In praise of contamination – Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy


Students who take my World Regional Geography course know that one of my favorite metaphors for understanding and appreciating the world’s cultural diversity is ‘contamination.’  But this is not an idea that I dreamed up.  Nearly a decade ago, Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote an essay in The New York Times Magazine called “The Case for Contamination.”  And other writers, such as Salman Rushdie, have long celebrated “mongrolisation” of culture.  Mixture and impurity are the basic conditions of culture anyway.  Most of us are the product of mixture.  And the world would probably be a better place were people to embrace this fact, rather than indulge in fantasies of purity.

Appiah’s essay is written as an argument for a cosmopolitan ethics of globalization.  He writes,

The ideals of purity and preservation have licensed a great deal of mischief in the past century, but they have never had much to do with lived culture. Ours may be an era of mass migration, but the global spread and hybridization of culture — through travel, trade or conquest — is hardly a recent development. Alexander’s empire molded both the states and the sculpture of Egypt and North India; the Mongols and then the Mughals shaped great swaths of Asia; the Bantu migrations populated half the African continent. Islamic states stretch from Morocco to Indonesia; Christianity reached Africa, Europe and Asia within a few centuries of the death of Jesus of Nazareth; Buddhism long ago migrated from India into much of East and Southeast Asia. Jews and people whose ancestors came from many parts of China have long lived in vast diasporas. The traders of the Silk Road changed the style of elite dress in Italy; someone buried Chinese pottery in 15th-century Swahili graves. I have heard it said that the bagpipes started out in Egypt and came to Scotland with the Roman infantry. None of this is modern.

Appiah’s use of contamination is inspired by the comic Roman playwright Terence who, as a former African slave from Carthage, was himself a product of cultural hybridization.  Terence’s style of writing, which loosely sampled earlier Greek plays, was referred to by Roman literary critics as ‘contamination.’  Calling it “that endless process of imitation and revision,” Appiah finds no better proponent of contamination than Rushdie, who tells us that his fatwa-inducing novel,  The Satanic Verses, ”celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelisation and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.”

Writers seem to get this aspect of culture better than most.  And particularly South Asian authors writing in English.  The postcolonial context in which they write, and their tendency to live comfortably in several different worlds – India, Britain, America – seems to lend itself to a cosmopolitan disposition toward the world that shares Appiah’s ethics of globalization.

Amitov Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy – Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire – suggests a similar ethics of globalization.  Tracking the opium trade between India and China during the time leading up to and encompassing the First Opium War, the books offer a searing indictment of imperial arrogance, especially of the British colonial kind, where peddling drugs for profit was elevated to the morally righteous claim of a divine right, all in the name of ‘free trade.’  But Chinese imperial arrogance does not fare much better, with official suspicion of foreignness compounding the tragedy of China’s humiliating defeat by the British.

View of the European Factories, Canton, 1805-06 - by William Daniell (from wikipedia)

View of the European Factories, Canton, 1805-06 – by William Daniell (from wikipedia)

What interests Ghosh the most in telling this story is the hybrid cultural world of mixture upon which it plays out.  His novels demonstrate a deep fascination with language as the ultimate expression of this mixture, with readers introduced to a 19th century creole of mixed Hindustani, Arabic, Chinese, English, and several other languages of the Indian Ocean basin.  It’s a creole commonly used among traders, sailors, merchantmen, and even elite business and government leaders – the lingua franca of the opium trade.  The novels also depict the port cities of Calcutta, Guangzhou, Singapore, and Bombay as melange-filled cultural hubs within this network of trade, where earning a livelihood required among commoners a highly skilled fluency in several languages, creoles, cultures, and belief systems.  In Guangzhou’s foreign enclave, and up and down the Pearl River estuary, Zoroastrian traders from South Asia, Muslim lascars and Bengali soldiers, mix with Dan boat people and Hakka merchants from China.  It’s a portrait of China’s effervescent maritime frontier, the space beyond the great ramparts that enclose the city of Guangzhou itself, a space full of vibrancy and newness, but one also shadowed by imperialism, violence, and injustice.  It’s the kind of newness that Appiah’s essay calls on us to recognize, not as impurity infecting the ‘true culture’ of China, but as the space in which culture itself is renewed and recreated.

There’s a wonderful moment in the third book, Flood of Fire, when a motley crew of Muslim lascars, along with a Chinese nationalist and a former Indian raja who was stripped of his lands and imprisoned by the British, are stationed on a decommissioned American merchantman, the Cambridge.  The Chinese have purchased the ship, which was actually built by the Indians in Bombay, in hopes of modernizing their maritime defenses.  In that moment of futility against the juggernaut of imperialism (the Cambridge is easily sunk by the British warship Nemesis), one sees an ethics of globalization realized, where a mixed Indian Ocean crew on an Indian-built Chinese-owned former American ship strive to defend a China that would prefer to just be left alone.  While the violence of imperialism – rendered most vividly in the form of the Nemesis – wins the day, it is the fluid and creative mixing of peoples trying to carve out a life along the taut webs of trade, imperialism and warfare, that is the true heart of Ghosh’s story.

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