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The IBIS Trilogy

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

Amitav Ghosh’s books are read extensively and are admired by both readers and critics. Though born in India, he is now a citizen of the world. His technique extends from contemporary realism to historical and speculative fiction. His themes span dislocations, violence, and dispersion and unification of people precipitated by forces of colonialism. The Ibis Trilogy, contains Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011), and Flood of Fire (2015). The stories have the mid-nineteenth century opium trade between India and China as the background. Ghosh is obsessed with the origin and evolution of words quite like Neel, one of his characters in the trilogy who tends to do this in his Chrestomathy. These words have come with the migrants and have become loanwords in the English language. In his Jnanpith acceptance address (1), he said that when he started writing “many, many years ago, English was considered marginal both to Indian and to English literature. There is nothing solid about the way that languages interact with each other in the Indian subcontinent: they mingle, flow and infiltrate, not just between groups but, most significantly, within individuals.” The trilogy tells the stories of people caught in the vortex of the opium trade between India and China in 1838–42. In ‘The Sea of Poppies’, Deeti, Kalua and other indentured labour destined to plantations in Mauritius are on the ship Ibis. Two convicts, Neel, the erstwhile Raja of Raskhali and Ah Fatt, son of a Parsi merchant and a Chinese mother, are sailing with them. Then there is Pugglee, daughter of a French botanist who had passed away, escaping from Benjamin Burnham, a trader with extensive Indian and Chinese interests, who had taken her under his wings. Finally, Zachary Reid is a mulatto American who rises in ranks on the Ibis. The climax of the Sea of Poppies happens when Ibis hits a storm. A mutiny engineered by Serang Ali breaks out, resulting in the escape of several of the characters.In River of Smoke, we come to know that the storm had affected Anahita, another opium carrier belonging to a Parsi trader Bahram Modi. Bahram’s passion is speculating and trading. Using a ship and capital lent by his father-in-law, a shipbuilder, he succeeds in opium trading. With time, Bahram’s business grew while the ship-building business declined. To finance his latest voyage to transport a massive shipment of opium, he had to borrow heavily. However, success promises wealth and independence from his wife’s family. Canton is the centre of action in River of Smoke. Franqui town is the area assigned to foreigners so that they are isolated from the Chinese. During this period (1838–39), Sino-British tensions peaked over the opium trade. The book closes with a hint that the First Opium War was about to begin.Flood of Fire (2015) is the final novel of this epic tale. We see the British government declaring war against China, insisting that they withdraw the crackdown on opium smuggling. The Hind, a ship requisitioned for the war, travels from Bengal to China, carrying native soldiers. Several characters from the previous books reappear, transformed as they travel through time and space. Neel is now a translator in Canton. The orphaned French girl Pugglee who is conversant in Bengali has blossomed into the botanical collector Paulette; Ah Fatt, the ‘half-caste’ son of Bahram and a Chinese woman, has gone from being the convict to the less threatening Freddy Lee.Among a diverse group of travellers in Hind is Kesri Singh, a havildar in the East India Company and the older brother of Deeti. He is leading a company of Indian sepoys. Kesri Singh is struggling to make sense of Deeti’s subversion and her running away with a lover. He is loyal to his British officer, Captain Mee, who has volunteered for an overseas expedition and wants Kesri to join him. Having reached a level of extreme personal despair and disillusionment, Kesri questions himself and wonders whether his ambitions for himself were ever likely to be fulfilled. Shireen Modi, Behram Modi’s widow, travels to Canton to reclaim her late husband’s wealth and reputation. Shireen is shocked on hearing about Bahram’s death and financial loss, and in a move that scandalises her family, she decides to go to China herself. Bahram’s Armenian friend supports her; Zadig Karabedian. However, her journey will be a severe test as her sense of duty clashes with the restrictions imposed by tradition. Paulette, found in Mauritius by the botanist Fitcher, travels with him to China aboard the Redruth but is forced to remain in Hong Kong because of a ban on foreign women entering Canton. Zachary Reid is searching for Paulette.Ghosh uses opium as a narrative device to represent forms of imperial and personal degradation. Opium is the intricate web that links all the characters. Opium not only degrades the Company by making them the world’s first organised drug smuggler; it degrades people by addiction. While opium is the primary bounty, stories of mercantile explorations to secure Chinese botanical curiosities for European consumption appear in the first two books. The exotic plants are actually from the nurseries in Canton and Macau.While exploring the intersections between the global and the local, the Ibis Trilogy exposes the tensions of the imperial experience. The novels present a world that historians of the Indian Ocean can glimpse only through fragments in the colonial archives. The trilogy explores exile’s political, economic, social dimensions, penal transportation, and indentured migration. The East India Company set up settlements for punitive exile all over British-controlled Asia and the Indian Ocean from the late eighteenth century. These were means of expressing imperial power, and the geographical scale and scope of convict transportation were extensive. Historians are generally concerned with describing events and assessing their place in more extensive historical processes. Novelists can address questions of history through the experiences of individuals. Ghosh stresses the necessity of understanding the political space that his characters inhabited. As events unfold through the character’s eyes, fiction creates a holistic space not available in historical depictions. The creative use of the historiography in the trilogy has highlighted the public history of Britain’s use of convict transportation in and across Asia and the Indian Ocean as a means of degradation, exile, and exploitation. A shared language, which aids in its geographical and cultural integration, reveals the cosmopolitan character of the Indian Ocean. Here is a world in which India, Burma, Singapore, and China, Mauritius are seamlessly connected by the Indian ocean, and people move between them without barriers. Bhojpuri is recognised as a constituent element of Mauritian Kreol, while the languages spoken in Canton possessed a remarkably South Asian character.Migration and mobility are strategies available to ordinary people to cope with profound economic, social, and cultural changes. These journeys create the brotherhood of jahaz-bhais, men drawn from diverse religions, castes, and backgrounds. Despite being a world marked by violence and exploitation, mobility, though coerced, gave rise to new cultural identities.Ghosh frequently uses local languages, period words, sailor slang or spells some character’s dialogue phonetically. He does not offer translation or explain the meaning of these words but ensures enough context for the reader to get the gist. Languages spoken in the second quarter of the nineteenth century in India’s northern and eastern parts were Bhojpuri and Bangla. Pidgin used by sailors of different racial origins in the Indian Ocean regions emerges as a new identity in the Ibis trilogy. Ghosh incorporates a motley of varied forms of English, including nineteenth-century British, American, and Indian versions of English, nautical terms, pidgin English influenced by Hindi, Urdu, and Chinese and the language of the lascars. Lascar talk can be exotic. As an example from Sea of Poppies, p. 16, listen to what Serang Ali says: “wife-o hab makee die. Go topside, to hebbin. By’mby, Serang Ali catchi nother piece wife.” The book thus ventures into linguistic experimentation, producing a new English peppered with Bengali and Bhojpuri expressions and shipping vernaculars.The pleasure of the books lies in the masterly handling of three elements: history, people and language. History is the tool to create a version of the past where unexpected connections happen. The separation and re-unification of lovers, siblings, parents, children make the story complex, though this is the book’s narrative pleasures. Experimentation with the use of languages and their mixtures remains another endearing feature of Ghosh’s craft. References


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