Badri, 19, resides in Sampor Khiro, Bihar. An inveterate card player, he steals money from his mother to play and loses it. Ashamed, and fearing the anger of his father as well as the accusations of being labelled a robber by the villagers for the rest of his life, he runs away to Calcutta. Chotty Lall, from Raniganj village, works as slave to the zamindar’s wife: he has to carry this obese woman in the palanquin. He owes money to the landowner and cannot honour the debt. He is often whipped. He dreams of being free. Vythee Sainam is also poor. Drought adds to his woes. Ganga, a King’s daughter, is about to be burnt according to the “sati” tradition, as her young husband has died. She flees. All of them have one thing on the mind: go to Mauritius where life, they believe, would be better.
By Suresh Ramphul
These characters from «Les rochers de Poudre d’Or» by Natacha Appanah (Editions Gallimard. 2003) have faith in what they have been told: happiness and a new life lies «au-delà des sombres abysses du kala pani» (page 32). However, their very first encounter with the ship, Atlas, is a frightening experience: the hold (la cale) where they are herded is infested with rats. Panic-stricken, they run out. The author lets us understand that it’s their first brush with disorder and disillusionment.
They helplessly witness an old Indian throwing himself in the ocean. They are afraid and shocked. This isn’t what they had believed their journey to be. They soon discover that food is poor. They are served «des biscuits pour chiens» (p 89). These biscuits are hard and they have to hit hard with the fist to break them. In vain. Faced with no option, they dip them in water to survive.
There were rumours that Indians had been «engloutis par l’océan, brûlés ou enlevés par les âmes maléfiques qui croupissent sous l’eau» (p 81). In spite of the superstitions, the immigrants undertook the voyage. They had no idea that rats would cause them to run about like «bêtes apeurées» (p 83) or the possessed. The poisoned creatures are thrown overboard and, instead of being eaten up by sharks, «ont flotté derrière nous comme une traîne maléfique, noire et épaisse» (p 88). The suggestion is that the Indians are experiencing something sinister, something that doesn’t augur any good.
For the British the Indians were «barbares» (p 99) who badly needed to be civilized. The sea thus highlights the concept of superiority and inferiority, the educated and the uneducated. The sea also concretely underlines the immigrants’ plight. In the ship, they are «les uns sur les autres, en grappes. La cale sentait le corps rance, la pisse, la crasse. J’ai pensé que si la misère devait avoir une odeur, ce serait celle-là », says the doctor. «L’odeur de la mort» (p 113) is everywhere. The doctor has had enough of seeing the travellers «deféquer sur le pont» (p 118). Chotty Lall’s corpse is balanced, without even a prayer, over the bridge and «l’écume blanche au-dessus de la mer ne semblait pas avoir été dérangée » (p 117). The total unconcern of the sea is vividly put across. One more dead scarcely matters.
The sea is depicted as nature in fury. There is torrential rain and «la mer ouvrait sa gueule béante pour avaler et recracher le bateau » (p 111). One visualises the sea as a horrible monster. The ship « targuait comme dans les pires tempêtes » (p 110). The immigrants «subissaient la colère de la mer qui grondait comme cent orages à leur oreilles » (p 130) ; their bodies rolled « tels des bouts de chiffon » (p 130) from one end to the other. « Ils tremblaient comme des feuilles » (p 84), « un gamin hurlait à mort » (p 84), « le grondement de la mer » (p 108), « le bateau bondissait et claquait sur la mer » (p 105), « une lumière crue brisait l’obscurité d’une cale » (p 133). The use of movement, sound, imagery and contrast between darkness and flashes of lightning has a twofold function: to heighten the dramatic tension of the scene and secondly to forcefully stress the nightmarish experience of the immigrants.
Another task that the sea performs is to bring out the idea of discrimination: certain areas are strictly reserved for the British; any Indian found there is immediately sent away. Dr. Grant confesses « Je déteste les Indiens. Je déteste leurs morts. Parfois autant que les mouches, parfois plus.» (p 125).
To escape their anxiety, worry and agony, the mind of the immigrants transport them to their dreamland. They console themselves with wonderful images of mountains, green trees, colourful landscapes, work, food, and comfort. Ironically, little do they know that the island is going to be hell of an unfriendly and desolate place.
The sea’s violence is meaningful in that it forebodes or foreshadows that worse is yet to come. It symbolises the immigrants’ deception and disappointment. For Ganga, the sea represents salvation: she is satisfied to know that the doctor lusting after her has killed himself by drowning. It comforts her in the feeling that « le ventre de la mer l’avait avalé et ne le rendrait jamais » (p 159). The sea, for her, is a lucky escape from being used as a sex object. It preserves her dignity.
On reaching land, their dreams are shattered. They are badly treated and made to work in harsh conditions. « Vythee ne pouvait détacher ses yeux de cette bande bleue à l’horizon. Peut-être que derrière là-bas se trouvait l’Inde.» (p 186). This implies nostalgia and regret for a land and loved ones left behind.
It can therefore be said that the sea is almost a protagonist in the narrative. It not only helps us to understand the essential things about the indenture system but it also throws light on the immigrants’ inner and outer lives.
Romancing the sea
In “Expostulation and Reply” from “The Islander’s Song and Other Poems” (President’s Fund for Creative Writing, Ministry of Arts and Culture, Port Louis, 2014), Ramesh Ramdoyal writes about oneness between land and sea. The sea is personified as one that “doth wear an island like a/ monarch his bejewelled crown/and an island doth wear the sea like/a faery queen her magical gown” (p 24). The sea and the island are inseparable lovers who “never tire to fill each other’s ear with amorous whispers”. There is harmony in the sea lovingly hugging the island to her breast and singing her to rest. And there is reciprocation: the island hugs her to her shore and whispers to her some island lore. Thus, we are brought to view the sea in a new light.
In another poem “To Love the Sea” Ramdoyal returns to the idea of intimacy. The one who loves the sea is “inhabited by her/waking up with her/and going to bed with her” (p 15). We are invited to perceive the sea as a woman. Both carry qualities of “haunting mystery and infinite variety”, meaning the more you explore them, the more remains to be explored. Both have depth and sensuality that you take pleasure in discovering. The hint is that you may take a lifetime trying to fathom or understand their depth, yet be unsuccessful. Interestingly, in your endeavour to understand them, you discover something or the other about yourself.
In “Islandacoholic” the theme of attachment comes up again. “The surf crashing on the reef/foams all over my body/A sail dancing with the waves/sweeps me over in a daze” is pleasantly sonorous and visual. In general, the sea is emotively evoked and becomes rich in emotional significance.
“An Encounter with a Mermaid” is a tale from “Short Stories from Mauritius” (Editions Le Printemps, 2000) by Abu Alladin, in which Naden, 13, loves to watch the sea from the cliffs of Gris- Gris. One day, he sees a mermaid and she invites him to take a trip. Underneath, he finds a palace. 8 years ago, Sultan Ali’s wife had given birth to a son named Azad but the oracle had predicted that he would die by the age of eight. So he built a secret palace in the sea to change his fate, that is, to protect him against any harm. Naden befriends Azad but accidentally kills him with a knife. The mermaid brings him back from the hidden recesses of the sea to Gris-Gris.
The mermaid, contrary to her popular idyllic image, is an agent of death here. On the surface, the tale depicts a world of fantasy but at another level raises disturbing and thought-provoking questions: Do things happen because they are destined to take place? How far are we responsible for what happens to us, and how far is destiny responsible? Can we avoid or escape from death? The answer is evident: no matter where you hide, death will ultimately get you. Ironically, it does so in circumstances you would scarcely imagine. The sea in this tale is both delightful and destructive.