On Oct 13 I received a message from Prof. Meg Samuelson of the Dept of English, University of Cape Town.
Dear Amitav Ghosh,
Excuse me writing to you out of the blue … I’ve been teaching your novel, Sea of Poppies, and gave my students the choice of responding analytically or in creative forms. One wrote this “Ode to the Ibis” that I couldn’t resist sharing with you (which I’m doing with her permission – Laura-Anne Wilson). I hope you enjoy it!
I enjoyed the poem very much: it is posted here with the permission of Laura-Anne Wilson.
Ode to the Ibis
Once a blackbirder with a belly of slaves
The Ibis would sail across seas,
Riddled with peepholes made by poor souls
While those above them were deaf to their pleas.
With sparkling white sails and a billed figurehead
She glided like a great bird in flight,
Now carrying a cargo not of slaves this time
But migrants with a comparable plight.
Mr. Chillingworth was the captain aboard
But not all was what it seemed you see,
For the one who truly commanded the vessel
Was head of the lascars Serang Ali.
It was he who aided one Zachary Reid
A mere carpenter from the shipyards of Baltimore,
To become a gentleman refined and so well attired
That his past was foreseeable no more.
For Zachary was the son of a Maryland freedwoman
If we were to trace his past back,
And it would never be thought that this second in command
Could be marked on the crew’s list as “black”.
Far different from he was the Lascari crew
Who were arabs, malays, and Chinese,
Bengalis and goans, tamils and east Africans,
And even those termed Arakanese.
Up the tall masts like two nesting cranes
Were the tindals Babloo and Mamdoo,
Who at sea were the brothers they could not be on land
One being Muslim and the other Hindu.
Mamdoo-tindal was a tall lithe man
But occasionally he would assume,
The kohl-eyed, earringed, silver-heeled dancer
And female Ghaseeti-begum.
True females there were, eight women on board
Who left their pasts on Indian soil,
Braving a journey across the Black Water
To Mareech where there only was toil.
Munia the young, husbandless girl
Whose morals Deeti found to be swaying,
Since despite having a secret past of assault
Could not keep her coy eyes from straying.
Sarju, the oldest, once a valued midwife
Was driven from her village in shame,
The seeds she gave Deeti of the Best Benares poppy
Was the only worth she had to her name.
That Deeti once wife of a high-caste Rajut
Became Aditi the simple Chamar,
But the same are her eyes, piercing and grey
Even noticed by those from afar.
Was it this steeling gaze that earned her a place
As the Bhauji of those coolies packed below?
Or did they have an idea of her prior premonition,
Could they sense her great gift, could they know?
Though the tale of their past was not one that was true
It was easy for Aditi to say,
That she and Kalua had been married since twelve,
So naturally suited were they.
While her strength was her power to command the crowd,
His was the muscles his long limbs displayed
Which were as dark as a whetstone recently oiled,
And unusual for a man of his trade.
From the leather-workers caste he once did come,
So gentle and simple was he,
That one would have never expected the change to Madhu
Who would kill the evil Bhyro Singh at sea.
Fearing mutiny of the armed silahdars
Mr. Crowle acted as first mate of the ship,
Terrifying many-a-person on board
By giving Kalua sixty strikes of his whip.
One of those quaking souls was Jodu the topas
Who was once a fresh-water Jack,
But the Ibis crushed his dinghy of hollowed out logs
Forcing his life path to completely change track.
Nevertheless the Ibis offered, as it did for all,
A new life far from India’s monsoons,
Where even a lowly lascar who scoured deck
Could be thought a baka-bihari in pantaloons.
Not fooled for a second was Paulette down below,
Whose pale skin she did not let be seen,
With veiled face, hennaed arms and the name of Pugli
No one would think her white and seventeen.
Disguised as the niece of Baboo Nob Kissin
With an arranged marriage as her fictional plan,
She could sail away from Bethel to the Mauritius Isles
Helped by that strange looking man.
Odd because while Baboo was clearly a male
There was within him a feminine side,
The soul of his uncle’s saintly widow Taramony,
Who after death would in his heart reside.
Thus with a womanly gait and hair worn long
He squeezed into robes bursting at their seems,
Believing Zachary to be Krishna incarnate
Leading him to the temple of his dreams.
But no one was more changed on board that great schooner
Than the man who was locked up below,
Shut in the chokey with fellow convict Ah Fatt
Neel had a past that nobody could possibly know.
Zemindar of Raskhali who would have guessed
That Raja Neel Rattan Halder he had been,
Now a scorned criminal destined to exile
Where not a single familiar face would be seen.
The disparity of his single humble cloth bundle
Compared to the many goods of his lavish estate,
From being named after the most noblest of winds
To being inked forgerer alipore 1838.
Together this array of individuals would sail
Trying to survive to see Mareech’s shore,
Their fate in the hands of the great white Ibis
Where nothing was as it had been before.