Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy: The story so far

The man of words.
The man of words.
Image: Reuters/Danish Ismail
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‘Flood of Fire’, the final volume after ‘Sea of Poppies’ and ‘River of Smoke,’ is about to be published. Here’s what the first two books told us.

My first-ever response to Amitav Ghosh’s writing involved being awestruck and very, very smitten. It was the closing years of the 1990s, and I had been given a copy of Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome during a particularly unrelenting summer. What could have been a medical thriller set in a city I loved turned out to be a cracker of a narrative, putting paid to comatose ideas of linearity and simplistic storytelling.

This was already the time of Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth and the effervescently effortless writing of Arundhati Roy, but Ghosh struck a different note. Steeped in history, his narrative was as much research as storification. As I read more of his work (a new novel every four or five years, if we were lucky), it became obvious that historicity was what made the wheels turn.

Whether it was visible/invisible borders in The Shadow Lines or the richness of detail in The Glass Palace (which in places, read like a documentary on paper), or even the beauty and yearning in The Hungry Tide, it was the re-creation of a social-political milieu that was Ghosh’s trademark. Only, unlike a scholar of history writing a cut-and-dried thesis, Ghosh invested his stories with characters who demanded complete absorption and even identification, irrespective of how removed they were from your own real-time experience.

Then came the first of the Ibis trilogy—the lyrical and beautifully visual Sea of Poppies. Historicals had never looked better. Set in the nineteenth century, against the background of that large-scale migration: The transportation of indentured labour, the girmitiyas, from Bihar (what now would be Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) and Bengal to Mauritius—“Mareech” as the girmitiyas call it.

This physical dislocation from home to the wide unknown is part of the series of transformations that take place over the course of the narrative. Caste changes. So does class. Men transform into women. Women masquerade as men. Age is not even a number. Like in all Ghosh novels, the lines are blurred. And shadows of the past as well as of a conflicted future are cast over the characters’ lives.

What’s happened till now

Sea of Poppies (2008) brought to us a cast of characters on and associated with the schooner Ibis, originally a slaver, now employed to transport girmitiyas—those who had made a girmit, an agreement to sail the seas and find occupation as well as new lives in a foreign land. Or, at least, that was the promise. The reality was more in tune with the original function of the Ibis: A form of slavery, another kind of effacement of the self, a total loss of identity beginning with the loss of names.

Three years later, Ghosh gave us River of Smoke (2011). The ludicrously profitable opium trade that formed much of the background to Sea of Poppies comes to the forefront in this second instalment of the trilogy. Ghosh carries the story forward from the Ibis to the occupants of two other ships sailing the same waters and caught in the same storm: the Anahita, run by Bahram Modi, a major player in the Indo-China opium trade, and the Redruth, belonging to the delightfully mild-mannered horticulturist, Fitcher Penrose.

Ghosh restricts his inroads into China to the trading quarters, the Thirteen Factories of Fanqi Town where the fortunes of foreigners are first built and later decimated. He carries over some of the characters from Sea of Poppies, introduces a whole lot of others and leaves us hanging as to the fate of the ones we’d come to love and root for in the earlier book.


As a trained anthropologist, it is no wonder that Ghosh’s fiction is generously layered with facts. He reconstructs, bit by painful bit, the consequences of the British insistence on the cultivation of poppies at the cost of all other crops.

He gives us Deeti, the beautiful, grey-eyed, almost seeress, soon-to-be-widow of an opium addict. He then stands her next to Kalua, big, dark-skinned, sensitive Kalua, who falls in love with Deeti and gives us a startling romance that screams emancipation and passion and the flouting of socio-cultural norms. She is upper caste; he is not. She is the ivory to his ebony, the nurturing female to his bordering-on-the-caricatural masculine. Deeti and Kalua’s story hinges on the strict adherence of their social worlds to the dictates of caste and colour and that unspeakable threat of pollution.

Ghosh also weaves into the text the many ramifications of British rule—the destruction of agrarian structures, the systematic takeover of estates like Raskhali and the destitution of feudal potentates like Neel Rattan Halder. Neel sums up the flux in the systems of oppression when he says, “ this system of justice it was the English themselves (…) who were exempt from the law as it applied to others: it was they who had become the world’s new Brahmins.”

As the narrative sails from India to China, it snakes into the lives of Indian merchants in that country. In telling us of Bahram’s Chinese wife and son, Ah Fatt (who, in some clever punning, turns into Aafat in India), Ghosh reveals yet another aspect of the hybrid identity of those away from “home” and their newfound sense of moral as well as sexual freedom. He lays bare the desperation of those invested in the opium trade and builds up, in scenes of rioting and even a decapitation, the threat of what eventually became the Opium Wars.

Speaking in tongues

Dialect and linguistic registers can become fairly powerful tools of self-expression as well as identity-creation in the hands of a postcolonial writer. Ghosh uses this politics of language to great advantage. He allows us to be swept away in the mellifluous Bhojpuri of our girmitiya protagonists when they sing their sweet songs of bidai. He also cocks a snook at the ridiculously bastardised Hindi of the Sahibs and Memsahibs with their bobachee-connahs and cumras, and chuckmuck sights, and guddas.

Man Booker Prize shortlist nominee Indian author Amitav Ghosh poses with his book “Sea of Poppies” ahead of the announcement of the winner in central London on Oct. 14, 2008.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Hird

In a guffaw inducing passage, Mrs. Burnham tells Paulette, her ward and one of our heroines, Love? (…) What on earth are you bucking about? My dear Puggly, with your prospects, you can’t be letting your shokes run away with you. I know the judge is not as young as he might be, but he’s certainly not past giving you a butcha or two before he slips into his dotage.”

The patois of the Indians in China, the multilinguality of the lascars, the quick-learning skills of Zachary Reid, Paulette’s Frenchified English and surprisingly chaste Bangla, even the comic English of Baboo Nob Kissin, all work towards creating as realistic a socio-cultural matrix of nineteenth century mercantile India as is possible. The pidgin of Deeti’s clan in Mauritius takes it one step further. Its easy absorption of Bhojpuri as well as French presents the perfect hybrid solution to the eternal migrant problematic of that dangerous i-word—identity—and how to define it.

Gender bender

Ghosh���s approach to gender has always been very nuanced and nowhere is this clearer than in Sea of Poppies. Not only does the novel open and close with Deeti and her vision, literally as well as metaphorically, it gives voice to a significant number of gender concerns. Deeti is a victim of rape, a rape she doesn’t remember because she was drugged with opium. To protect herself from further assault, she is forced to consider committing sati—an act that is applauded by her family and community for its supposed religious merit.

Her rescue by Kalua and her defiant acceptance of his love are her first steps towards self-actualisation. By the time we get to River of Smoke, we see Deeti as the matriarch, presiding over her clan and her esoteric paintings of the life-stories of the Ibis cast. Paulette, when she runs away from sexual harassment at the hands of her guardian, or when she volunteers to migrate to Mauritius and comes up with a idea of a new community of “jahazbhai and jahazbehen”, and especially when she decides to cross-dress in order to live undisturbed as a botanist at the gardens near Port Louis, displays the same fiery defiance and independence of spirit. Ghosh’s women are powerful, astute and yet, unapologetically feminine. That’s the kind of effortless feminism more of Indian writing could do with.

Promises to keep

While both books in the Ibis trilogy have won considerable critical acclaim, Sea of Poppies seems to have worked more magic than River of Smoke. The latter, while brilliantly written and meticulously detailed, remains the slower paced of the two. And, in a bit of a breach of contract with the reader, it ignores most of the cast of Sea of Poppies.

In the third book, Flood of Fire, I hope Ghosh will give us more of Kalua, pick Paulette up from annoying passivity on the Redruth and throw her into the midst of action, reunite Deeti with her left-behind daughter, make Neel (and we are rooting very hard here) more than just a spectator, and give us more of the grey-eyed seer-of-ships-in-poppy-fields.

If not, he will have a very, very disgruntled fan to answer to.

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