Archive for July, 2009


Review of Sea of Poppies by Meena Kandasamy


As the Man Booker Prize enters its fortieth year in 2008, it retains its position as the most respected literary prize for English language fiction published in the UK and the Commonwealth. Despite its glamorous halo of quality, the prize has attracted attention because of its controversial nature � a wife on the jury fought for the sake of her then husband�s novel, jury members have threatened suicide over the selection of a book, and over the years, they have, like unruly schoolchildren, called each other nasty names and gone so far as to trade charges of cheating.

Because the benefits of the Man Booker prize are many (worldwide audience, translations and film adaptations), the omissions on the shortlist generate as much public discussion as the half-a-dozen selections. Rushdie�s latest novel failed to enchant the jury; other notable omissions this year are Joseph O�Neill�s Netherland, Mohammed Hanif �s A Case of Exploding Mangoes, and Michelle de Krester�s The Lost Dog. The fact that this prize has been bestowed on first-time novelists (Arundhati Roy, Yann Martel, DBC Pierre) means that Aravind Adiga or Steve Toltz stand a big, fat chance to seize the day. Therefore, it not surprising that they happen to be bookies� favourites.

Spending a month reading the six shortlisted titles means that one can be legitimately entitled to an opinion � in other words, one can piously pick a possible winner.

I love Amitav Ghosh�s Sea of Poppies.

The text speaks to me in ways that I can never put down into words.

I have never before encountered such a feisty rural heroine in Indian English fiction. Deeti suffers in a wretchedly painful marriage, cultivates opium and supports her daughter single-handedly; falls in love and secretly marries the Dalit who saved her from becoming a sati, decides to become an indentured labourer along with her husband when fleeing from her family. Once aboard the Ibis, she is the women�s counsellor and champion of others� rights; and in the tremendous, tumultuous final scene she watches, with hope and silent resignation, the love of her life sail away (with other seamen) to save his skin. And during the course of these important events, she fills the world with her song, her laughter.

May be this praise sounds too personal: as though I was reading the novel based on who I am, a woman, a Dalit, an Indian with migrant/slave ancestors somewhere in the roots of her family tree. It is almost time to remember that not one person sitting on the jury shares my background.

However that does not mean that Ghosh�s masterpiece will impress them any less than it moved me. So I might as well say that I made this choice because of purely technical reasons. As, if you please, an objective reviewer.

At the height of his expressive powers, Ghosh is adept at creating not just true-to-life characters but giving each one of them voices and styles and speech patterns of their own: one comes across an English with Indian inflections, a pidgin tongue, and sailors� registers. The narrative is exceptionally well-handled and the climax is vivid, almost unforeseeable.

Reclaiming history sounds like a scary rightwing project, but by penning a panoramic novel from the perspective of powerless colonised subjects and the manner in which they are swayed by political forces, Ghosh has proved that the purpose of literature is to change the way we look at the world. When you are done with the rereading, this bewitching book will make you long for the second instalment and a screen adaptation.


Sea of Poppies
by Amitav Ghosh
Publisher: Penguin/Viking
Pages: 515
Price: Rs 599

The first volume of Ghosh�s projected Ibis trilogy, Sea of Poppies is a fascinating historical novel that exceeds expectations by taking on two of the mightiest projects of colonialism: indentured labor and the opium trade. Ibis, a retired slave ship/blackbirder comes to Calcutta to transport Indians as plantation coolies to Mauritius. With the silken story-telling as potent as the drug itself, colonial history and cultural connections seamlessly merge with the ensemble character cast that consists of sailors and lascar seamen, a disgraced raja, a rajput subedar, a French botanist�s orphaned daughter, and coolies of various castes and women migrants.

Even as the novel reveals masks and mindsets, it also celebrates difference and diversity . The schooner�s second mate Zachary Reid, a black mulatto freedman, and Kalua, a Dalit villager stand out as heroes who silently fight against the stigma of color and caste, and who, at least in their love affairs, transcend them. Britain�s necessity to offset its trade deficit converted the nation into the world�s biggest drug-pusher, and the impact of this exercise looms large over the lives of powerless rural people in the Ganges plains.

To Ghosh�s credit, he portrays colonial subjects as armed with the power to transform their own destinies. The colonizing tongue changes Madhu Kalua to Maddow Clover�yet, creativity gives birth to a pidgin, where English, ravished by Bengali, Bhojpuri and Laskar, turns into a multi-layered lingo whose music adds to this novel�s brilliance. The brutal climax shows the ship in mid sea, fighting a tempest. The real storm is however in the minds of those aboard the Ibis as they watch their dear ones � the convicts and the condemned � move away in search of safer shores.


Indentured rendered visible

The story turns to the past for inspiration and looks to the future with optimism

July 26, 2009 Edition 1

Rajendra Chetty

Aziz Hassim’s The Revenge of Kali appears at an appropriate juncture in the history of South Africa – 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the indentured Indians.

In this fictionalised historical novel, which was launched in Durban last week, Hassim renders the history of indenture visible through the exposure of the harsh working conditions of indentured labourers who toiled in the sugar cane fields of Natal in the late 1800s.

He recovers an incredible slice of history, the impact of which still resonates in the heart and soul of the descendants. The scars of indenture are indelible, as the writer witnesses during his interview with a 98-year-old man who became a catalyst for the story.

A Foucauldian archaeological and genealogical approach is used to traverse the terrain of the everyday life on the sugar fields in the first part of the novel, the early resistance to colonial power, the collaboration of the sirdars (foremen) with the landowner; a story from the inside, situated within the small intense world of oppression and exploitation on a single farm.

The story is set in three areas: the first in the cane fields; the second in the “Duchene” behind Durban’s Warwick Triangle and the third in the “Casbah”, the city’s Grey Street complex. The last two places were notorious for the gang wars of the ’50s and ’60s.

There is a sustained emphasis on specifics of routes through the city in the novel and the use of cartographical images in the construction of geographical space is rather interesting.

The Revenge of Kali comes after Hassim’s highly successful debut novel, The Lotus People, won the Sanlam Award for new writing in 2005.

It’s often difficult with a second novel. However, this work, a tender tragic-comedy, is as exciting as the history that inspired it.

While the first book focused on the Indian merchant class, the new book delves into the tough lives of poor indentured Indians.

The ironic and controversial role played by the Indian merchant class as accomplices to the oppression and slavery of their fellow immigrants is told with courage and openness.

In the process of the recovery of history, writers sometimes fall into the trap of either “forgetting” or playing down the insensitivities of class among communities for fear of deepening the complexity of the historical context.

However, Hassim does not simply reinforce the dichotomy of Indian slave and white master/oppressor in the novel. He unearths the atrocities perpetuated by the “passenger” Indians (the merchant class who paid their own passage to South Africa as opposed to indenture) against those from the working class, the girmityas.

The sugar slaves are not portrayed as defenceless victims; rather, the courage and resistance of Ellapen, Mohideen, Runga and Daniel is foregrounded.

The violence of the sirdars is as repulsive as the racist attitude of the white farm owners.

Ellapen vows that they will walk out as free men – or die as free men.

“On that night our slavery ends. But let us not talk about dying. We died on the day they brought us here. We are fighting to be alive again.”

The title of the book was inspired by a prayer recited by cane workers to the Hindu goddess Kali for their white masters to be punished.

She is the goddess of destruction whose cult was characterised by savagery and cannibalism.

It’s interesting that in the stories of indenture from British colonies such as Trinidad, Tobago and Fiji, it was Shiva, god of the dance, the destroyer of evil, that emerged as principal deity as reflected in Itwaru’s poem: “Scatter of worlds and broken wishes/ In Shiva’s unending dance.”

The choice of the female goddess by the South African girmityas, the embodiment of evil with dripping blood, severed arms and a necklace of skulls, is poignant.

There have always been strong women in the writings of South African Indians. The paradox is that Kali also preserves the good: “Leave revenge to the Goddess Kali. She will avenge all of us. Forget the false pictures you may have seen, depicting her as a malevolent and demonic creature with her long tongue hanging out of her mouth, dripping with blood.

“Many mistakenly believe she is the goddess of evil, an incantation of the devil. The truth is none of those things. She is the goddess who punishes evil, penalising corruption and depravity and ensuring justice for the powerless.”

One detects an autobiographical element in this story, concomitant with the rigour of a careful researcher, tinged with the feelings of pathos as articulated by Thiru, a key protagonist: “For some time now, I had been preoccupied by thoughts of the arrival of my ancestors from their distant village in Madras.

“My efforts at researching what drove them to leave their homes and cross the ocean ended dismally. All I could find were fragments of documents that left me asking more questions.

“Until the day I found myself sitting next to an ancient descendant of those early settlers. What that grizzled old man told me shook me to the core, inflamed my passion, and left me seething with anger.

“And it was more than what he said, it was the way he said it: the tremor in his voice, the emotions doing a hideous dance on his face, the terrifying account of the appallingly harsh abuse, the torment and anguish of a lifetime of persecution and tyranny of guileless people abandoned by both God and government.”

Thiru’s quest for information about his ancestors is the driving force of the book.

After vain attempts to unearth his past, he leaves home at 3am one morning and drives to the cane fields where he communicates with the spirits of his ancestors.

Here the story resonates with the magic realism of the monkey’s tale in Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain where there’s no distinction between flesh and spirit, imagination and empiricism, gods and humans.

Thiru begins to feel like he was living during the time of his ancestors. He gets to know about Kolappen, who had escaped from the cane fields and then seeks this man to get more answers.


In a surprising twist to the tale, through imaginative accounts of family relationships and love, the breaking down of shrewd Indian distinctions of ethnic and religious divisions, transgressing the state’s abhorrent racial categorisation, and bringing the Foucauldian genealogy full circle, Kolappen’s long-lost grandson emerges.

The story of sugar slavery renews itself each time, a kind of Janus-faced story that turns to the past for its inspiration and yearns for the future with the kind of optimism endemic of diasporic communities.

The imageries associated with indenture and sugar are moving – “The sweetness of the sugar cane was soured by the brutality of slavery that followed, and the bitter legacy it spawned.”

Rajendra Chetty, is a researcher in Commonwealth writings, including South African writings.