Gender and Diaspora; Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke


GRFDT Seminar


Gender and Diaspora

Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies  and River of Smoke


GRFDT organized a seminar on Gender and Diaspora: A Study of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke on 27th October, 2012 at Room No. 13, CSSS II, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. A welcome note and brief introduction about the speaker was given by Saroj Mahanand, Asst. Professor, Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.  Dr. Nandini C. Sen is an Associate Professor, Cluster Innovation Centre, University of Delhi.

Dr. Sen spoke on the gendered history of migration via Amitav Ghosh’s novel “Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke”. She started with how indentured system affected the role and conditions of women in the society in the 19th century, which was marked as mass human displacements, primarily from the labouring class across regions, nations and continents.  With the growth of colonies as well as capitalist production system, a new labour regime was introduced in which

labourers migrated from agricultural or cotton industries to gigantic industrial or plantation activities across the continent under the indentured system. Through the indentured system, the Indian immigrants from Chota Nagpur in Eastern India, Saran, Chapara, Shahabad, Champaran, Gaya and other places of Bihar went to European colonies such as Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, Natal, Surinaam and so on. The importation of  Indian labourers was carried out through informal networks of recruiters in localities. However, the lacking of legal and civic rights resulted in their socio-economic exploitation in terms of long working hours, poor wages and no protection for their lives. The sexual exploitation of women by the employer and/or the recruiters has been evident. There was ownership of time, labour and person of indentured labour. The owner applied various forces and coercive methods to extract maximum labour. There were restrictions on mobility of labour as well as moving outwards for deliberative opportunities. The labourers were subjugated, exploited and marginalized by the employers as well as by owners.

Against this backdrop, Amitav Ghosh’s novel brilliantly explored the much neglected aspect of female exploitation. Dr. Sen’s analysis was based on the stories from ‘Sea of Poppies’ and “River of Smoke”. In “Sea of Poppies” she discussed the gendered aspect of migration through the lens of literary story telling. She discussed one character named Deeti, an uneducated Brahmin widow of an impotent opium addict faced sexual exploitation from her own brother-in-law. After her husband’s death, she gets attracted to a chamar man named Kalua in the ship only. She wants to become sati but Kalua dramatically rescues her. Both of them want to get married and since then, they pretend to be a married couple and Deeti calls herself a chamar woman.

The women being co-workers in plantations could choose their own partners. Unlike other Indian women, Deeti had this privilege and free ground to choose her life-partner at that point of time. The causal argument would be the distance from the traditional restrictions of their own society. Then, the discussion proceeded with how caste system had an impact on Diaspora. The research shows that the watertight caste compartments tend to loosen


up in the unknown shores. Referring to Ghosh’s mouthpiece, Deeti, the women preferring to marry men who are settled rather than of the same caste. Being away from their own social spaces allows them more leverage. The poverty in the homeland, which caused the diaspora in the first place, was forgotten or overwritten with the feeling that it was home, a place where the present alienation of the diasporic person did not exist. Because they knew there were no possibilities of physical return back to their home, therefore, spiritual, religious and emotional bonds were ongoing necessities. Like hawkers, they carried things such as a Ganapati idol, a dog-eared copy of the Gita or the Quran, an old sari or other deshi outfit, a photograph of pilgrimage or, in modern times, a video cassette of the latest hit from the home country along with their head-loads and/or suitcases.

Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke is the second book in his much acclaimed Ibis trilogy. The book begins with a glimpse into Diti’s shrine. Diti is widowed yet again as her new husband Kalua alias Madhu is forced to flee from the ship. The name which the Colonizershad  imposed on him – MaddowColver, now becomes the name of Diti’s clan. The clan has grown and prospered and Diti now appears to be the matriarch of a large and a fairly prosperous family. Diti’s influence on the family can be seen in her organization of the trips to her shrine and by continuing to remain the link between her brethren on the ship. In this novel, Paulette is foregrounded. Her escapades continue to be dramatic as she takes on the garb of a man and continues to live by herself in the Isle of Maurice. Later, Paulette joins Mr. Penrose on a journey to Canton on a botanical expedition. Canton becomes the centre of Ghosh’s concern in this novel and much of the China of the 19th century is seen through the eyes of Paulette who deciphers the place from the long letters written to her by Robert Chinnery, the fictional ille gitimate son of the painter George Chinnery. As in the previous book, Ghosh stresses the worth and solidity of his female characters. They are seen as doers with very definite agency. In the life and times of the first set of Diasporics, it is the women who create, construct and nurture. From life unfolding from the Hindu tool box to the annual visit to Diti’s shrine, Ghosh presents his women characters as the creators and nurturers of civilization. In the debate on gender and diaspora whether it is liberating or debilitating for women, Ghosh opines with the former. While being torn away from one’s land and cultural traditions is extremely painful, his women characters areable to thread their lives in the adopted land and start their lives afresh emphasizing their zest for life and a very definite political and social agency.

Later on, Dr. Veena Sharma, who moderated the seminar, gave her insights over this concept of indentured system in  India and explored various socio-cultural issues related to immigrants of India. She pointed the “Jahaji Bhai” phenomena which was predominant during colonial period. The Indian immigrants felt homelessness and rootness while residing outside the country. The concept of “purity and impurity” was also dominant among these immigrants when they had to cross the Kala-pani, which was against the religious faith as it was believed that one becomes impure after crossing it.


The programme ended with the discussions  with participants on various issues and questions related to gender, enslavement, cultural conflict and regime of colonial power etc. The seminar explored various socio-cultural-human dimensions of the gendered ‘labour diaspora’ via indentured system.



Report By

Monika Bisht, SOITS, IGNOU,

Email: [email protected]


Time and Place:

Date:   Saturday, Dec 08, 2012
Venue:   Room No 13, CSSS, SSS II, JNU
City/Twon:   New Delhi
© 2012-20 GRFDT, All Rights Reserved.Maintained by GRFDT.Designed by Abhinav Jain