Prathibha in The Journal of Indian writing in English published on

Topics: Culture

Prathibha in The Journal of Indian writing in English published on the title ‘The Cultural Ibis: Cross-Cultural Encounters in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies’ says, the novel encircles the people from different cultural backgrounds that instigates the cultural encounters. There are various instances in the novel in the form of characters that bear patterns of this fact. The novel turns out to be a cultural utopia where all the cultural barriers laid defenceless that confronted with humanitarian ethics. She instigates that cross cultural encounters are two types; one with the motive to dominate the other culture.

The other is equal importance given to the culture that denotes no culture is superior or inferior to the other.

Mahendranath in Contemporary Discourse entitled ‘Land, People and Freedom in the novels of Amitav Ghosh’ as each characters in the novels are the elements of identity. They face problems and suffer to overcome it. In Sea of Poppies land plays a vital role indirectly to seek freedom from the others and searching for a new place to live.

The novels of Amitav Ghosh blend with history and imagination to face the ugly truth of fatal disaster. He says land brings community, religion , survival, hate, violence and so it becomes a core of every freedom.

James Buchan in The Guardian Weekly review entitled ‘Down the dark river and into the bay’ says Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh is a historical novel that dramatises two great financial themes of the nineteenth century had the cultivation of opium as a cash crop in Bengal and Bihar for the Chinese market, and the transport of Indian indentured workers.

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Ghosh creates an encyclopaedia of the early nineteenth century food, servants, religion, culture, trade and ceremonies to supply the maximum information that support the story.

Supriya Chaudhuri in The Book Review entitled ‘Flowers of Evil’ says River of Smoke is about the history of unequal exchange of the Parsi trader Bahram Modi. The novel also explores the creative intellect of Chinese artists and the search of Golden camellia, a rare mythical flower painted by Robert Chinnery. With the visible and invisible marks, Ghosh seals up the breaches in time and space that separate the Ibis from the Anahita, and both from the Fitcher Penrose’s botanical expedition ship named, the Redruth.

Sindhu Sekar in Journal of the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies entitled ‘The Colony Re-Visioned – Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy’ remarks the writers textual strategies that subvert and re-appropriate the colonial past. Ghosh through his writings reveals the colonial history and opium trade.


Socio-cultural history in Sea of Poppies

Louis Adrian Montrose, an American literary theorist and academic scholar described new historicism as “a reciprocal concern with the historicity of texts and texuality of history”. History is said to be not a set of fixed, objective facts but which it interacts, text that itself needs to be interpreted. A number of historicists claim that the cultural and ideological representation in the text propagates mainly to reproduce and confirms the complex power structures of domination and subordination that which categorize a given society.

One critical theory can be exhort into the service of another. But each critical theory has its own purpose and function, remains unique in terms of its goals and assumptions. The term new historicism was coined by American critic Stephen Greenblatt, whose book Renaissance self-fashioning: from more to Shakespeare (1980) is regarded as its beginning. New historicism is defined as a parallel reading of a literary ad non-literary text of the same historical period. New historicists and traditional theorists approach history in different ways. Old historicists analyse ‘what happened and what do we learn about the event that happened?’. On the other hand new historicist would research, ‘how has the event that happened been interpreted, and what do these tell us now?’.

According to the traditional conception of history, it is an objective record of events, represented in an linear fashion, with ordinary relationships determining the events. Literary texts are treated as transcendental and sublime expression of a stable and ordered world of values. Such a mono-logical, deterministic view of history went unchallenged for centuries. New historicism deconstructs the traditional distinction between history, thought to be factual and literature, through to be fictional. New historicists use thick descriptions which examine a culture production in order to discover the meanings of the culture production as well as the social connection that were responsible for them. Every historical analysis is subjective. It views historical issues through a human ‘lens’. New historicism draws from Derrida’s views that every aspect and feature of reality is textualised. There is nothing outside the text.

Culture materialism and new historicism have several affinities. Culture materialism is patent in British and other American. Both the movement belong to same family, as it is considered as a family quarrel. Cultural criticism the outgrowth of Marxism. Culture is a revolving process and it is a fixed entity. It includes many factors like race, gender, socio economic conditions, condition, ethinicity etc. In the words of Peter Barry, in beginning theory is a contrast between political optimism (cultural materialism) and political pessimism (new historicism).

The new historicist situates text in the political situation on his own day, while culture materialist situates it within that of ours (Barry, 186).

Both new historicism and cultural criticism helps us in understanding the literary text and how they are shaped and in turn shape the culture in which they exist. The works of Ghosh is marked with political, historical and social consciousness and they are particularly marked by the themes that go side by side with colonialism. Sea of Poppies is the historical novel of Ghosh that projects the opium war, set in Eastern India and Bay of Bengal in 1838. Like other novels of Ghosh, Sea of Poppies is also divided into three parts namely land, river and sea.

The first part land deals with the introduction of the characters how they deal with various circumstances in their life. It gives in detail the description of the character who are to be migrated from Ghazipur opium factory to Mauritius. It also portrays the descriptions of the places like Ghazipur opium factory, Calcutta and Bihar that tends to unfold in this part.

The second part river deals with the migrants who were travelling in boats to reach the destinations where the Ibis is located to carry opium and Girmitias. The third part Sea deals with the life of people on Ibis as the ship is moving foreward across the sea. The story gathers momentum as having one identity and no identity at all. They sail in the Ibis as new life awaits them in Mauritius.

The novel Sea of Poppies is engrossed with the predicament of cultural, social and political issues that the characters bear a sworn statement to this fact like fact like the relationship between Deeti and Kaula, Neel and Ah Fatt, Jodu and Paulette, Zachary, Serang Ali and Baboo Nob Kissin. Poppies were considered as the symbol for the confrontation that they attained significant position in the world market to sell opium. Language also plays an integral part of analysing one’s culture and one’s identity.

In all the novels of Amitav Ghosh communication across cultural hindrance plays a vital role. People use Bhojpuri, pidgin, mangled English and French to communicate. The writer also used colloquial Anglo- Indian words, 1811 English in an obscure style and Hindustani words. The first two novels of Ghosh’s ibis trilogy Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke is about the issues concerning between words and worlds. Ghosh has adopted the term Ibis from Egyptian mythology. He approaches myth in a social anthropological point of view as it was said to be the part of people’s culture. The ibis is considered as the sacred bird of religious respect particularly associated with God, Thoth.

Thoth is one of the most prominent deities of Egyptian mythology. It was depicted with the head of ibis, the bird. Ibis represents the head of Thoth that is mind of god for Egyptians. In the Egyptian mythology, the ibis is related to moon as it is meant that the ibis beak resembles the crescent moon which is associated with arbitration, magic, incarnation and the judging of the dead. The bird serves as the mediating power between god and evil, that creates balance between the two with his divine law. Ghosh uses the ibis myth to record his anthropological and historical survey associated with colonial India, opium trade and transportation of rural folk. Ghosh describes the ibis:

The carved head of a bird that held up the bowspirit of the ibis was unusual enough to serve as a proof to those who needed it, that this was indeed the ship that Deeti saw while standing half immersed in the waters of Ganga (SOP,10).

As an anthropologist Ghosh analyse the novel in socio-cultural aspects in order to bring out the history of opium trade and colonial India. With the help of deep and rummage research, he explores these topics where even history cannot access. Ghosh takes the readers back to colonial India of 1838 and process of opium agriculture, where the poor peasants are forced to give up the edible crops like wheat, rice, vegetables and cereals, and to take up poppy crop. It is the story of those peasants whose life is faded by poppy flower. The forced cultivation of poppies in the field of peasants caused opium addiction, hunger and poverty. It forces them to sign the agreement of indentured labourers, a life of slavery.

History is an object of research for Ghosh. He weaves history into story. The historical record provides the detail description of the Ghazipur and Patna opium factories between them produced the wealth of Britian, with an account of J.W.S. Mc Arthur, a superintendent of Ghazipur opium factory in the nineteenth century. His book ‘Notes on opium factory’ contains the information of opium factory:

Bare-bodied men, sunk squander-profound in tanks of opium, tramping round and round to soften the sludge. Their eyes were vacant, glazed, and yet somehow they managed to keep moving, as slow as ants in honey, tramping, treading (SOP,94-95).

The story begins from the village of Eastern Bihar in which Deeti, the central and chief protagonist of the novel is introduced. The opening of the novel also reflects upon the vision of a ship which she says,

The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in dream: how could she have, living as she did in northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast? (SOP,3).

Deeti is married to an opium addict, whom Ghosh says ‘afeemkhor’, Hukum Singh. He was working in the opium factory in Ghaziabad. He has been wounded in leg during his service as a sepoy in British regiment. The disability was not so severe as to require crutches, however, and Hukum Singh was able to make his way to the cart without assistance. Deeti was made to drunk by her mother – in – law to fill the place of her infertile husband by his brother Chandan Singh on her wedding night. Due to this, she became a young mother of six year old girl named Kabutri. In the Ghazipur opium factory, the poppies were made into balls opium that were transported to China. The records of history reveal that the Ghazipur opium factory is the world’s largest opium production factory.

Hukum Singh died due to the opium addiction as he worked all along in the factory. Not only in India many people lost their lives by using opium as a smoking addict in china. The Chinese economy was rapidly undermined due to opium trade. Due to this, the Chinese stood up against the opium trade of East India company and they banned the opium import to China. The East India company raised war against China in the name of free trade and freedom. Ghosh explores the diplomatic policy of the British Government and their aim to trade opium with China.

The war when it arrives will not be for opium. It will be for a principle: for freedom for the freedom of Chinese people. Free Trade is a right conferred on man by God, and its principle apply as much to opium as to any other article of trade (SOP,115).

Apart from this, the novel reflects on Ibis, a ship built to serve as a ‘black birder’, for transporting slaves from India to Mauritius. Ghosh has used variety of language through Serang Ali’s characters. All these reflects how people of different language and culture form a dialect which is not understandable by everyone but creates a bond and provides them a means to communicate with each other. For instances, ‘so muchee buk buk and big-big hoolzuming’, ‘nevva mind’, ‘sun-sun become pukka gen ‘l’ um’, ‘resum’ instead of ‘rations’, ‘dal’, ‘masala’, ‘achar’, bo’sun’, ‘tindal’ for bosun’s mate, ‘sea cunny’ for ‘helsman’. There are some words sound like English but they are not really English words. There ‘rigging’ became ‘ringeen’,’avast’ became ‘bas’, ‘all’s well’ became ‘alzbel’, ‘deck’ became ‘tootuk’, ‘mosts’ were ‘dols’, ‘commando’ became ‘hookum’, ‘starboard’ and ‘larboard’ became ‘jamna’ and ‘dawa’, ‘fore’ and ‘aft’ became ‘agil’ and ‘peechil’. All these were the words used by sea pidgin throughout the novel.

Ghosh has represented a society where not only a powerful giant like Kaula, a person belongs to a lower caste, could be humiliated beyond his body’s tolerance to bear pain but an upper class woman like Deeti can also get violated, as happened on her wedding night. By seeing, Kaula’s humiliation Deeti developed a soft corner for him.

Ghosh frequently introduces many characters like Naskar, Miss. Paulette, Mr. Pierre Lambert to portray the bond of relationship between them. Ghosh is interested in writing the past in terms of present which is full of freshness and devoid of dullness of historical elements. In his interview with Tony Thakaran Ghosh asserts that,

I don’t think I’ll be a novelist if I wasn’t interested in history and anthropology. Those things inform the other aspects of (my) work. I think of I hadn’t had an interest in history, I wouldn’t be writing today.

Ghosh reviews the past mixing it with the imagination of fiction. He has portrayed the character of Raja Neel Ratan on a historical figure, Raja Nand Kumar of Bengal in the eighteenth century. Raja Nand Kumar failed to win the favour of the East India Company’s governor, Warren Hastings. He was charged for forgery and made in prison under pathetic condition. In this novel, Ghosh has depicted the character of Raja Neel Ratan in relation to the opium trade. Due to the ban and prohibition on opium by China Raja Neel faces the financial problems, the company officials made a charge of forgery against him. Ghosh takes up the obscured events in

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Prathibha in The Journal of Indian writing in English published on. (2019, Dec 11). Retrieved from

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