Sea of Poppies: Postcolonial strands of the Commonwealth Literature

The term Commonwealth of Nations, under the titular headship of Queen Elizabeth II’s benevolent gaze, gives the impression of a unity that is deceptive. Although all these nations are theoretically united under one umbrella, there exists a chasm that separates them. There are two sets of nations: the white and the new (black/brown) commonwealth. The new commonwealth has had a recent past in which it had experienced domination and colonization under the British Empire, the largest imperial and colonizing power in the history of mankind, even as late as the 1980’s. Literature of a large number of these countries was denoted as that of the third world in the past due to their developing or underdeveloped status of their economies, and even “before the coinage of [the term] ‘postcolonial’, one was accustomed to speak of what the novels of Gabriel García Márquez and Chinua Achebe had in common over and against, say, those of Margaret Drabble and Alain Robbe-Grillet. The reference … was to the ‘third world’” literature (Larsen 24). The term postcolonial has nothing to do with the specific geographical location or the point of origin of a specific thought. It is related more to the nature and orientation of a thought or an idea. It is a paradigm shift, comparable to the post quantum theory shift in the paradigm of the hitherto Newtonian Physics. From a west centric approach to world history, the spread of democracy resulted into a more diffused and decentralized approach to history. Thus dominant discourses were challenged effectively and even replaced by strategically developed mini or local narratives in the countries that had been exploited in the past. The literature taking birth in these various nations is very diverse in nature, yet it has something that becomes visible occasionally, and runs as a subterranean stream at other times. That thing is its response to its colonial past. It is this past that joins the peoples and experiences of these countries, and their literature too. Writers and artists of the commonwealth, willingly or unwillingly, have inherited their country along with their colonial past. Amitav Ghosh is one such writer. Although he had withdrawn The Glass Palace from the final list of Regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2001 , declaring:

As a grouping of nations collected from the remains of the British Empire, the Commonwealth serves as an umbrella forum in global politics. As a literary or cultural grouping however, it seems to me that ‘the Commonwealth’ can only be a misnomer so long as it excludes the many languages that sustain the cultural and literary lives of these countries (it is surely inconceivable, for example, that athletes would have to be fluent in English in order to qualify for the Commonwealth Games). (qtd. in Roy Chowdhury)
He does benefit from the legacy of India’s being a part of the Commonwealth. Ghosh’s assertion on the pride of language and nation arises out of his intellectual constitution that was built in a postcolonial India: a part of the Commonwealth. It gives him a dual advantage of a local-postcolonial and, at the same time, a global perspective. He is a commonwealth writer whose fiction curiously, strongly and predictably enough, abounds in postcolonial themes “of cultural translation, of braided temporality, of marginality itself” (Boehmer and Chaudhuri 3). His Ibis trilogy promises to be his most thoroughgoing take on postcolonialism; a backward glance at the infamous opium trade cycle that finally lead to the Anglo-china Opium War and China’s subjugation to the omnipotent “free trade”. Sea of Poppies, the first part of the trilogy starts a cycle of stories that is continued in the next book: River of Smoke. History seeps into the stories of the characters in so many ways that they become histories of colonial exploitation. This paper focuses on Sea of Poppies to highlight the common themes of commonwealth writing that are conspicuously present in it.

Quest for identity is one of the central themes of the commonwealth literature. The reason behind it lies at the core of the existence of the peoples who had been under the yoke of the empire for over two centuries. Sea of Poppies has several characters on their personal quests for identity. Baboo Nabo Kissin happens to be one such person. He had been expectantly waiting for the transformation of his mundane self into his deceased, revered and ethereal aunt. It is against all logic, but he has faith. Signs are sent to confirm his faith. He happens to meet Lord Krishna himself, in his latest incarnation: Zachary Reid, or that’s what he fully believes in. It is his quest that gives his courage to overcome his fear of losing his Brahmin caste by actually crossing the black waters. Mr Zachary Reid was transformed into Malum Zikri, Deeti became Aditi, Kalua became Maddow Colver, Jodu turned into Azad Naskar, Paulette into Putleshwari or Pugly and Raja Neel Rattan Haldar into just Neel. They forged or found a new identity for themselves, and the colonial setup acted as a catalyst for their transformations.

The relationship between the colonized and the colonizers is shown in its various hues in Sea of Poppies. There’s always a tension in even the most cordial and beneficial kind of relationships, especially with the rise in the power that the colonizer had over the colonized. The closest relationship between a native and a white person exists between Jodu and Paulette. They are like siblings, yet their race separates them, despite Paulette’s nearly “going native”. Baboo Nobo Kissin and Mr. Burnham’s is another prominent and inseparable pairing in the novel. Yet, the Indian gomasta is never at ease in presence of his English master. He remembers how he was abused by his past and present masters with kicks and vituperations, and maintains his dignity even in such circumstances. Raja Neel Rattan Haldar was ruined because of Mr. Burnham’s heartlessness and treachery. These instances are parts of the set of unequal relationships between the colonizer and the colonized. When blown into right geographical proportions the same kind of problems existed at national and international levels too. The complicated and problematic relationship between the white man and his subjects makes the core of much that is categorized as commonwealth literature. Serang Ali and Zachary Reid are another couple separated by their race. The lascar is behind Zachary’s success in reaching his position, yet he can never be one of the Zikri’s people. There remains a distance between them, although he takes proprietarily pride in his protégé’s ascent. Serang ali’s influence on Zachary Reid is immense and deep. He is the sartorial and behavioural father who completely transformes his unadopted yet own son. He even gives him a new name: Malum Zikri, which means one who remembers. There’s a deep bond between a partially white (or, partially black) Reid and the yellow and brown natives of his lascar crew. It’s not just a coincidence that the only male member of the master race, who is sympathetic with the natives, even to the extent of becoming a part of their community, happens to be an American, and not a British subject. The very danger of his “‘going native’ … [that] encompass[es] lapses from European behaviour, the participation in ‘native’ ceremonies, or the adoption and even enjoyment of local customs in terms of dress, food, recreation and entertainment” that is most feared by the colonizers(Ashcroft 115). As Mr. Doughty tells Zachary, “Mind your Oordoo and Hindee doesn’t sound too good: don’t want the world to
think you’ve gone native” (Ghosh 73). There is a curious inversion of this fear in the native’s mind too. It is best exemplified in the pressure built upon the Europeans regarding the behaviour and dress code they were expected to observe without any margin for deviation. It is this very pressure that forces Paulette to wear her saree clandestinely, only at night when she was away from the censuring eyes of the native servants of Burnham’s, because they expected her to dress and behave following the unwritten and undeclared code of expectation from the master race. It is once more confirmed when she has to speak the variant of English acceptable to Babu Nobo Kissin, Mr. Burnham’s gomasta, and not Bengali that she knew well and that was the Indian’s mother tongue too. The purity of language and culture were very important pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of the Empire in which the work of resin, that bonded all the pieces together, was performed by the racial pride, even chauvinism that resided in the hearts of the master races.

When a particular position becomes precarious and untenable reason is utilized to buttress it. Repeated falsification of truth and invention of facts becomes essential when an unnatural imposition has to be shown as the natural order of the things. History is white washed, revised, reread and re-presented in various ways to support otherwise unsupportable claims and to hold hitherto untenable positions. An element of narration had always been present in history because of one simple reason: even a simple collation of facts has to be made on the basis of some conscious decisions and has to pass through the human medium that invariably alters the content. In Sea of Poppies racialization and rationalization of history are shown at work through dialogues and narrative accounts. Neel’s accidental stumbling upon a theme that would keep Mr. Burnham’s mind fully and enthusiastically occupied – “Free Trade” – also serves to expose things unsaid. He gives a white man a chance to show his superiority – personal and racial – over a brown zamindar. He is happy to announce “When the doors of freedom were close to the African, the Lord opened them to tribe that was yet more needful of it – the Asiatick” (Ghosh 118). The black/brown/yellow races were the subject races to be marginalized and silenced effectively and to be effectively written out of the power discourse. After the slave trade was made illegal, merchants like Mr. Burnham quickly shifted to other lucrative areas. Only one similarity remained between their old and new trades – profit generated out of shameless and inhuman exploitation of the colonies. The Africans were sold as slaves for profit and then the Indians were transported as indentured immigrants to generate capital to be used for supplying opium and finally subjugate the Chinese. Physical, physiological, mental, socio-political and economic subjugation of the native populations was the sole aim of the strongest class in the whole Empire: the merchant class. They had made it appear very natural that the Chinese consumed opium, so much so, that Neel was astonished to hear that the kind of history he knew was totally untrue. Here, the narrator’s subtle intervention must be acknowledged. In his own attempt at revisiting history, he tries to expose the wrongs of the past in his novel. Reason is shown working devilish schemes very transparently in Sea of Poppies.

The pseudoscientific racial theory of the colonizers had been carefully propounded and propagated in order to make the subjection and subjugation appear natural and according to the “binary typology of advanced and backward(subject) races” (Said 206). The legitimation of exploitation was facilitated “by anthropological theories which
increasingly portrayed the peoples of the colonized world as inferior, childlike,
or feminine, incapable of looking after themselves… and requiring the paternal
rule of the west for their own interests(today they are deemed to require
‘development’)” (Young 2). The white man had to shoulder his sacred burden. It was a sacrifice that he had to make. He had to colonize, control, exploit, tyrannize and even kill the black/brown/yellow peoples of the world, in order to civilize them. The white man’s arrogance is reflected unconsciously in the smallest of things. During Neel’s trial, the judge declared that India had been “opened to the benefits of civilization… [the Englishmen were] chosen to burden with the welfare of such races as were still in the infancy of civilization”(Ghosh 349). By the time Neel’s trial ended, it was very clear to him “that in this system of justice it was the English themselves – Mr Burnham and his ilk – who were exempt from the law as it applied to others: it was they who had become the world’s new Brahmins”(Ghosh 353).
The clear cut bipolar division of the world into advanced/backward races went a long way towards convincing the ruler and the ruled races alike. Sea of Poppies treats the theme of postcoloniality with frankness and indicts the ills of the colonial era without mincing any words. There are characters who speak as the writer had been speaking to the media about the factors behind the genesis of his novel. Amitav Ghosh mentioned in his interview with a BBC correspondent, “Opium financed British rule in India”, that he had started Sea of Poppies as the story of indentured immigrants from Bihar. With the growth of the volume of the story history entered it. The indentured immigration from India, that had started in the 1830’s, is shown curiously merging with the Anglo-China opium war and the consolidation of the Raj’s position in Asia. Opium became the medium of strengthening and expanding the Empire, as it was behind the generation of huge revenues that went into the Empire building. In the beginning of their interactions with china, the west was totally at a loss because the Chinese wanted none of their products, whereas, they neede a lot from there. Thus originated a kind of trade that was in favour of the Chinese. It was totally according to the diktats of Free Trade, yet it was unprofitable. So it had to change. Opium became the medium of change when it was insidiously inserted into the Chinese market, legally, and later, against the law of the land. The “trafficking in opium tilted the balance of global trade to benefit the west”(Brook 3). The edicts of the Chinese emperor against opium were proven to be powerless because of the “deadly combination of expanding Chinese demand and skyrocketing British supply. … Lin Zexu was appointed imperial maritime commissioner in 1838 to
stop the opium trade” (Brook 6). His tough measures culminated into the opium war
(1839-42), that ended with a shameful defeat for the Chinese. It was this defeat,
some historians claim, that opened China to the western influence and resulted
into its modernization. Just like some claim that India benefited largely through
its colonization by the British because they gave it the foundation of modern
nationalism and all the basic institutions required to run a state effectively. As
if India was a wilderness, sans any system, before 1757 and it would never have
modernized itself had it not been shamefully and deleteriously exploited by its
colonizers. The other side of the same coin of exploitation was the havoc wreaked on the Indian farmers. This devastation of the economy of two prosperous Asian nations was whitewashed by the white people and even some native historians is shocking.
The gap between the resources of the colonized and the colonizer is not just of economic power and dependence. It spreads into the superstructure and creates two separate spheres of existence. Those who have power “do what their power permits them to do [and] … pretend that it is for some higher cause” (Ghosh 388-89). Maintaining the status quo is in favour of the powerful. They tolerate the socio-political structure of the colonized nations because it benefits them. They actively uphold the native’s rights when it benefits them and at the very next moment show their real selfish motive that lies hidden behind the façade of a civilized system of governance. As Captain Chillingworth clearly points out:

“that in matters of marriage and procreation, like must be with like, and each must keep to their own. The day the natives lose faith in us, as the guarantors of the order of castes – that will be the day, gentlemen, that will doom our rule. This is the inviolable principle on which our authority is based.” (Ghosh 718)

There is no escape for the powerless. Living on the margins is very dangerous. The English sahibs created and controlled the whole power structure. The subaltern didn’t have any voice, right or human status. Thrown on the periphery, he was forced to observe thecentre of power and its functioning from a distance. The peasants of India, who were forced to grow poppy, instead of food grains or vegetables, were exploited to such and extent that they barely
survived and started floating toward marginality and landlessness.
Another theme of the literature of the commonwealth: race engendered sense of inherent superiority (in the master race) and inferiority (in the subject races), is brought forth very clearly and forcefully in Sea of Poppies. Moreover, Ghosh seems to be creating that much wanted space, so that the subaltern can really speak. In a postcolonial twist to the stereotypical perspectives, this Sea of Poppies gives precedence to the perspective of the colonized over that of the colonizer. It’s not because of any bias in the narrative voice but because of the predominance of subject voices that are heard in the polyphony of positions centred on characters portrayed in the form of individual subject consciousnesses. History is revisited and judgement is passed over the power misused to exploit the imperial subjects in the.
Sea of Poppies very clearly and poignantly brings forth one of the main and recurring motifs of the commonwealth fiction: the mechanism of exploitation, in its full detail. It shows how the farmer was exploited and how the agricultural timetable of a nation and the sustainable lifestyle of its people were altered with devastating effects on the economy. Deeti remembers the good old days when the fields “would be heavy with wheat in the winter… now, with the sahibs forcing everyone to grow poppy, no one had thatch to spare… poppy had been luxury then, grown in small clusters between the fields that bore the main winter crop”(Ghosh 42). The vicious cycle of debt that the farmers of the opium belt entered, made any idea of escape impossible. The grain crops and vegetables were not grown. There was only a sea of poppies in all the fields. To feed their families they took more debt and thus they became more confirmed in their state. Opium broke the very
fabric of the society, as was the case when Deeti and Kalua came across the
impoverished transients in Chhapra, “driven from their villages by the flood of
flowers that had washed over the countryside” (Ghosh 298). Hunger pressed them so
much that they were ready to forget all bindings of caste, religion and concern
for life and it safety. They only had one thing in their minds: survival. That’s
why they signed agreements to work on the farms in some unknown lands, even
hazarding to cross “black waters”. If money was the main motive behind the exploitation of the Indian farmer. The same was true in the case of the Chinaman too. He was drowned in the river of smoke, while the white suppliers of opium glibly produced altruistic justifications all the time: “Indeed, humanity demands it. We need only think of the poor Indian peasant – what will become of him if his opium can’t be sold in in China? Bloody hurremzads can hardly eat now: they’ll perish by the crore” (Ghosh 385). The very idealistic Mr. Burnham, the devotee of Free Trade, surprisingly happens to be a very forceful supporter of the English merchant’s right to supply opium to china, even if the Chinese are against it. He sees the Chinese emperor’s edict against opium as halting the “march of human freedom” and, ironically, explains it to a racially mixed Zachary that freedom meant “mastery of the white man” (Ghosh 117). He very happily and confidently expresses his joy at America’s being the last bastion of liberty: because slavery is legal there!
Sea of Poppies is a tale of the effects of racialization and rationalization of history on the subject races: colonized, tormented and exploited. It presents the central concerns of commonwealth (postcolonial) literature very clearly. One of the clearly fore grounded themes is the mechanism of how the pseudoscientific theories of race, with its binary division of backward/advanced race, is translated logically into master/subjest races and then, naturalized and internalized by the ruling and the ruled alike. The novel also presents through its narration and actions and words of prominent characters, how economics drove history of the colonies that were later designated as the Commonwealth. Moreover it also shows how the lust of money and power drives ethics and reason too. Money blinded the exploiters so much that they forgot the tenets of Christianity and liberal humanism. The mechanism of exploitation is presented in its full ghastly detail, sometimes very vividly and graphically. With all these strands of the concerns of eternal nature are woven the strands that belong to a puny individual characters personal quest and destiny. The public and the personal-private elements are artfully annealed to convert them into something rich and strange.
Works Cited
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. Routledge: London, 1998. Print.

Boehmer, Elleke and Rosinka Chaudhuri. “Introduction”. The Indian Postcolonial: A Critical Reader. Ed. Elleke Boehmer and Rosinka Chaudhuri. Routledge: New York, 2011. Print.
Brook, Timothy and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi. “Opium’s History in China”. Opium Regimes: China, Britain and Japan, 1839-1952. ed. Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi. Univ. of California Press: Los Angeles, 2000. Print.
Ghosh, Amitav. “Opium financed British rule in India”. BBC News. 23 June 2008. Web. 27 November 2011.
–. Sea of Poppies. 2008. PDF. 27 November 2011.
Larsen , Neil . “Imperialism, Colonialism, Postcolonialism”. A Companion to Postcolonial Studies. ed. Henry Schwarz and Sangeeta Ray. Oxford: 2005, Blackwell. Print.
Roy Chowdhury, Shreya. “Keeping regional literature out has made C’wealth tag lose relevance”. Timesofindia. Oct 9, 2010. Web. 15 December 2011.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.
Young, Robert J. C. Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP, 2003. Print.


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