“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 this pretence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.”
Captain Chillingworth of the ship Ibis utters those words in Amitav Ghosh’s novel, Sea of Poppies. The novel is about power and how different people wield it over others as much as it is about the powerless who are destined to suffer the oppressions.
The novel presents a part of the India in the 1830s. The British have become very powerful in India and they control the trade too. As Benjamin Burnham, one of the traders in the novel, says, trade indicates the “march of human freedom.” Even slave trade is part of that glorious march. According to Burnham, the white man gave freedom to the African slaves from “the rule of some dark tyrant.” He brings in Jesus Christ too to justify free trade. “Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ,” he asserts. There are missionaries who assist the traders. Burnham became a successful trader with the help of some missionaries. His first bid is to transport indentured labourers from India to Mauritius.
Ghosh brings together some charming characters from various parts of India to the Ibis. One of them is Deeti, a young widow who is saved from becoming a Sati by her low caste friend, Kalua. Deeti’s husband was an impotent man and so she is impregnated by her brother-in-law with the assistance of her mother-in-law and an uncle. It is the duty of every Indian mother to give birth to as many children as possible. She can be a Draupadi for that. Being a Draupadi is more honourable than being the wife of a single man. But Deeti will save herself from that fate by killing her mother-in-law with slow and steady doses of opium. After the death of her impotent husband, her brother-in-law wants to keep her as his second wife, his sex object. When she protests he wields whatever power he has in order to make her a Sati. He will be able to earn much money by building a temple in her honour after she is burnt in the funeral pyre of her husband. Religion is also about power and wealth. The missionaries help in transporting slaves. The ordinary man creates goddesses by burning widows.
The Raja of Raskhali also ends up in the Ibis, as a prisoner rather than an indentured labourer the latter of whom are much better off in comparison. One of the masters on the ship is none other than Deeti’s uncle who had held her legs open in her wedding night so that her brother-in-law could sow his seed in her. Deeti’s attempts to hide herself from the uncle fail and both she and Kalua will be punished for breaking the sacred caste rules. The white man will support the uncle.
Captain Chillingworth justifies the cruelty in the name of caste system. “... there is an unspoken pact between the white man and the natives who sustain his power in Hindoosthan,” he explains. It is important that the power structures in Hindoosthan are honoured. Otherwise the white man’s power structures will not be honoured. That is his logic. “The day the natives lose faith in us, as the guarantors of the order of castes – that will be the day, gentlemen, that will doom our rule. This is the inviolable principle on which our authority is based...”
Sea of Poppies is about such authority and power. It is about the ruthlessness and cruelty that has sustained such authority and power throughout history. It is about how religion is a handmaid of that authority and power. It is a brilliant novel with some very fascinating characters taken from the British India. It shows us the hypocrisy of religion and moral systems.
Excellent as the novel is, it presents a lot of difficulties to a normal reader because of the polyglot lingo it uses. The ship is a place where all sorts of people mingle. And their language is a terrible pidgin which is a mixture of many languages. Here is an excerpt as an example:
‘Why for Malum Zikri wanchi pay for jiggy-pijjin?’ said the serang. ‘Oc-to-puss no have see? Is too muchi happy fish.’
This had Zachary foundering. ‘Octopus?’ he said. ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’
‘No hab see?’ said Serang Ali. ‘Mistoh Oc-toh-pus eight hand hab got. Make herself too muchi happy inside. Allo time smile. Why Malum not so-fashion do? Ten finger no hab got?’
That is Ali, the master of the indenture company, teaching Zachary, the second mate on the ship, how he should grab with all his ten fingers the opportunity to enjoy sex with the girls available.
Ghosh has done much research to make the lingo as authentic as possible. But it makes the novel difficult to read. Apart from that, the novel is an exquisite work. I am looking forward to reading its sequels though the pidgin in this book is quite a deterrent for me.