Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Finding Oneself on Board the Ibis in Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Finding Oneself on Board the Ibis in Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies

Article excerpt

The indentureship and the slavery

Bind together two races in unity

Achcha dosti (good friend)

There was no more Mother Africa

No more Mother India, just Mother Trini

Janmabhoomi (my home)

My Bahut Ajah planted sugarcane

Down in the Caroni plain

So Ramlogan, Basdeo, Prakash and I

Is Jahaji Bhai

Brotherhood of the boat, Jahaji Bhai

Brotherhood of the boat, Jahaji Bhai

-"Jahaji Bhai," Brother Marvin

The above lyrics belong to the Trinidadian chutney soca hit "Jahaji Bhai" by Brother Marvin. Chutney soca developed as a result of Indo-Trinidadian intervention into traditional soca (or soul of calypso) music, and is characterized by elements like Hindi-English lyrics or Indian instruments like the dholak. In itself, the chutney soca is the embodiment of the kind of hybridity that characterizes diaspora studies, both in terms of its stylistic fusion and the mixed language of the lyrics themselves. For example, Brother Marvin speaks of how members of the Indo-Trinidadian diaspora found themselves a new Mother(land) distinct from the figures who had mothered their older selves-Mother India and Mother Africa. No matter where their ancestors came from, they were now all children of another mother, Mother Trinidad, bound together by their experiences of displacement and their life as indentured laborers. I would like to use this song as a point of departure for my article on Amitav Ghosh's 2008 novel, Sea of Poppies, the first in the recently completed Ibis Trilogy.

Sea of Poppies is the story of how indentured immigration created an Indian diaspora that spread all over the world, with the migrants connected by the invisible ties of a shared history of indentured servitude. Set in 1838, on the eve of the First Opium War, the novel focuses on two significant sociohistorical enterprises of the nineteenth century: the trade of opium as a cash crop in eastern India for the Chinese market and the transport of Indian indentured workers to British-owned sugar cane plantations in Mauritius, Fiji, and Trinidad. The former dictates the course of the novel's events on land, and the latter forms the crux of Ghosh's narrative as it revolves around the gathering of a motley crew of the Empire's rejects who travel to Mauritius as indentured laborers. Ghosh renegotiates discourses of subalternity from the perspective of this indentured diaspora while negotiating his vessel through the kala paani (dark water) of the Indian Ocean.

Ghosh brings to life the human element of the Empire's economy in Sea of Poppies, highlighting the condition of the human subjects who made up the British Raj in India. His novel is set in a time when the colony's main exports were drugs and thugs-opium and coolies or laborers. With this, Ghosh combines one of his favorite metaphors, that of the journey or the voyage, which returns over and over in his novels. His first novel, The Circle of Reason (1986), focused on migration in the Indian Ocean itself, as its protagonist moved from the border area of West Bengal/East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to an unnamed gulf state through the waters. Ghosh has used migration before in novels like The Glass Palace (2002) or The Hungry Tide (2005). In the former he rethought the history of Burma within the larger South Asian historical context, and in the latter he recast the role of the Sundarban archipelago within subcontinental narratives (Burton 2012, 74). Ghosh has always used migration as a trope in order to revisit existing colonial-historical narratives from a hitherto unexplored perspective, what Antoinette Burton describes as "history from below" (2012, 75). It is a tendency which perhaps becomes more relevant and important in today's political context. In a 2012 interview with the Romanian journalist Bianca Felseeghi, Ghosh commented on why he returns to the subject of colonialism and whether or not there are any "good parts" to its legacy:

The present incarnation of Empire is in fact uncannily like the old one, with its island prisons, its vast network of jails, its "cantonments," and most of all its tireless trumpeting of its good intentions. …

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