Sea of Poppies
by Amitav Ghosh
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
New York, NY 2008
Sea of Poppies is the first book in a proposed trilogy. It is epic in scope, densely packed and wonderfully written. The over arching theme is migration, the voyage of Indian people to Mauritius, an island far off the eastern coast of Madagascar, as indentured servants. The forces that propel their lives- the British occupation, the opium trade, the caste system- are portrayed in depth. This is a sprawling adventure, wild and at times utterly hilarious. It is not an easy read.
Sea of Poppies is a historical novel and Ghosh deftly crams in as much information as possible with out sinking the story under its own weight. At the center of the novel is a ship, the Ibis, formally a slaver, too slow to outrun the navy vessels patrolling the West African coast. As with other slow ships her owner has decided to turn her to a different trade, opium. We are introduced to each main character and they all, somehow, eventually end up on the Ibis.
First, we meet Deeti, the wife of a factory worker living near Benares. Deeti, like all her neighbors, grows poppies. The fortune seekers of the East India Company are determined to sell opium to China, even at the risk of war.
” The war, when it comes, will not be for opium. It will be for principle: for freedom-for the freedom of trade and the freedom of the Chinese people. Free trade is a right conferred on Man by God, and its principles apply as much to opium as to any other article of trade. More so perhaps, since in its absence many millions of natives would be denied the lasting advantage of British influence.” Page 106.
The British have forced Indian farmers, small and large, to forgo their sustenance crops and grow poppies. They have turned the banks of the Ganges and her tributaries into monoculture fields to fuel their opium factories. Following the Ganges to Calcutta we meet many other characters, Raja Neel Battan, a bankrupt landowner forced to give up his land in a “forgery” trial. Paulette , a young women orphaned and left with family of the new owner of the Ibis, Benjamin Brightwell Burnham and Paulette’s Bengali foster-brother, Jodu. On board the Ibis Zachery Reid, a mixed-race freeman from Baltimore has become second mate and the wild head of a lascar crew, Serang Ali, is engaged by the captain.
All of these characters come alive with their own voices and manners. Then, there is India, herself, the land,the food, the clothing, religious celebrations, traditions, music, and always there are the people.
“Slowly, as the women’s voices grew in strength and confidence, the men forgot their quarrels: at home too, during village weddings it was always the women who sang when the bride was torn from her parent’s embrace – it was as if they were acknowledging through their silence, that they, as men, had no words to describe the pain of a child who is exiled from home.” Page 366.
Ghosh plays with language, to the extent of including a nautical glossary or Chrestomathy created by one of the main characters. Initially I thought I would have difficulty with the mixture of English, Bengali, Indian dialects and nautical pidgin but the language becomes a driving force of the book, much like the Ganges or the politics that drives the opium trade. The language becomes the wind in the sails of the great ship. I love the ship and the characters, even the nasty ones. I found this book a thrilling, intensely packed ride and the cliff hanger ending leaves me hoping the second in the series will be published soon.
I found it interesting, after doing a bit of digging, to find out that the Ibis is a symbol, in Egyptian mythology, of the Logos, of magic, writing and science. In hurricane, and I suppose, monsoon country it is a symbol of survival. The last to take shelter before the storm hits and the first to emerge after the storm has passed. Brilliant.