Archive for October 15th, 2013

‘Ode to the Ibis’

October 15, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)



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!

Warm regards,



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.


Laura-Anne Wilson




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