its subsumption under the brother/sisterhood of the ship, on being evoked also negates itself. At the moment of Ibis’s sailing from Calcutta, each of the three sections containing detailed description of its movement, people’s feelings, the mechanics of sails and waves ends with a prayer; with the crucial difference that the three different prayers are uttered in three different languages and express three different religious faiths. The narrative also describes how irrespective of caste and creed all the members of the marginalised population on board join into these prayers. This and the alignment of different sections of this population against the oppressors (again of diverse identities) are crucial in framing the migrants as a unified whole, whose fortunes are inexorably linked to that of the ship:
The above list represents the oppositions that are set up in the novel, but as the list also indicates, different rows of the list are not mutually exclusive. Marginalisation and exploitation, as always, operate intersectionally.

Oppression is widespread in the novel, the systematic exploitation of the farmers by the opium traders and their arm, the colonial government- the intricate web of money lenders, requirement of opium in absence of food crops and the alienation of the producers from their produce are all represented in great detail in the novel. But the ease with which poverty as systemic is represented, is not replicated in the representation of the role that landed Indian upper caste aristocrats played in its production. On one hand, the division between the migrants are elided upon- on the other, the Indian gentry (here represented in the person of Neel) is absolved of its responsibility in the production of marginalisation by making its sole representative extraordinary sensitive, learned and learning. Within the novel, a certain section of the natives are directly responsible for the miseries of the migrants: some who were instrumental in getting them to sign up and others who are the guards who treat them unkindly. But this conflict of interests does not find an easy expression, in fact it gets congealed within the person of one or two exceptionally villainous characters, leaving the others free of blame. There is a function that portraying a few characters with all villainies perform: in the narrative’s moral universe, most characters continue to be free of blame, and forge solidarities with each other easily.

The novel repeatedly celebrates multiple identities: be it that of a Black carpenter who, mistaken as white, becomes the second mate of a ship; that of a simultaneously religious and money minded native official, who embraces his guru’s manifestation in his body, both materially and spiritually; an upper caste landlord who goes through various degradations before learning to care for his fellow convict, etc. An upper caste widow emerges as a leader of her new community with a new caste identity. The ship then, as mentioned in the beginning, as a metaphor for both the physical journey as well as a shared experience of oppression, lack, physical and mental hardship, engenders a new community. Deeti calls it their ship brother/ sisterhood. The inclusivity of marginalised identities forms another insistent feature of the novel. In Canton (where the next part of the trilogy is set and the destination of the opium trade that informs the novel and its economy) not all foreigners are excluded from the forbidden city, as Neel’s fellow convict Ah Fatt informs him. Without fail, the foreigners who are kept out are the Americans, the Europeans and the Parsis, owners and employees of Opium trading houses- in short, the Fanquis- aliens. The outsiders who nevertheless are present within the gates of the city are Javanese, Malayalis, Malays and Black hat Arabs (377). Representatives from nations and nationalities all besieged by Western imperialism and capital find space and perhaps common cause with the Chinese fighting opium. The Lascars are another similar case in point. “...they came from spaces that were far apart, and had nothing in common, except the Indian ocean; among them were the Chinese and east Africans, Arabs and Malays, Bengalis and Goans, Tamils and Arakanese” (13). In their shared occupation and dedication to the Serang, and not least in the pidgin they speak in, the Lascars are, in the novel the quintessential representatives of this new migrant community, and narratively, its helper.

At the end of the novel the reader sees Jodu (an orphaned Bengali Muslim boatman), Neel (erstwhile landowner- avid practitioner of the caste system and caregiver of his fellow convict), Ah Fatt (the illegitimate son of a Parsi businessman in Canton, a convict, and an opium addict to boot), Kalua (a chamar ox cart driver of prodigious strength, who rescued Deeti from her Sati-pyre) and Serang Ali (the leader of the Lascars, of indeterminate origin and background) escape from the Ibis. The group that looks on in (at maybe!)farewell is equally motley- Paulette, Baboo Nob Kissin, Deeti and Zachary (with their origins and occupations as widely different as the one before). But in spite of their differences both these groups can come together due to some shared experience of dispossession, difficulty, their migration from the familiar and the familial and their marginality.

In spite of the differences in their identities, some common factors help in creating a group out of them. Dispossession, threat to person, lack of well being, or simply gullibility is cited as the reason behind the migrants signing up for the trip to Mauritius. But, without exception, immigrant women in the novel are on the ship owing to matters sexual- some thwarted, some forced upon and some in anticipation. Hence even within their shared marginalisation, the agency of the women on the ship is determined by their sexualities. After Deeti’s husband’s death, she would have been forced to sleep with her brother in law to ensure her survival, the other unaccompanied women on boat, including Paulette were either easy preys to their benefactors or threats to the existing social fabric. The fictional resolution to contested sexualities offered by the novel, i.e. migration, nevertheless occurs within the limits of this contestation, and never transgresses it. Crucial twists to the plot are brought to a head by questions of desire and operations of power that seek to discipline women’s bodies. The narrative also disciplines bodies, the cross-dressing gomusta is an object of ridicule, the first mate transfers his unrequited desire for Zachary into extreme aggression and has to die, the extreme physical and emotional proximity that the two convicts share is wondered upon, by the narrative: but not treated homosocially. Heterosexual love on the other hand takes the plot forward. Deeti is saved by Kalua twice, once from being burnt alive and the second, from most violent rape. Paulette manages to divert Zachary’s attention by feigning intimacy so that the escapees succeed. However, in spite of being crucial to the movement of the plot, in fact, of being the one who conjures the entire novel into being with her line images of the important characters and the ship: Deeti has no place in the final action. The crossdresser, the French woman who wants to roam freely like men and the pregnant woman look on as the rest of the central characters embark upon a new adventure.

Sexuality bubbles over Sea of Poppies, in abuses, references, songs and celebrations, through its deviations from the norm as well as its acceptance of the heteronorm even provides impetus to the plot, and carries the action forward. But as Serang Ali instructs Zachary, “What for wanchi flower-girl? He not big pukka sahib now?” (22)-the resolution, at least in this part of the trilogy has to be brought about through a disavowal of women’s sexuality, it has to be built by the actions of marginalised men, even as the women or wanting to be women, look on.

In “Refugees, Forced Resettlers and ‘Other Forced Migrants”[ii] David Turton argues for “focusing on forced migrants as ‘purposive actors’ or ‘ordinary people’,” (10) while cautioning about thinking of them as “identical members of homogeneous categories” (11). In Sea of Poppies, the move is towards this homogenisation, as well as in a novel full of movement, towards action. But the above discussion regarding the forceful creation of homogenous identities in Sea of Poppies has hopefully illustrated the dangerous exclusions that every act of inclusion nevertheless carries within it.

[i] All quotations, unless indicated otherwise, are from Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh, New Delhi: Penguin Books. 2008. Print.
[ii] Turton, David. “Refugees, forced resettlers and ‘other forced migrants’: towards a unitary study of forced migration”. Workign Paper no. 94. UNHCR. Switzerland, 2003. Print. 

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