‘Sea of Poppies’ breaks many myths of migrant Indian labour (Book Review)

June 24th, 2008 - 11:24 am ICT by IANS  

By Shubha Sing
Book: “Sea of Poppies”; Author: Amitav Ghosh; Publisher: Penguin Viking; Price: Rs.599.00 The 1800s were a time of enormous social disruption and displacement in large parts of India. Poverty and loss of land holdings forced people to move to distant places. In his latest book “Sea of Poppies”, best-selling author Amitav Ghosh draws a connection between large-scale opium cultivation in India for the Chinese market and the beginnings of the indenture system, which took over a million Indians through a span of 90 years to work on plantations in new colonies of the imperial powers.

Ghosh brings it together, painting a wide canvas of life in northern India in the early years of the 19th century in a saga full of action, drama and adventure.

He reveals a little known fact of the history of opium cultivation in 19th Century India - it formed about 20 percent of the country’s revenue till the 1920s.

Opium was grown in India under an extreme form of contract farming in parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the 1830s to be sold by the East India Company to China. The large-scale enforced farming of a single cash crop disturbed the subsistence agriculture of the region for it did not allow the farmers to grow food for their own consumption. Opium cultivation impoverished the farmer as the monopolistic East India Company offered low returns for the poppy crop.

The opium trade declined after the Chinese banned its import with the result that the British launched the opium wars to force open the Chinese market.

It was about that time when slavery was abolished in the British Empire and plantation owners in Mauritius and other British colonies urgently required agricultural workers to replace the newly freed slaves on the sugarcane plantations.

The slave ships were quickly divested of their chains and shackles and perfunctorily refurbished to carry the indentured workers to Mauritius. The social and economic disruption caused by the colonial policies resulted in many people accepting the indenture contract and eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar became the epicentre of the indenture movement.

During his research on the subject of indenture, Ghosh discovered that contrary to popular perception, many people came back home after completing their indenture contract, though most people chose not to return to India. Some of those who returned went back later to Mauritius.

He also found letters written by people in Mauritius inviting their relatives and friends to join them. It was, in fact, those who had returned home that became the most actively involved in the organisation of migration in India.

Another myth of indenture is that it was mainly the lower castes who migrated, but Ghosh discovered many Brahmins and other upper castes among the indentured workers. The indentured workers reflected the wide variety of castes and communities found in rural India in those days.

There were also a large number of Bengalis, but within a generation they were all assimilated into the dominant Bhojpuri culture since the early migrants were from the Bhojpuri-speaking regions.

The moment of departure was a time of loss and displacement, but the indentured ‘girmitiyas’ found the means to endure it - their greatest resource was their capacity to take pleasure in the little things of life. They carried their songs and rituals, which provided solace in their time of suffering and dislocation.

The sailing ship Ibis had a varied group of characters among whom were the girmitiyas, who were thrown together in cramped conditions in the ship. It was an alien world out at sea with a frightening unknown destiny awaiting them. But they slowly forged new relationships, and just as new friendships were made, enmities and rivalries also sprang up. Single women often found new husbands and protectors.

During the long voyage the girmitiyas, adrift in a new world without the comfort of their families, forged the beginnings of a new community - they become ‘jahazi bhai and behen’ (ship brothers and sisters), a relationship that sustained them through their lives on the plantations.

“Sea of Poppies” links the decline of the opium trade and the emergence of the indenture migration with the rollicking world of the lascars - the Asian sailors of Indian, Malay and Javanese origin who ruled the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Lascari, the language of the seafarers - a combination of patois, Hindustani, Malay, Chinese and English - is added to the colourful mix of languages, dialects and mannerisms of the diverse characters that people the story.

The first part of Ghosh’s planned trilogy ends with a violent falling-out on the ship that results in a small group stealthily departing in the ship’s longboat in the dark hours of the night, leaving the reader eagerly awaiting the second instalment of the saga.

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