It tells the story of a group of disparate strangers, brought together by fate in the guise of the workings of the British Empire in the Far East to one place, the Ibis. The Ibis is an old slave ship, newly out fitted for its new purpose of trading opium from India to China. But before it commences its opium journey, it must first transport a group of slaves destined for the islands of Mauritius.
With this premise, Ghosh carefully lays in place the stories of the principal characters. There is Deeti, with the clear gray eyes of a witch who loses her husband to opium addiction and is forced to flee her abusive brother in law. Paulette Lambert, an orphan who seeks a way of returning to Mauritius, her mother’s birthplace after she learns that she is to be engaged against her will. Then there is the disgraced Raja Neel Halder, who unwittingly loses all his property to his British partner Benjamin Burnham. And finally there is Zachary Reid, a free mulatto man seeking to make his fortune in the Far East. Despite their different stories they are all forced to flee their circumstances and somehow end up in the Ibis. In the hands of a less skilled writer, the weaving together of these different tales might well seem implausible, even contrived, but such is Ghosh’ skill that he is able to do so in a perfectly convincing way. It is to our benefit that he takes his time to tell each tale so that they blend together seamlessly. There is also a strong narrative structure that propels the story forward. Length ceases to matter as the story takes you irresistibly along. Don’t be put-off by the shipping jargon and free use of the Bhojpuri language. This is an epic and addictive tale and you will be swept along.
More than the engaging story however and the irresistible narrative, what really elevates Ghosh’ work is the way he perfectly captures the sense of displacement that is engendered by colonialism. He is able to describe in heartbreaking detail the callousness with which the British overlords enriched themselves at the expense of their Indian colonies. Set in the 1830’s when opium was the primary trading good of the British, these were the days when Indian farmers were forced to grow poppy, and only poppy. For me, what was most galling was the idea that the natives were supposed to be grateful for being on the receiving end of civilisation and religion as brought to them by the British. But at what price?
As Deeti puts it “in the old days, the fields would be heavy with wheat in the winter, and after the spring harvest, the straw would be used to repair the damage of the year before. ..But now, the factory’s appetite for opium never seemed to be sated. Come the cold weather, the English sahibs would allow little else to be planted; their agents would go from home to home, forcing cash advances on the farmers making them sign asami contracts. It was impossible to say no to them.”
Little wonder then that hundreds would be forced to take desperate measures to save their lives and their families, even such measures that would take them far away from all that they know and love. One of the most beautiful passages in the book comes almost to the end, when the characters have crossed the line into the Black Water, the great unknown…"How had it happened that when choosing men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain, the hand of destiny had strayed so far inland, away from the busy coastlines, to alight on the people who were, of all the most stubbornly rooted in the silt of the Ganga, in a soil that had to be sown with suffering to yield its crop of story and song? It was as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart.”