Oceans Apart

Kalpana Wilson

'The wind had fallen off, so there was not a fleck of white visible on the surface, and with the afternoon sun glaring down, the water was as dark and still as the cloak of shadows that covers the opening of an abyss. Like the others around her, Deeti stared in stupefaction: it was impossible to think of this as water at all - for water surely needed a boundary, a rim, a shore, to give it shape and hold it in place? This was a firmament, like the night sky, holding the vessel aloft as if it were a planet or a star.' 
- Sea of Poppies

At first glance completely antithetical – The White Tiger and Sea of Poppies, both shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, share some common features and themes. Both begin in apparently isolated closed boundaried settings of villages in the plains of Bihar and eastern UP. And in both, this is a starting point for physical and metaphorical journeys across a world shaped by capitalist globalisation. In both the transformations wrought by these processes are subjected to a bitterly critical gaze. Here however the similarity ends. One might assume that Adiga’s short (if not very sharp) tale of a Bihari driver’s experiences in 21st century Delhi, contemporary in subject and self-consciously innovative in form - has more immediacy for left and progressive readers than Ghosh’s panoramic and classically constructed novel of 19th century migration to Mauritius. But reading both books leaves one with the inescapable feeling that whereas The White Tiger is designed to be all too superficial and ultimately palatable in its portrayal of the (apparently specifically Indian) inequalities of globalisation, Sea of Poppies raises, and powerfully sustains, much more fundamental questions about the nature of the expansion of capitalism, through its subtle and highly evocative narration of the experiences and emotions of a range of characters, and also gives one clues as to why it was Adiga’s book which was chosen to win the prestigious Booker Prize.
Written as a series of letters from a Bangalore-based ‘Indian entrepreneur’ to the Chinese premier, The White Tiger is the story of  Munna, born in a village in Gaya district, the son of a rickshaw puller and a mother who is soon to die of TB. Having been allocated the more ‘respectable’ name of Balram at school, he is dubbed ‘White Tiger’ - ‘the creature that comes along only once in a generation’ by a visiting inspector of schools who marks him out as a rare example of ‘an intelligent honest vivacious fellow’. But Balram’s education is soon cut short when he is taken out of school to work in a tea shop as part of the conditions of a loan his family takes from one of the village landlords to meet the expenses of his cousin sister’s wedding. By shrewdly listening in on the conversations of customers, Balram gathers that his best option is to become a driver, an ambition he doggedly pursues. Seeking employment in Dhanbad, he is taken on as ‘Number Two Driver’ and all-round servant by the same landlord. Quite soon (having dispatched driver number one by threatening to expose his Muslim background) he is on his way to Delhi as driver to the younger son of the family, the liberal, cosseted Ashok, newly returned from America, and his wife Pinky.
Ashok’s main activity in Delhi turns out to be to bribe various ministers and politicians on behalf of the family’s illicit coal business – and as Balram drives him to these assignations interspersed with endless trips to malls, restaurants and nightclubs, he becomes increasingly aware that ‘these days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat – or get eaten up’. With a series of events compounding Balram’s awareness of the material and psychological barriers preventing him crossing from one group to the other, and an arrogantly oblivious Ashok leaving him in charge of ever greater sums of bribe money, the stage is set for Balram to murder his employer and flee to Bangalore with the ‘red bag’ of cash. Having established his own successful business, he sets out to explain with obvious irony, ‘how entrepreneurship is born, nurtured and developed in this, the glorious twenty-first century of man.
The century, more specifically, of the yellow and the brown man.’
The White Tiger veers between detailed and highly specific descriptions of the world Balram enters as a servant in Gurgaon, and a crudely simplified code used to describe the world he leaves behind in Bihar – lower castes become ‘Pigherders’, a powerful and corrupt politician, possibly intended as an amalgam of Laloo and Mulayam, is ‘the Great Socialist’ (he is a ‘pigherder’ too) and most tellingly, the entire Gangetic plain is referred to simply as ‘the Darkness’.
Of course, the tactic of caricaturing and renaming has been used effectively in many political satires – particularly under conditions of censorship and repression - but The White Tiger lacks the sharpness and accuracy to be one of them. Rather, it seems to be mainly in order to make his book more ‘accessible’ to Western readers that Adiga has simplified to this extent – an impression which is intensified by the fact that he translates even proper names, however incongruous the results: Balram’s grandmother is referred to as ‘Kusum Granny’; an older stranger is addressed as ‘Muslim uncle’. In any case, Adiga’s own disdain for political distinctions is clear – and is very much in tune with the metropolitan elite’s view of Bihar. Thus the ‘Great Socialist’s party is shown sloganeering not about ‘social justice’ but ‘stand up to the rich’, the landlords form a party called the All India Social Progressive Front (Leninist Faction) and ‘Naxals’ main activity is kidnapping the children of the rich.          
It is perhaps not surprising then that there is little in the descriptions of Balram’s early life which evoke any sense of place: this is very much Bihar-by-numbers, with set-pieces such as the description of vote rigging or of the hospital devoid of doctors where Balram’s father dies. Tellingly, the most convincing observations are those which a traveller passing though might make from the road: the village bus-stand, for example. The characters too are seen through the lens of an outsider – Balram’s father is described as a man with a sense of dignity ‘despite’ being a rickshaw puller, ‘a human beast of burden’. But this is shown by the fact that he chooses to remain standing while waiting for long hours rather than squatting ‘hunched over’ on the ground which, apparently, is ‘the posture common to servants in every part of India’. One cannot help wondering if servants are perhaps the only people Adiga has met who find such a position comfortable!   
While Balram retains some affection for his father and his elder brother Kishan, the women of his large extended family, led by his hypocritical, grasping grandmother, are portrayed as parasitically driving the men to premature death – they are described as ‘pouncing’ on the men who return home with their earnings as migrant labourers ‘like wildcats on a slab of flesh’, more concerned with feeding the family buffalo than the men of the household, and responsible for forcing the boys of the family into child labour and the young men into early marriage for the sake of dowry. When Balram returns home to find Kishan ‘thinner, and darker….’ he imagines that instead of chicken the women ‘had served me flesh from Kishan’s own body on that plate.’ While it could be argued that the misogyny is Balram’s rather than Adiga’s, the author clearly shares his protagonist’s distorted perception that women of all classes only consume. Why else, for example, are there no women in the world of domestic servants in Delhi – where are all the maids and ayahs, so many of whom have also migrated to Delhi from Bihar and Jharkhand to work?
Ultimately, Balram’s family’s poverty is explained all too stereotypically in terms of the joint family system, too many children, a penchant for lavish weddings – and with so little depth to his personal history, he inevitably remains a superficial character. Once installed in an upmarket apartment block in Gurgaon, however, Adiga is clearly on more familiar ground, and in fact the portrayal of Balram’s employer Ashok, seen through his driver’s eyes, is much more complex and credible. America-returned Ashok is attached to his self-image as more liberal and caring than his feudal father and brother, expressing concern over Balram’s cockroach-infested living quarters and appreciating his (mostly faked) religiosity. Many of Adiga’s readers, particularly NRIs, might recognise something of themselves in this – as where he demands ‘“Take me to the kind of place you go to eat, Balram” “Sir?” “I’m sick of the food I eat, Balram. I’m sick of the life I lead. We rich people, we’ve lost our way, Balram…” I ordered okra, cauliflower, radish, spinach, and dhal. Enough to feed a whole family, or one rich man. He ate and burped and ate some more. “This food is fantastic. And just twenty-five rupees! You people eat so well!”’ The dispensability of Ashok’s principles is brought home when he agrees to his family’s scheme to make Balram take the rap after his wife Pinky drunkenly runs over and kills a child on the road.  
Much of the second half of the book focuses in on the relationship between ‘servant’ and ‘master’, a  relationship which grows increasingly obsessive on Balram’s side. Adiga seems to intend this as a metaphor for the current Indian economic model – and there is much emphasis on the increasing polarisation between rich and poor (which, according to Balram, has rendered all previously existing barriers of caste, community and gender obsolete!). But the India presented in The White Tiger has been denuded not only of its vast and varied middle class, but also its working class – people who have to wait for buses are all servants in the houses of the rich - or destitute pavement dwellers; Delhi’s call centre workers are all the daughters of the rich. By doing this - and by embodying the poor in Balram - a man apparently without human ties of any kind, inextricably bound to his employer, and only desiring (literally) to become Ashok - Adiga avoids and elides any question of the possibility of challenges to the model itself.the white tiger
In fact, despite the references to economic polarisation, it soon becomes clear that it is not capitalist globalisation, but only the specifically Indian version which Adiga has a problem with. Much is made of Balram’s notion of the Rooster Coop – a system where ‘a handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 per cent – as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way – to exist in perpetual servitude’.
That The White Tiger is reassuring fare for those who are merely uncomfortable with the idea of Indian competition in global markets is confirmed by the comments of Michael Portillo, head of the Booker Prize judges and erstwhile Conservative minister in the British government, that the book exposes ‘the dark side’ of India’s ‘economic miracle’ and reviews like that in Time Magazine (Adiga’s own ex-employer) which was titled somewhat gloatingly ‘The Death of the Indian Dream’.
And if Adiga’s message – that a poor ‘entrepreneur’ can only make it from rags to riches via murder – might imply at least a healthy cynicism about capitalist ‘dreams’ in general, even this cynicism turns to sentimentality towards the end of the book, where Balram opines ‘The moment you recognise what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave…If you taught every poor boy how to paint, that would be the end of the rich in India.’
Where Adiga simplifies and translates (both linguistically and conceptually) for a target audience, Amitav Ghosh in Sea of Poppies does the opposite: he immerses us in a vast and diverse ocean of overlapping languages, experiences and subjectivities. Yet the attention to details gathered from extensive research, and more importantly the sensitivity, depth and dynamism of Ghosh’s writing seems to convey the very texture of the lives he describes. This ensures that the reader identifies effortlessly with a half-dozen central characters, notably Deeti, a young woman widowed by opium addiction in a Bhojpur ravaged by forced poppy cultivation, who is now on the run from her Rajput in-laws, Zachary Reid, an African American ship’s carpenter, the son of a freed slave woman who finds himself  making his way in a rigidly racialised world by passing as white, Paulette Lambert, the unconventional daughter of a French Jacobin raised in Calcutta and struggling to fit into English colonial high society, and Neel Rattan Halder, an unworldly Bengali aristocrat oblivious to the fact that he is about to lose everything he possesses at the hands of a British opium trader and the colonial judiciary.
Set in 1838, Sea of Poppies’ key motif – which gives its name to the trilogy of which this book is the first part - is the Ibis, a ship until recently used to transport human beings from Africa to work as slaves on European owned cotton and sugar plantations and now, in the wake of the abolition of the slave trade, and under new owner Benjamin Burnham, a corrupt Calcutta based opium trader and evangelist Christian, preparing to transport indentured labourers -  ‘girmitiyas’ - from the plains and hills of eastern India to the plantations of Mauritius instead. As migrants, convicts sentenced to transportation, lascars, guards and officers, the lives of the book’s many characters become inextricably intertwined on board the Ibis.       
The Ibis sets sail from Calcutta on the eve of the First Opium War, in which Britain attacked China to enforce what Ghosh himself has called ‘the biggest drug trading operation in the history of the world’ in which opium, produced from white poppies grown under conditions of colonial coercion by peasants across eastern India was forced on the people of China by the British in a hugely profitable triangular trade.
Through the British characters, Ghosh highlight the tensions and shifts within colonial strategy in this pre-1857 period – the self-righteous triumphalism of Burnham and his associates in justifying the impending war on China in the name of spreading ‘civilisation’ and Christianity, so reminiscent of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq (‘it cannot be denied that there are times when war is not merely just and necessary, but also humane. In China that time has come’) is questioned by Captain Chillingworth, the opium-smoking Englishman who is to command the Ibis. Chillingworth favours the approach of preserving ‘native’ customs – but the reality of what this means becomes all too clear at sea when the upper caste feudal violence of the Subedar in charge of guarding the migrants, Bhyro Singh, is directly sanctioned.      
While this is quite nuanced, the fact that the British characters are mainly seen through the eyes of Indians, or other ‘outsiders’ like Zachary and Paulette has predictably attracted the hostility of some British reviewers. Notably, William Dalrymple, the British Empire’s current apologist-in-chief, has described the book as reproducing ‘a world familiar from Bollywood movies’ in which ‘the Indian characters are invariably drawn vulnerable and big-hearted, while the English are uniformly unfeeling brutes’, before condescendingly dubbing it a ‘masterpiece of anti-imperial fiction’. This drew an uncharacteristically sharp response from Ghosh in an interview for The Hindu: “… every character in my book is deeply flawed...It seems to me that he does not want to recognise what his countrymen once did… You think these slave traders and drug lords were also nice people? It makes you think that his whole project is to sort of whitewash the past.”
This project is of course not solely Dalrymple’s, but has become increasingly dominant with advocates from Gordon Brown to Manmohan Singh enthusiastically espousing the rehabilitation of the British imperialism of the past even while consolidating the contemporary American-led version. Sea of Poppies counters this project with passion, humour and meticulous research, and conveys how lives were shaped not only by the racism and cruelty of the British colonial enterprise but the globalised economic processes of capital accumulation which it developed and sustained. sea of poppies
In fact, the novel navigates not only specifically British colonialism but all the currents and counter-currents of mid-19th century globalisation. ‘The tide was beginning to sweep in, and the Hooghly had filled with sails, as ships and boats hurried to take their berths or to stand out to mid-channel. From where he lay, on the slats of his gently rocking dinghy, Jodu could imagine that the world had turned itself upside down, so that the river had become the sky, crowded with banks of cloud; if you narrowed your eyes, you might almost think that the ships’ masts and spars were bolts of lightning, forking through the billowing sails….Looking across the river Jodu could count the flags of a dozen kingdoms and countries: Genoa, the Two Sicilies, France, Prussia, Holland, America, Venice. He had learnt to recognise them from Putli…she knew stories about the places from which they came…nurturing his desire to see the roses of Basra and the port of Chin-kalan…’
One of its central themes is the transformation of identity within these processes, and the contingency of identity itself. On board the Ibis, almost everyone is in the process of becoming someone else – out of choice or compulsion. Deeti must abandon her caste identity and embrace that of Kalua, the dalit cart-driver whose life is intertwined with hers and who becomes her husband; the Bengali speaking Paulette poses as a Brahmin’s daughter in order to gain a place on the ship; Jodu, the young Bengali Muslim boatman who shared Paulette’s childhood, is also on board, yearning to become a fully-fledged lascar; Zachary must continue to go along with the assumptions that he is a white man even when the analogies between the treatment of the indentured migrants and the slavery his mother was born into become impossible to escape; Neel has been turned into a convict with his crime tattooed on his forehead: hearing the Bhojpuri songs of the migrants in the quarters adjoining his cell, as the ship is about to enter the open sea, he suddenly remembers the language he learnt as a small child from the retainer who cared for him.
‘Slowly, as the women’s voices grew in strength and confidence, the men forgot their quarrels: at home too, during village weddings, it was always the women who sang when the bride was torn from her parents’ embrace – it was as if they were acknowledging, through their silence, that they, as men, had no words to describe the pain of the child who is exiled from home.

Kaisé katé ab
Birahá ki ratiyã?
(How will it pass
This night of parting?’)
At the same time, the novel’s portrayal of feudal patriarchal abuse and violence through the experiences of Deeti and Kalua both in Bhojpur and on board the Ibis is chillingly familiar from much more recent events, reminding us that as significant as the transformative impacts of global capitalism are the pre-existing power relations that it sustains and incorporates. Sea of Poppies conveys the meaning of both these processes in a way which has inescapable contemporary resonance.
Perhaps most memorable of all is the emergence of new forms of collective consciousness and new possibilities:
‘But aren’t you afraid, she said, of losing caste? Of crossing the Black Water, and being on a ship with so many sorts of people?
Not at all, the girl replied, in a tone of unalloyed certainty. On a boat of pilgrims, no-one can lose caste and everyone is the same…From now on, and forever afterwards, we will all be ship-siblings – jaházbhais and jaházbahens – to each other. There’ll be no differences between us.

This answer was so daring, so ingenious, as fairly to rob the women of their breath. Not in a lifetime of thinking, Deeti knew, would she have stumbled on an answer so complete, so satisfactory, and so thrilling in its possibilities. In the glow of the moment, she did something she would never have done otherwise: she reached out to take the stranger’s hand in her own. Instantly, in emulation of her gesture, every other woman reached out too, to share in this communion of touch.’