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Amitav Ghosh: Sea Routes, Flowers and Opium

by Jennifer Mackenzie

I realise … in hindsight … what has always interested me most: the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the connections and the cross-connections between these regions. (Ghosh interviewed by Kooria 2012, 10)

As a fiction writer, Amitav Ghosh has at his disposal a network of the regions, oceans and waterways which make up continental space, allowing his imagination to alight on themes ranging from the mythical to the ethical and political. Such a method is well-suited to present, at large, the havoc wrecked by colonialism and its environmental consequences.

In his recent book, The Great Derangement (2016), Amitav Ghosh focuses on some of the challenges of incorporating climate change into works of literary fiction. He looks at how the modern novel, with its focus on the everyday, tends to exclude the extraordinary from its dominant narrative. Linking the form to the philosophical concept of probability, he compares its emphasis on containment of experience with the earlier freer forms of fiction as seen in The Arabian Nights, The Journey to the West and The Decameron, which leap blithely ‘from one exceptional event to the other’. This analysis bears some resemblance to Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel (2003), in which he traces the history of the novel in terms of the vicissitudes of European history. Ghosh expands this concept to a global awareness of climate and its relationship to colonialism and its depredations.

This essay will consider two prominent themes of Ghosh’s recent fiction: nature as a metaphysical and climactic force, seen most prominently in The Hungry Tide (2004), and the intimate connection between colonialism, the doctrine of Free Trade, and the seeds of the contemporary climate crisis, as depicted in The Ibis Trilogy, comprising Sea of Poppies (2009), River of Smoke (2012) and Flood of Fire (2015). Ghosh connects the capitalist desire to harness, and to somehow be free of, nature’s agency with the curious blindness towards the possibility of catastrophic climate events, both generally and by extension in the development of exposed sites. This can be seen in cases such as the failed attempt in the nineteenth century to establish a port at Canning, near Kolkata, where storm warnings were ignored, the establishment of Mumbai on exposed reclaimed land, and the development of areas in the Nicobars devastated during the 2005 tsunami.

The Hungry Tide

The Hungry Tide is set in the Sundarbans, an area dominated by its waterways and bordered by mangrove swamps and small village settlements whose inhabitants eke out a precarious existence, mainly through fishing. The area is critically prone to flooding and storms, and is in constant flux: ‘… here, in the tide country, transformation is the rule of life: rivers stray from week to week, and islands are made and unmade in days …mangroves can recolonise a denuded island in ten to fifteen years’ (THT 224).  The villagers share this environment with wild animals, including tigers and crocodiles, and are at high risk of being taken by them. In comparison to the structural complexity of the Trilogy, the narrative here is relatively straight-forward, with a small number of characters providing a variety of stories and timelines. There are three major characters: Fokir, a boatman with a preternatural sense of his environment; Piya, a cetologist who comes to the area specifically to study the relatively unknown and endangered Irrawaddy dolphin; and Kanai, a multilingual resident of Delhi, who runs a successful translation bureau. Kanai, who visited the area as a child, has come at the invitation of his aunt, whose late husband has left a diary which he had requested his nephew read. This diary allows Ghosh to insert extracts from it (and a degree of polemic) into the narrative, providing a geo-political history of the area, including an account of an actual event, the Marichjhapi massacre of displaced persons in 1979, under the auspices of the Bengali Government.

While Ghosh’s evocation of place is exceptionally vivid, however, he extends the range of the novel from beyond the naturalistic by presenting the river, the canals, and the Sundarbans in general, as a metaphysical and linguistic force generating their own narrative: ‘ … the mudbanks of the tide country are shaped not only by rivers of silt, but also by rivers of language. Bengali, English, Arabic, Hindi, Arakanese and who knows what else? Flowing into each other they create a proliferation of small worlds that hang suspended in the flow’ (THT 247), and in a more personal note in The Great Derangement he recalls:

To this day I think of the circumstances [the flooding of their village] that have shaped my life, I remember the elemental force that untethered my ancestors from their homeland and launched them on the series of journeys that preceded, and made possible, my own travels. When I look into my own past the river seems to meet my eyes, staring back, as if to ask, ‘Do you recognise me, wherever you are?’ (TGD 4)

In The Hungry Tide, Fokir reads the river, alert to its proclivities, and he is able to direct Piya to particular places where the dolphins gather, and they are able to work in tandem, with Piya using sophisticated sonar equipment and Fokir catching crabs with a makeshift line:

At the start she thought they might end up disrupting each other’s work … but … the stops required for the laying of the line seemed to be ideally timed for the taking of soundings. … the line … keeping the boat on a straight and unvarying track …

It was surprising enough that their jobs had not provided to be utterly incompatible – especially considering that one of the tasks required the input of geostationary satellites while the other depended on bits of sharkbone and broken tile. (THT 140)

Fokir’s skills however are not merely practical. His knowledge of oral texts expand the novel’s narrative to encompass the mythical and folk tales of origin which include animist, Islamic and Hindu elements. The impact of storms on the region and its waterways is incorporated into this oral history, and is seen as having a narrative which can be read, felt and acted upon by creatures (both animal and human) which have this knowledge. As in The Great Derangement, which also includes a discussion of how climate change may affect their location and severity, Ghosh refers to the history of storms, and their role in re-making the environment. In addition, Ghosh appears to harness storm as image into his own creative process, as it articulates the agency of nature and of animals, and that writing itself can be made and unmade by these forces. In a scene early in The Hungry Tide, when Kanai is ensconced in his aunt’s guest house, the electricity goes out, and he hears a sound, unfamiliar to him, the distant roar of a tiger. ‘The echo had carried across the water for such a distance that it would have been inaudible if the generator had been on … Small as it was, every other sound seemed to wither for an instant, only to be followed by a loud and furious outbreak of disquiet … a frenzy of barking, from all over the island’ (THT 154).

He learns that bagh is a word that should never be spoken, as it would encourage the presence of the animal. There is a sense that the jungle and the tiger are one, and that cohabitation with humans is barely possible. If a word can carry such a force, the river has no trouble in dissolving what is written of it into its current, as can be seen when Kanai attempts to carry his uncle’s manuscript out of the flood, only for him to be knocked over and see the text disappear into the flow.

Ghosh mentions that he found the writing of the storm in the concluding section of the novel, during which one of the protagonists dies, to be very difficult. Published in December 2004, the passages prefigure the Tsunami of 2005 in their precise detail. Piya is surprised by the unusual behaviour of the dolphins she was observing: ‘they were surfacing with unusual frequency, with barely a minute or two separating their exhalations’ (THT 366), and as her binoculars tilted to the south-east, she saw that at the horizon the sky ‘had acquired a peculiar, steel-grey glow’ (THT 367). By the time they reached the shore ‘the gale was blowing so hard that it seemed to be holding the surface of the water at an incline: it was as if the water had been mounded into a sloping ram that reached well past the island’s banks’ (THT 377). Before long

the noise of the storm deepened and another roar made itself heard, over the rumbling din of the gale: a noise like that of a cascading waterfall. … It was as if a city block had suddenly begun to move: the river was like pavement, lying at its feet, while its crest reared high above, dwarfing the tallest trees. It was a tidal wave, sweeping in from the sea; everything in its path disappeared as it came thundering towards them. (THT 383)

On assignment in the Nicobars after the tsunami, Ghosh observes that in Malacca ‘of the houses only the floors were left, and here and there the stump of a wall … [coconut palms] … stood serenely over the rubble, their fronds waving gently in the breeze that was blowing in from the sparkling sun-drenched sea.’ (TGD 34)

The Ibis Trilogy

In comparison, The Ibis Trilogy presents a large number of characters and multiple narratives. Characters are introduced, some returning to the narrative in later episodes, or dropping out altogether. Ghosh has some interesting ways of refreshing his reader’s memory of the earlier action (there was a 3 year gap between the books). For example, in the second novel, River of Smoke (2012), the introductory section includes images of the protagonists in a shrine in Mauritius from the earlier Sea of Poppies (2009).

The writer employs the devices of coincidence, a sense of fate, and sheer improbability in ways that suggests magical realism, in addition to the example of ancient and pre-nineteenth century story-telling. In Sea of Poppies, the Ibis, which is about to be fitted out as an opium carrier, takes one single voyage carrying both indentured labourers and prisoners on a journey to Mauritius, a journey encompassing terrifying storms, horrific living conditions for the above, and staggering amounts of brutality and violence. The background to this journey connects British opium traders, whimsical botanists, and impoverished peasants who had been compelled to grow poppies – to the detriment of their well-being as their ability to grow food crops is barely existent – and/or work in the Ghazipur opium factory:

In a year when the poppies were strangely slow to shed their petals, for mile after mile, from Benares onwards, the Ganga seemed to be flowing between twin glaciers, both its banks being blanketed by thick drifts of white-petalled flowers … [travelling down the Ganga] hundreds of impoverished transients … drawn from their villagers by the flood of flowers that had washed over the countryside: lands that had once provided sustenance were now swamped by the rising tide of poppies, food was so hard to come by that people were glad to lick the leaves in which offerings were made at temples. (SP 213)

The Ghazipur factory still exists, now producing pharmaceutical products, but according to a report in The Times of India in May 2017, similar environmental issues still prevail. Sedated monkeys are still a feature of the plant, and this year it was closed down for several months due to its lack of compliance with effluent guidelines, and lack of fresh water monitoring. It was also described as being ‘full of weeds and infested with snakes’ (Singh 2017).

While the protagonists in Sea of Poppies bring an enormous energy to the narrative with their multi-ethnicity, initiative in the face of overwhelming odds, humour, along with scenes of debauchery suited to the ribaldry of earlier narrative styles, the most innovative aspect of the story is undoubtedly language itself. Ghosh employs a ‘lascar’ tongue, a democratic mode of communication developed from a range of languages present on or about the continent for hundreds of years. ‘Lascar’ portrays flexibility, variety, as well as being a rich source of humour. Such language allows Ghosh to develop an interweaving over land and sea, which suggests a world larger than ethnicity, or of geographical demarcations of belonging, while still acknowledging those boundaries. The former raja, Neel, who is convicted of forgery becomes both record keeper, and through his multi-lingual abilities, the voice of solace for those on the Ibis, as they leave their homes forever, and pass out of the mouth of the Ganga, and into the unknown ocean, the kalapani, the Black Water.

The focus of the second part of the trilogy, River of Smoke, turns away from India and centres on China, most particularly on the foreign enclave in Canton, Fanqui-town, a network of residences, offices and godowns. The majority of the trading houses deal in opium. Although diverse in background, the British traders are the most prominent, and are enthusiastic supporters of the idea of Free Trade, a doctrine which enables its supporters to clothe self-interest in an abundant amount of humbug. Church and state are aligned in this enterprise, and missionaries with an eye to proselytising attach themselves to the trade with alacrity.

While countries in the West were purchasing large quantities of Chinese ceramics, exotic plants, and silks, the self-contained Chinese displayed an indifference to reciprocation. The balance of trade became a pressing issue for the colonial project, and resistance to the disastrous results of opium trading led ultimately to the Opium Wars, as outlined in River of Smoke (2012) and Flood of Fire (2015), the establishment of Hong Kong under the British Flag, as well as the establishment of foreign concession ports around China.

Ghosh employs a different technique in River of Smoke to that of Sea of Poppies. Drama and swashbuckling commotion subside somewhat, with the writer creating the environment of the foreign enclave with the detailed eye of the miniaturist. The narrative could be seen to replicate the work of the painter, Robin Chinnery, who finds the norms of Western painting inadequate to the task, and he begins to consider the possibilities of the scroll as used in Chinese painting. River of Smoke details the town, then moves to the surrounding islands and waterways, with a description of the elaborate gardens and homes of the wealthy Chinese inhabitants, thus setting up a discrete, though subtly connected world.

Botany and searching for new floral species provide a rather innocent and refreshing counterpoint to the base motives and criminality of the opium trade. The botanist Penrose, with the assistance of Paulette, who comes from a long line of botanists, decide to set up a nursery on Hong Kong, a site for the lucrative trade in flowers heading for Western gardens. When the multi-lingual Neel enters the world of the Chinese printer, Compton, with whom he eventually joins forces, he takes note of a beautiful flowering cherry tree in the courtyard; it appears as emblematic of a better world.

The role of the botanical is as it happens a complex one. Ghosh connects some of his protagonists to historical figures engaged in the global search for flora. In Sea of Poppies, Paulette, like her imagined great-aunt, Jeanne Baret, who voyaged with Bougainville, dons men’s garb so that she can sail on the Ibis with an all-male crew. She has inherited her late father’s love of plants and gardening, and her deep imagination leaves her captivatingly open to experience and adaptability. When the Ibis sails through the Sundarbans  on the way to Mauritius, ‘she was glad to seize every opportunity to gaze at the river’s mangrove-cloaked shores … Some of [her] happiest memories was helping her father catalogue the flora of this forest.’ (SP 396)

In River of Smoke, Paulette becomes an assistant to the trader in plants, Frederick ‘Fitcher’ Penrose. He had in fact learned his trade from his connection with Sir Joseph Banks, and the Kew Botanical Gardens. Banks, accompanying botanist on Cook’s voyage to Australia, was a passionate advocate not only for British settlement there, but for a global transformation through the dissemination of flora. The value of the opium trade was huge, but trade in plants, including tea, amounted to one-tenth of British exports. On board the Redruth, Penrose imported American plants into China, and in exchange, Chinese plants into Britain: ‘He had been careful to select varieties that were likely to prove hardy in Britain, and several of his introductions had quickly become established in English gardens: two varieties of wisteria, a seductive new lily, a fine azalea bush, an unusual primrose, a lustrous camellia and much else.’ (RS 109)

In a striking image for exchange and connection across continents, forced or otherwise, in the abandoned Botanical Gardens in Mauritius, flora creates its own Babel out of its very abandonment:

Where once there had been orderly, well-spaced trees and broad, picturesque vistas, there was now a wild and tangled muddle of greenery.  … the untrimmed crowns of the garden’s trees had become so dense that the grounds beneath, with their flower-beds and flag-stoned pathways, were shrouded in darkness; … This was no primeval jungle, for no ordinary wilderness would contain such a proliferation of species, from different continents. In nature there existed no forest where African creepers were at war with Chinese trees, nor one where Indian shrubs and Brazilian vines were locked in a mortal embrace. This was a work of Man, a botanical Babel. (RS 39)

As the painter Robin Chinnery writes in a letter to Paulette, describing his failed attempt to smuggle Penrose’s plants into Canton at the time of the opium embargo, ‘are [flowers and opium] not perhaps a means to a kind of intoxication? Could it not even be said that one leads to the other? Certainly there would be no opium without flowers – and what else do dragon-chasers dream but of gardens of unearthly delight?’ (RS 528)

When business was flourishing, camaraderie between the traders was strong, but with the edict from the Chinese emperor forbidding the importation of opium, significant fissures in the relationships begin to appear. While the hard-nosed Free Traders appear to be completely devoid of ethics, the Parsee trader from Bombay, Barham, is a more complex case. Less venal than his fellow traders, he has viewed his life as a successful entrepreneur as being due to fate, which had successfully harnessed his abilities, and his self-worth as being related to the good he has done his family and community.

As Ghosh discusses in The Great Derangement, for the colonisers, Free Trade worked in tandem with protectionism, with such a tactic virtually eliminating local expertise in India, as with ship building. The novelist introduces this idea in River of Smoke explicitly though the voice of Barham. Barham’s father-in-law could build different types of ships

better and cheaper in Bombay, than they could in Portsmouth and Liverpool – and with all the latest technical equipment too. And when the shipbuilders of England realised this, what do you think happened? They talk of Free Trade when it suits them – but they make sure the rules changed so that the Company and the Royal Navy could no longer order ships from us. (RS 426)

Barham sees this situation as an opportunity for him. In a strange scene early in the novel, which recounts a visit he made to the West, his boat stops at St Helena, and he happens to meet the exiled Napoleon. Napoleon quizzes Barham about the opium trade, and in a manner which is in some way the ethical key to these novels. Bahram says to him, ‘Opium is like the wind or the tides: it is outside my power to alter its course. A man is neither good nor evil because he sails his ship upon the wind’. Napoleon replies, ‘But a man may die, may he not, because he sails upon the wind.’ (RS 185). Especially when the wind’s direction is set up for him to fail, and the river itself is a river of smoke.

During the climactic scenes in Flood of Fire, most of the characters in The Ibis Trilogy have made their way by sea in boats of various kinds, to the waterways of Canton, and the conflagration of the British blockade. Some do not survive, some like Zachary are corrupted by the Opium trade. The Chinese have acquired a British-built steamship, the Cambridge. Decorated with pennants, flags and paper lanterns, it is blown out of the water. Paulette finds the nursery that she and Penrose had set up on isolated land is now ‘close to hamlets’ as ‘swarms of boats [with people from Guangdong] begin to drift into the bay’ (FF 480). The enigmatic Ibis voyager, Baboo Nob Kissin, hails the English as ‘the instruments of the gods’ as they initiate a time of greed, of ‘the great devouring’ of earth, air and sky (FF 509). The Free Traders look to their balance sheets.  Hong Kong becomes a British territory and a new era takes form in the cross-currents.


This essay was developed from a paper given at the Literary Environments conference in July at Griffith University.


Ghosh, Amitav. 2004. The Hungry Tide. HarperCollins. (THT)

—.  2009. Sea of Poppies. John Murray. (SP)

—. 2012. River of Smoke. John Murray. (RS)

—. 2015. Flood of Fire. John Murray. (FF)

—. 2016. The Great Derangement. The University of Chicago Press. (TGD)

Kooria, Mahmood. 2012. Between the Walls of Archives and Horizons of the Imagination: An Interview with Amitav GhoshItinerario 36, no. 3 (December): 7–18.

Singh, Binay. 2017. Country’s biggest, oldest opium factory shut. The Times of India (May 4).

Published: January 2018
Jennifer Mackenzie

Jennifer Mackenzie’s most recent work is Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, Jakarta 2012). Her ‘Map/Feet’ should see the light of day soon, and she is currently working on a series of essays on Asia-Pacific writing, ‘Writing the Continent’, plus a new Indonesia-focused poetry project.

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