Sea of Poppies

Amitav Ghosh

The time is the first half of the 19th century in colonial India; the first opium war is closing in on the horizon and the opium trade from India to China is under serious threat; slavery has just been abolished and Indian indentured labourers are being shipped out to sugar plantations in Mauritius. With this scenario as historical background, Ghosh brings together a cast of characters, diverse in race, language, religion, each with his or her own compulsions to travel across the Kala Pani, from Calcutta to Mareech (Mauritius) on the Ibis.

Deeti, wife of an opium addict, tiller of an opium field, mother to her brother-in-law’s baby, painter of deities in her shrine, sees the Ibis in her dream…and recognizes it as her destiny. When her husband dies, she flees the sati pyre with a sympathetic lower caste Kalua to her destiny as a girmitiya on the Ibis.

Zachary Reid, an American, the son of a white man and a freed slave, passing off as white (and so forever condemned to have something to hide), becoming the second mate on the Ibis by sheer dint of enterprise, perseverance and good luck, taken under the wing of the lascar Serang Ali, is in love with a French woman Paulette Lambert; and is arguably the hero of the book.

Paulette, French, brought up by a liberal father, almost like a native, more comfortable in a sari than the restrictive corsets of European ladies of the time, friend to Jodu the boatman-become-lascar, who is as close to her as a brother, is forced to adopt the ways of the white mem when her father dies and abandons her to the vagaries of fate and the Christian Church. She finds her way to the Ibis too, impersonating a coolie, running away from the horrors of a regulated life and marriage in search of adventure and the love of her life, Zachary.

Neel Raskhali, is a bankrupt raja, duped of his estates by a charge of forgery. He finds his way to the Ibis as a convict because he is forced to travel across the Kala Pani to Mauritius to serve his sentence.

These and many more form the colourful cast that populates the Ibis on her voyage. Most are forging new identities, having given up their old. All are joined together on a horrific and yet exhilarating voyage to a possible fresh start, unmarked beginnings.

Through this cast, the history of the period unfolds. 19th century Bihar and Bengal – the food, clothes, caste systems, religions – come alive like in a Dickens novel. It is everyday life framed against great historical tides. The research is glaringly obvious…yet there is nothing thesis-like about it. Ghosh writes a historical novel like the best in the business.

The detailing is meticulous – the opium factory Deeti is overawed by, the jail conditions Neel suffers, the ship and its structure Jodu and the laskars learn like the back of their hands. The language is a patois of lascarese, Bhojpuri, Bengali, Anglo-Indian (did people really speak like this, this mingling of Indian and English?) and American. It forms an uneven cadence that gets some getting used to in the beginning. But once you do, it turns out to be pretty delightful. I especially found myself looking forward to Deeti’s Bhojpuri – it has a certain intensity well beyond the capability of good old English.

Sea of Poppies is a rollicking read. I love historical fiction and Ghosh never fails to disappoint. It is a wild mixture of Dickensian grit and Scottian romance. Some characters are wooden (especially the colonial Brit), the sailing terminology and descriptions could interest no one but a hard-core sailing addict, at times you wish the research did not show as much, and in the simplicity of the language, you miss the gripping prose-poetry of a Roy or a Rushdie.

But these are holes one tries very hard to pick. Ghosh has created a masterpiece anyone with a modicum of interest in books would find enthralling. One can only shudder at the sensibility that chose White Tiger (a really good book, nevertheless) over this magnificence for the Booker. At least, there is hope – this is just the first in three instalments.


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