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Shadows of Slavery, Discourses of Choice, and Indian Indentureship in Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies

Nandini Dhar


In his novel Sea of Poppies, the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh emphasizes the fact that while the indentured laborer was not a slave per se, the indenture of South Asian laborers literally developed in the belly of the plantation slavery. Without conflating the categories of slavery and indenture, the novel demonstrates that rather than “personal ambition and desire”, what prompted the indentured laborer's decision was a desire to survive within a world of shrinking options for the Indian rural peasantry. Indeed, the Indian peasant-turned-indentured laborer faced a reality of choicelessness which, although not reducible to the forced abduction of the African slave, must nonetheless be studied alongside such, within an overarching framework of the epistemic and material violence of a nineteenth century capitalist-imperialist formations. Through his portrayal of the decommissioned slave ship as a central metaphor of capitalist modernity in the novel, around and within which all the social relationships of the novel circulate, Ghosh represents the indenture itself as a form of “decommissioned slavery.” Such a reading enables us to complicate both the readings of the legacies of plantation slavery and territorial colonialisms, by interrogating our notions of both "choice" and "coercion." A meticulous re-appraisal of the liberal-realist novel's narrative strategies, this paper argues, aids Ghosh in this work of complicated historical theorizing through cultural forms. 


indenture, slavery, retrospective realism, historical novel, choice, global plantation complex

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The Johns Hopkins University Press

ISSN: 1920-1222

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