Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, the first in a seafaring trilogy, unspools its tale in the run-up to the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, when an expanding East India Company fought to smuggle opium grown in India into China for enormous profits.
At the heart of this tale of colonialism and migration sails the Ibis, a British trading ship that holds out the prospect of both slavery and liberation for its motley crew. But the voyage of the old-fashioned schooner has barely begun by the novel’s end, and much of this rich and absorbing book (which was shortlisted for the 2008 Booker prize) is spent assembling an extraordinarily diverse cast of sailors and passengers from all parts of the world.
As the story unfolds, each character is thrust from his or her homeland into the wide, vast world, landing on the decks or in the holds of the Ibis by intent or accident.
They include Deeti, a village woman who cultivates poppies on her small patch of land in northeastern India to sell to the nearby East India Company’s opium factory; ox-cart driver Kalua, a giant of a man; and a down-and-out Raja, who we follow from the opulent heights of his palace to the depths of the schooner’s hold, where his destiny is manacled to that of a half-Chinese opium addict.
The book’s characters forge unlikely kinships across race, caste, and class. A tyrannical British officer finds affinity with an Indian overseer – both are natural bullies. A mixed-race sailor from Baltimore rises through the ranks through a combination of talent and circumstance. He is drawn to a Bengali-speaking French girl who flees the restrictions of her adopted British family’s Calcutta mansion.
If this sounds a little like historical romance, that’s not a bad thing.
Ghosh’s new novel bears the hallmarks of his best fiction – an evocative, scholarly recreation of a historical period and a painstaking attention to social and economic detail that reflects his training as a social anthropologist.
But unlike Ghosh’s last two worthy but somewhat labored efforts (“The Glass Palace,” “The Hungry Tide”) “Sea of Poppies” does not sacrifice narrative and character to research. There are a few ciphers in the cast, but, by the end of the book, you feel as if you too have journeyed from Baltimore and Bihar and Canton to Calcutta’s docks, and know everyone well.
On the way, Ghosh, who has written about Burma, Cambodia, and Bangladesh, folds in some serious historical themes. For one, he touches on the damage that British opium peddling inflicted, both on those forced to farm poppies and those addicted to opium. The novel also provides a rare look at the shipping of indentured labor from the Indian subcontinent to colonial outposts such as Mauritius.
“Sea of Poppies” reminds us, too, that migration and cosmopolitanism are not new; that culture and language have always been fluid.
The Ibis hosts British and American officers, along with Indian, Malay, Chinese, Arab, African, and Chinese seamen – a set of sailors known as “lascars.” The depiction of these lascars is based on historical records of real-life seamen of the Indian Ocean in the 18th and 19th century, a remarkable bunch who, the author points out elsewhere, were probably “the first Asians and Africans to participate freely and in substantial numbers in a globalised workspace.”
And just as the rules of caste and class begin to break down as people venture out of the Indian village and the Victorian drawing room, so, too, do the boundaries of language.
French phrases, British slang, and Hindi corruptions mingle cheerfully in the rambunctious ports and ships of the 19th century.
One of the novel’s biggest achievements is the re-creation of the lost language of the lascars, a nautical Babel of English, Portugese, Malay, Hindi, and other languages. As one sailor asks: “What for make big dam bobbery’n so muchee bukbuk?”)
Getting eyes, ears, and head around the sailors’ dialogue is the book’s biggest challenge – and its chief delight.
Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar is a Monitor staff editor.