As the slave trade dwindled to a close, the 19th century saw a steady stream of immigrant workers transported from India to the Caribbean islands. Forced by circumstance, men and women deserted homeland to confront head on the uncertainty of life in exile. In Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh explores this corner of history. The first of what is called the Ibis Trilogy, Sea of Poppies is an epic not because of the vast reaches of time it covers but because it is a story about exile.
At the center of the story is the Ibis, the ship that ferries all–immigrants, prisoners, and sailors alike–across the Black Water to the world of no return. The Ibis is awe inspiring. I even felt for it a strange love. The kind of love one feels for a creature under whose hand one must die to be born anew into an alien world of pain, a love impassioned by horror. A massive ship from Baltimore, the Ibis is itself living an afterlife of sorts. It’s had a past life as a slave ship, ferrying human cargo from African ports. But harbored in Calcutta, it is refitted, supplied with indentured workers and prisoners, and sent off beyond the shores of the Ganges to strange, unknown waters.
The creaturely essence of the ship is the result of the lives it carries deep within itself into exile. Sea of Poppies steeps the reader into the suffering not just of exile but of the fleeting moment right before displacement turns into exile. The excerpt below is very telling:
Among the women, the talk was of the past, and the little things that they would never see, nor hear, nor smell again: the color of poppies, spilling across the fields… the haunting smell of cooking fires drifting across the river, bearing news of a wedding in a distant village; the sunset sounds of temple bells and the evening azan; late nights in the courtyard, listening to the tales of the elderly. No matter how hard the times at home may have been, in the ashes of every past there were a few cinders of memory that glowed with warmth–and now, those embers of recollection took on a new life, in the light of which their presence here, in the belly of a ship that was about to be cast into an abyss, seemed incomprehensible, a thing that could not be explained except as a lapse from sanity.
What do you see when you read this? Yes, the writing is beautiful and maybe unsettling in an odd sort of way. But what image does it evoke?
The women are sitting on the deck of the Great Ibis looking out across the sea for the last time at what would soon cease to be their home. And what are they thinking about? Little lost things. They are taking stock of the things they leave behind. Not because they are not captivated by the things they carry. It’s just that the little things they will never see or hear or smell–things they cannot carry–are their truest possessions. Like splinters, these possessions of loss are lodged deep within, producing the pain that will drives them either to die or to survive.