All hands on that footnote
Amitav Ghosh’s new novel Sea of Poppies reminds us of the role of the British opium trade in our social history, writes Pratik Kanjilal.columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 14:31 IST
Event, often trivial in itself, which precipitates political unrest or conflict.
Our disrespect for history is legendary. Events that shaped the lives of millions are routinely forgotten, surfacing only occasionally like an itch in a phantom limb. For instance, this week, Amitav Ghosh’s new novel Sea of Poppies reminds us of the role of the British opium trade in our social history. Much will now be written on this wonderful book about the voyage of the Ibis, so let me draw your attention to another forgotten voyage that Ghosh touched on briefly in his first novel, The Circle of Reason. It has not found place in any other creative work, though it is the subject of Deepa Mehta’s forthcoming film. History records this dramatic event in Vancouver harbour in May 1914 as the ‘Komagata Maru incident’.
Now that Canada is a model multicultural State, we have forgotten how racist it once was. In 1914, alarmed by the influx of Indian immigrants, the government introduced an apparently even-handed law that did not explicitly bar them entry, but made it impossible for them to enter. It required immigrants to arrive by ‘continuous journey’, carrying $200. There was no direct sea route from India and $200 was an impossible sum for most Indians.
In April 1914, Gurdit Singh, a Hong Kong Sikh, challenged the exclusionist law. He chartered the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru and sailed for Vancouver with 376 Punjabi immigrants, almost all Sikhs. Refused permission to land, they held out for two months in English Bay. The Ghadar Party got involved and pitched battles with the police made headlines worldwide. Finally, the ship was redirected to Calcutta but was detained at Budge Budge, where the authorities packed the protestors into a special train to Punjab. They resisted, the police opened fire and 20 were killed. The Sikhs regard them as martyrs but other Indians have forgotten their story, a landmark in the global movement, the first challenge to White Canada, against racism. Amazing, because the incident also lit the fuse that would ignite Punjab five years later at Jallianwalla Bagh, and begin the end of the Raj.
However, it’s now a hot issue in Canada. Sensitised by the award-winning documentary Continuous Journey by Ali Kazimi of York University, last month Canadian legislatures apologised for the shabby treatment of South Asians. Later this year, Deepa Mehta is expected to release Exclusion, starring Amitabh Bachchan (as Gurdit Singh), John Abraham, Manisha Koirala and Seema Biswas. But like The Circle of Reason, this will be an expat high culture product. Our local pop culture-wallahs seem disinterested. Curious, because a pop, post-colonial angst-ridden movie on this forgotten incident would click with the audiences that turned Lagaan and Chak De India into smash hits.
Pratik Kanjilal is Publisher, The Little Magazine. The Word This Week, a column dealing with the latest trends and
happenings in popular culture, appears every Saturday.