Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
The New York Times – Sunday Book Review
By GAIUTRA BAHADUR
Published: November 28, 2008
In 1883, the British government sent the accomplished linguist Sir George Grierson to look into alleged abuses in the recruitment of indentured servants from India (known as “coolies”) who ended up on ships bound for British plantations throughout the world. In his diary, Grierson wrote about an encounter with the father of one female coolie in a village along the Ganges, noting that the man “denied having any such relative, and probably she had gone wrong and been disowned by him.” The historical record provides only a trace of this woman: a name, a processing number, a year of emigration.
In his ambitious new novel, “Sea of Poppies,” a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, Amitav Ghosh attempts to fill in the blanks left by the archives. Set partly in Bengal, the scene of Grierson’s inquiry, and drawing on accounts the Englishman left, it opens in 1838 on the eve of the Opium Wars. A former slave ship called the Ibis has been refitted to transport coolies from Calcutta to the sugar estates of Mauritius, and for hundreds of pages we watch as its crew and passengers are slowly assembled until it finally gets on its way.
The first in a projected trilogy, “Sea of Poppies” is big and baggy, a self-styled epic with colossal themes and almost a dozen major characters, including the son of an American slave (who is passing as white), the orphaned daughter of a French botanist (who is passing as a coolie) and an Anglophile raja (who has been wrongly sentenced to a penal colony on Mauritius). But a majority onboard are Indian peasants from the opium-producing countryside, forced by famine or scandal to seek a new life elsewhere. Devoted to reinvention, Ghosh’s plot focuses on one of these villagers: Deeti, a widow who assumes another name and the (lower) caste of a new love as they escape together on the Ibis.
Figures like Deeti, merely hinted at in the official record, have long preoccupied Ghosh — as in his elegant travelogue “In an Antique Land,” which shifted between Egypt and India, the 12th century and the 1980s, as he hunted for the story of a slave mentioned in letters between an Arab-Jewish merchant in Mangalore and his associates in Cairo. The reference astonished Ghosh because of its medieval date, “when the only people for whom we can even begin to imagine properly human, individual existences are the literate and the consequential . . . the people who had the power to inscribe themselves physically upon time.”
The coolies who inspired “Sea of Poppies” didn’t have that power. Unlike Grierson, they didn’t leave diaries behind; after all, they couldn’t even write. So where does that leave those who would tell their stories? Ghosh is forced to imagine them, based on the limited sources available, but he does so with the instincts of an anthropologist more than a novelist. (He is, in fact, an anthropologist by training.) With the aid of out-of-print dictionaries, he recreates esoteric dialects (Hobson-Jobson, Hinglish, Chinglish and the salty argot of sailors, to name a few). His characters are often incomprehensible to one another, which makes for occasional comedy, but too often they’re also incomprehensible to his readers. And his penchant for meticulous detail — the innards of an opium factory, the organization of a coolie ship — impedes the progress of his various plots and subplots. Ghosh obviously wants to make the novel a literary excavation, digging up the stories of people lost to history, but in the process his characters themselves often seem like artifacts.
Deeti, for one, is hard to believe in. And not just because Ghosh gives her a back story as overwrought as the script for a Bollywood movie: wedded to an opium addict too enervated to consummate their marriage, impregnated in lieu by his brother and resigned to die on her husband’s funeral pyre until rescued by a hunky untouchable, with whom she elopes. Many of the women who fled India as coolies were indeed upper-caste widows, but there were no brawny heroes to snatch them from their fates. They simply left, alone — an act dramatic enough for that time and place that it shouldn’t need the enhancements of pulp plotting.
Deeti’s weakness as a character may stem from Ghosh’s desire to be an archaeologist of the powerless. That’s a noble ambition, but it turns Deeti into little more than a skeleton on which to hang a history. And she has a mystical quality that nags. Wading in the Ganges at the novel’s start, she envisions a ship “like a great bird, with sails like wings and a long beak.” Though she has never before laid eyes on a schooner like the Ibis, she somehow knows that it is coming for her. At the novel’s close, lying one night on the deck of this same vessel, she holds a poppy seed between her fingers. “Here,” she tells her lover. “Taste it. It is the star that took us from our homes and put us on this ship. It is the planet that rules our destiny.” These are pretty lines, but they don’t ring true. Ghosh still seems to be chasing Deeti’s ghost in the archives.
Gaiutra Bahadur is working on a book inspired by her great-grandmother, who left Calcutta on a “coolie” ship.
Strangers under sail
Reviewed by Shirley Chew
The Independent, Friday, 16 May 2008
Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, the first volume in his "Ibis trilogy", revisits in new, breathtakingly detailed and compelling ways some of the concerns of his earlier novels. Among these are the incessant movements of the peoples, commerce, and empires which have traversed the Indian Ocean since antiquity; and the lives of men and women with little power, whose stories, framed against the grand narratives of history, invite other ways of thinking about the past, culture and identity.
The action begins in March 1838 with the arrival of the Ibis at Ganga-Sagar Island and, later, Calcutta. Discontinued as a "blackbirder" with the abolition of the slave trade, the schooner is scheduled to transport girmitiyas – indentured coolies – to Mauritius. For the merchant-nabob, Benjamin Burnham (the rhetoric has changed little today), "when God closes one door he opens another".
Back in India, it will join the expedition London is putting together "to take on the Celestials". With the first Opium War, as it will be called, only months away, what is at risk for the British drug industry in India, should the Chinese continue to block the trade, becomes clear. We learn, beyond the brilliant colours of the flower, the realities of the enforced cultivation of poppies: the ways of collecting sap from the pods, the activities in the processing factory, the medicinal uses of opium, its pernicious influence.
Caught within the dark web of the empire's history is a mixed cast of characters for whom the Ibis is a projection of the uncertainties of their lives and the routines of home. On the Ibis a community of sorts begins to form among the migrants. Relationships are forged or break up, hostilities erupt, and individual destinies undergo sudden changes of direction.
The broad canvas of Sea of Poppies displays many features of a sensational novel – a widow rescued from the funeral pyre, a court trial, runaways, disguise, heroic exploits, vengeful acts, murder. A controlling theme running through the many strands of plot is the question of identity.
Cut off from their roots, in transit, and looking ahead to a fresh start, the migrants are prone to invent new names and histories. For some, like Paulette, disguised as an Indian coolie to escape her guardian, the "layers of masking" do no more than bear witness to a human being's "multiplicity of selves". For others, like Zachary, the second mate, the truth is bleaker by far. The son of a slave and her white master, he will always be bound, it seems, to a brutal history and the stigma of colour. All have stories to tell and secrets to hide. Like the sketches of people which Deeti finger-paints as keepsakes for her "shrine", their narratives tease the mind with discontinuities and suggestiveness; and, as with Ah Fatt the opium addict's descriptions of Canton, his old home, "the genius... lay in their elisions".
With the colourful characters, another bedazzling aspect of Sea of Poppies is the clash and mingling of languages. Bhojpuri, Bengali, Laskari, Hindustani, Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and a fantastic spectrum of English including the malapropisms of Baboo Nob Kissin, Burnham's accountant, create a vivid sense of living voices as well as the linguistic resourcefulness of people in diaspora. The "motley tongue" is as much a part of the cultural scene at the lower reaches of the Ganges, and of the multi-layered history of the subcontinent, as the collision of peoples on one of the great rivers of the world.
The novel closes with the Ibis in mid-ocean in a storm. Serang Ali, leader of the lascars, has abandoned ship, along with the convicts and the condemned; the first mate as well as the subedar are dead; of the key figures only Deeti, Paulette, Nob Kissin and Zachary are left, watching from the deck the disappearance of the long boat and those close to them. We also watch, awaiting with eagerness the second volume of the trilogy.
Shirley Chew is professor emeritus of English at Leeds University
And they called it poppy love
Set in the run-up to the Opium Wars, the first part of Amitav Ghosh's trilogy acts as a clever parable for British colonialism
The Observer, Sunday 8 June 2008
In Amitav Ghosh's remarkably rich saga, the first of three promised volumes, the sea of the title is more like a flood and a man-made disaster at that: the compulsory cultivation of opium poppies imposed on Indians by the East India Company (the book is set in 1838). The resulting drug was smuggled into China, which had in those days a huge trading surplus and little need for legally imported goods, to the ultimate benefit of the British balance of payments.
Deeti, the first character to be introduced, is a young mother living by the Ganges some 50 miles east of Benares. She grows poppies because she must (the destruction of the rural economy is of no concern to the British), but though she is not in any conventional sense a user, opium has infiltrated deep into her family life. The drug seems to bring a moral numbness, not only to those who ingest it, but to those involved (however unwillingly) in its production. The process of addiction is almost metaphysical - there comes a point when only opium can make people forget the damage opium has done.
Around the opium factory, even the monkeys are stupefied, from drinking the waste water. Inside, men waist-deep in tanks of opium tread it to soften the sludge, 'a host of dark, legless torsos... circling around and around, like some enslaved tribe of demons'. At this point, though, Amitav Ghosh is only clearing the decks for his story, which has plenty of action and adventure à la Dumas, but moments also of Tolstoyan penetration - and a drop or two of Dickensian sentiment.
The British unheedingly break up traditional structures, but dislocation need not be experienced as pure loss. The movement of the book, as shown by its three sections, 'Land', 'River' and 'Sea', is from fixity to flux, a running together of categories that once seemed absolute. As the novel gathers momentum, having only one identity becomes like having no identity at all. This is reflected in the language of the book. The narrative voice has a period neutrality that can seem wan ('her vigil almost came to naught') where it isn't enlivened with local terms. How's this for a CV, for instance? 'Starting as a serishta at Gillanders, Nob Kissin rose to become, successively, a carcoon at the Swinhoe factory, a cranny at Jardine & Matheson, a munshi at Ferguson Bros, and a mootsuddy at Smoult & Sons.'
Spoken English takes on even more of the perfume of the native spices: 'There's a paltan of mems who'd give their last anna to be in your jooties... there's a lot to be said for men of that age. No badmashee at all hours of the night, for one thing. I can tell you, dear, there's nothing more annoying than to be puckrowed just when you're looking forward to a sip of laudanum and a nice long sleep...' That's a respectable Englishwoman talking, but you'd hardly know it.
Sometimes, the caricaturally colourful lingo can become rather wearing. Mlle Paulette Lambert, for instance, sounds like Hercule Poirot ('he was quite bouleversed'), while Nob Kissin sounds like a Peter Sellers Indian ('I will do maximum best') and the lascar Serang Ali recalls Charlie Chan ('China-side can catch one nice piece wife-o... make Malum Zikri too muchi happy inside').
The character whose language is least adulterated is Raja Neel Rattan Halder, but that's only an aspect of his weak grip on reality. The English with whom he deals mistake an educated reference to Chatterton as being to 'Chatterjee'. The Raja has more familiarity with 'the waves of Windermere and the cobblestones of Canterbury' than with his own economic position. He has been lured into the opium business by the hope of huge profits and when there's a downturn in the trade (a crackdown by the impertinent Chinese), he becomes insolvent. Even so, he imagines he can ride out the crisis until he's accused of forgery and transported for hard labour.
There's humour in the book, though Amitav Ghosh isn't naturally a comic writer. True, comedy can sometimes be achieved by sheer willpower on special occasions (by Naipaul for Biswas, say, or Thomas Mann for Felix Krull). It's just that comic scenes in Sea of Poppies tend to coincide with tricky patches of plotting. Comedy and tragedy have different standards of plausibility, just as civil and criminal cases have different standards of proof. With tragedy, we expect a strict causal chain to be established between someone's character and fate, while with comedy, the balance of probabilities is more than enough, a disparity Ghosh is understandably keen to exploit.
The most impressive passages in the book are the closest to tragedy, though it becomes clear that a new life can open up on the far side of disgrace. Raja Halder, who has always imagined that he only followed caste rules out of social politeness, must eat food for the first time in his life that has been prepared by unknown hands and override a wave of disgust that he had never anticipated. The Raja's face is tattooed with his crime, the name of the prison and the date. The tattooist takes pity on him and pushes a little ball of opium between his lips to relieve the pain. The drug that has destroyed his life at last gains admittance to his body and to his picture of reality.
Later, the tattooist whispers that he has watered down the ink, out of family loyalty. The marks will fade after a few months. This is an exquisite image of the fancied permanence of the marks the British made on India, but it has another aspect. What is 'written on your forehead' in traditional Indian terms is your fate, but here fate washes off over time. In a teasing reversal of cultural stereotypes, it is the British who are the fatalists, trying to condemn others to their own fixity, and it's their colonial victims who make their own destinies.
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
The Times review by Michael Binyon, June 6, 2008
The british version of history glosses over the time when this country was the world's biggest drug pusher. Afghanistan now produces the poppies to supply Europe's heroin. But two centuries ago it was British fortune seekers in India who turned the banks of the Ganges into a sea of poppies and tried to force refined opium on the reluctant Chinese. They almost succeeded.
Despite the emperor's decrees banning the drug that dulled his subjects and addled his empire, British traders kept shipping out jars of opium to Canton, counting on the growing number of addicts to defy his orders. In the end, they used force - denouncing Chinese restrictions on free trade, and persuading London, shamefully, to wage the notorious opium wars.
Against this background, Sea of Poppies paints a poignant picture of the human devastation of this trade. The fertile farms of the Ganges plain are blooming only with poppies - beautiful, deadly, denying the peasants the crops to sustain them and indebting them to moneylenders and landowners, themselves indebted to the buccaneers of the East India Company. Skilfully and seemingly randomly, Ghosh assembles those who will set sail in his narrative of the Ibis, an old slaving ship that is taking indentured labourers to Mauritius.
There is Deeti, married off to a hopeless opium addict, drugged and violated on her wedding night by his brother, bullied into the ritual practice of suttee, and rescued from the flames of self-immolation by the loyal, massive Kalua, whose cross-caste elopement starts a manhunt the length of the Ganges. There is Paulette, the daughter of a French botanist, brought up with her Indian nurse's son but forced back into European pretensions of clothes, class and snobbery in the household of Benjamin Burnham, the rich, odious and flawed Calcutta merchant and archetype of British rule.
There is also Zachary, a mulatto freedman from Baltimore who guards his emotions with the secret of his birth; Baboo Nob Kissim, the superstitious and bowel-obsessed East India Company bureaucrat; Serang Ali, a wily leader of the intinerant deckhands known as lascars; and Neel, a dreamy, cultured Bengali raja whose honour, extravagance and financial naivety lead him to bankruptcy, trial, shame and sentence of deportation, as the British who dined at his table seek to grab his lands.
We follow them, through clashes of caste and custom, ruled and rulers, generous sentiment and avaricious deceit, to the fateful ship. India in the 1830s is wonderfully evoked - the smells, rituals and squalor. The language, above all, brings home the exotic: thug, pukka, sahib, serang, mali, lathi, dekko and punkah-wallah still retain, to English ears, echoes of the Raj. But the clothes - zerbaft brocade, shanbaff dhoti, alliballie kurta, jooties and nayansukh - or the ranks and offices - dasturi, sirdar, maharir, serishtas and burkundaz - are frankly incomprehensible. And that is Ghosh's trick: we clutch at what we can, but swaths of narrative wash over us, just as they did over those caught up in a colonial history they could neither control nor understand.
The pace quickens and darkens as Ghosh musters them in Calcutta and brings them aboard. Coarseness and violence, cruelty and fatalism are relieved with flashes of emotion and kindness. This is no anti-colonial rant or didactic tableau but the story of men and women of all races and castes, cooped up on a voyage across the “Black Water” that strips them of dignity and ends in storm, neither in despair nor resolution. It is profoundly moving.
Sex 'n' drugs 'n' folderol
New Statesman review by Toby Lichtig
Published 01 May 2008
Amitav Ghosh's latest novel is set in an era of agricultural scandal: burgeoning western demand for profitable but inedible crops is causing starvation in the subaltern world. Throw in some imperialist cries of war in the name of "freedom" and things start to sound depressingly familiar - but the year is 1837 and opium, rather than biofuels or animal feed, is the culprit. The Chinese are hooked, the Indians have been coerced into cultivating the stuff, and Britain is the prosperous dealer. Recent Chinese attempts to curb the trade means that "gunboat diplomacy" is on the horizon.
Sea of Poppies opens in a remote village devastated by these circumstances. A young woman, Deeti, watches her inert husband yield to addiction; he collapses at the opium-packing factory where glazed workers move "as slow as ants in honey" and even the monkeys are sunk in a "miasma of lethargy". She has a small plot of land, but its poppies will not feed her and nor will the proceeds of their sale. After she is widowed, sati seems the most appealing option.
On the coast, near old Calcutta, a raja entertains British merchants and seaman aboard his budgerow. There is champagne and chicken and talk of forthcoming Chinese hostilities. But the bonhomie masks a perilous situation for the raja: he owes money to a prominent Liverpudlian trader and, with opium profits down, the thumbscrews are tightening. The raja is soon framed for fraud and bankrupted; notice of his crime is branded on his forehead; exile and ruin await him.
Upriver, the Ibis is preparing to set sail for Madagascar, loaded with a cargo of coolies and convicts (including the raja). Its captain is more interested in smoking than steering, and leaves proceedings to his sadistic first-mate. Out at sea, conditions deteriorate as boredom fans the flames of cruelty. The serang (boatswain) has a specially sharpened toenail for kicking sailors and local justice prevails. A mutiny is brewing.
This outline of events is barely skeletal: as in his previous novels, Ghosh juggles a huge cast, weaving in overlapping strands and themes: racial porosity, imperialist hypocrisy, cultural relativism. It is characteristic of his scope to have an entire vessel of protagonists. Moreover, this is merely part one in a prospective trilogy. The Opium Wars haven't even started, though it is implied that the Ibis will later be involved in them. There are various tantalising hints of an auspicious future for the characters. One will found a dynasty; another is starting a religion; all (at least all of the nice ones) are destined to end up in a shrine.
Sea of Poppies is bathed in rich vernacular; Ghosh is unstinting in his use of lexical obscu rities, having raided dictionaries of nautical jargon and 19th-century Hinglish. We encounter cutwater, fang and bowsprit; taliyamar, fana, pulwar and pateli. Men are accused of being cunnylappers and sailors are threatened bawdily: "I'm going to splice a cuntline to yer arse." French characters mix English with Hindi, and upper-caste Indians speak like the Queen. There is no glossary - a sensible move, for we are forced to immerse ourselves in the melting pot of dialects. The effect is pleasing, and pleasingly intelligible. Here is a merchant's (English) wife commending a girl for having caught the eye of an illustrious magistrate: "Can you imagine, dear, what a prodigious stroke of kismet it will be for you to puckrow Mr Kendalbushe? He's a nabob in his own right - made a mountain of mohurs out of the China trade. Ever since he lost his wife every larkin in town's been trying to bundo him. I can tell you, dear, there's a paltan of mems who'd give their last anna to be in your jooties."
While the novelty of such speech patterns is invigorating, it contributes to a general sense of caricature; and after 470 pages, we are left with a peculiar feeling that things are only beginning to warm up. This is both a strength and a weakness. Sea of Poppies is a thoroughly readable romp of a novel, filled with excellent set pieces, comic digressions (especially its comedies of manners), love interest, subterfuge and betrayal. We are left thirsty for more.
But its characters remain more "colourful" than believable. We don't really get under their skin, and this affects our ability to empathise. When one man receives a pitiless lashing, we shrink in physical more than emotional horror. We get a memorable and sweeping sense of 1830s southern India, but not of what it might have felt like to live in it: as a hopeful coolie, a fallen raja, a corrupt judge or an amorous memsahib. Siddhartha Deb recently accused epic Anglo-Indian fiction of succumbing to "the megalomania of the Borgesian map". And this is Ghosh's problem. His fiction is more than mere cartography; but it is not immune from cartography's dimensional limitations.
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
Boston Phoenix review by Chris Wangler |
October 8, 2008
India, 1838. The opium business is booming, and drug money fills the British Empire’s coffers, offsetting a trade imbalance created by imports of Chinese tea and silk. But now the emperor wants the drug trade stopped.
Along the Gangetic plain northwest of Calcutta, the British East India Company has persuaded peasant farmers to abandon their crops and grow only poppies, which are then processed in the Inferno-esque Sudder Opium Factory. With the first opium war looming, the cash cow seems ready to keel over, leaving famine and poverty for the hapless locals. This is the backdrop of Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh’s eighth novel, the first in a projected trilogy, and his first book to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. (This year’s winner will be announced October 14.)
Deeti, the moral center of the book, tends a poppy field. Her husband is an addict who works in the factory. When he dies, she decides she would rather be burned to death on his sati pyre than submit to her sexually predatory brother-in-law. At the last second she is rescued by a towering untouchable named Kalua. They become lovers and flee, making their way to Calcutta to sign up as girmitiyas, or indentured servants, aboard the Ibis, a schooner bound for Mauritius.
A half-dozen other characters, collected from an array of racial and linguistic backgrounds, also scheme their way on board under the watchful eyes of the British. The most interesting is in shackles. Raja Neel Rattan Halder, a genteel Bengali raja, having failed to pay his debts, has been framed as a forger, stripped of his holdings, and sentenced to a penal colony on Mauritius for seven years. He is reduced to cleaning excrement, lice, and filth off his cellmate, a half-Chinese opium addict whose withdrawal symptoms have rendered him nearly inhuman.
By the time she sets out, the Ibis has been transformed from a battered former slave ship into a fateful “vehicle of transformation,” where rules of caste and empire will be either broken by hopeful exiles or enforced with brutality by the ship’s guards. Although the pilgrims are all in some way victims of the opium trade, the real theme of Sea of Poppies is the alternately terrifying and liberating prospect of migration across the “Black Water” of the Indian Ocean. “On a boat of pilgrims,” says Deeti, “no one can lose caste and everyone is the same.”
The depth of Ghosh’s research is staggering; he strives for authenticity not only in his descriptions but also in his language. If a word in Bhojpuri, Bengali, or hinglish exists — for a kind of ship or an article of clothing — he uses it. This makes the appended glossary handy — and worth the trouble.
On the other hand, the author’s contempt for the British Empire, which bubbles under the optimistic, whimsical tone of the storytelling, leads to some oversimplification. Mr. Burnham, a wealthy merchant and the odious mouthpiece of the opium trade, enjoys being spanked with an Indian broom; the first mate on the Ibis, a foul-mouthed sadist named Mr. Crowle, comes off like a bad guy in Pirates of the Caribbean. Whereas Zachary, Deeti, and the other pilgrims seem almost incapable of a bad instinct or selfish act. Given the dramatic climax of the book, we can assume that they will be more carefully developed in the coming volumes, of which the next is set for 2010.
Even if it proves too exotic to take the Booker, Sea of Poppies is a triumph as a novel of ideas and as a rollicking adventure story. It’s also that rare bird: a historical novel top-loaded with contemporary relevance, in which the British plan to wage “the best kind of war — quick and inexpensive with the outcome never in doubt.”
Soldiers and Victims of the Opium War
Reviewed by Shashi Tharoor
Washington Post, Sunday, October 19, 2008
Since the publication of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children in 1981, a new and ancient land has imposed itself on the world's literary consciousness, -- a land whose language and concerns have stretched the boundaries of the possible in English literature. A generation of post-colonial Indian writers has brought a larger world -- a teeming, myth-infused, gaudy, exuberant, many-hued and restless
world -- past the immigration inspectors of English literature. Today it seems no year goes by without yet another Indian novel announcing its entry into the global canon, confirming Indian writing as among the most innovative and interesting anywhere.
Over the last two decades, the Indian author Amitav Ghosh has established himself as a writer of uncommon talent who combines literary flair with a rare seriousness of purpose. His first novel, The Circle of Reason, seemed very much in the Rushdie magical-realist tradition, but he has evolved considerably since then, notably in works like The Shadow Lines and more recently The Glass Palace, which deal movingly and powerfully with the dislocations of post-imperial politics in Bengal and Burma. Sea of Poppies, his sixth novel (and the first of a projected trilogy), marks both a departure and an arrival. It sees Ghosh painting upon a larger canvas than ever before, with a multitude of characters and an epic vision; and the novel is his first to be shortlisted for Britain's Man Booker Prize, one of two Indian novels in a list of six.
The year is 1838, and the setting British India, a country immiserated by colonial rule, as fertile agricultural lands are swamped by the flower of the novel's title, grown to produce opium that the British are exporting to addicts in an increasingly resistant China. Hungry Indian peasants, meanwhile, are being driven off their land, and many are recruited to serve as plantation laborers in far-off British colonies like Mauritius. Meanwhile, the clouds of war are looming, as British opium interests in India press for the use of force to compel the Chinese mandarins to keep open their ports, in the name of free trade.
Against this background, Sea of Poppies brings together a colorful array of individuals on a triple-masted schooner named the Ibis. There is the widow of an opium addict, saved from a drugged self-immolation on her husband's funeral pyre by an outcaste who signs up for a new life as a worker in Mauritius; a free-spirited French orphan and the Muslim boatman with whom she has grown up; the Ibis's second mate, an American octoroon sailor passing for white; a clerk and mystic possessed by the soul of his female spiritual mentor; a lascar seaman with a piratical past; and a dispossessed Raja who has been stripped of his lands and honor and sentenced to transportation for an innocent act of forgery.
The novel unfolds with the stories of the events that bring these "ship-siblings -- jaházbhais and jaházbahens" on board and traces the beginning of their voyage from Calcutta to their unknown destinies across the Black Water. The principal characters' fates are left unresolved -- this is a book that is clearly "to be continued" -- but their stories are compelling. Even though the Ibis's journey is incomplete, it provides enough dramatic tension to keep the reader turning the pages.
Ghosh's purpose is clearly both literary and political. His narrative represents a prodigious feat of research; one does not need the impressive bibliography of sources at the end to be struck by the wealth of period detail the author commands. His descriptions bring a lost world to life, from the evocatively imagined opium factory, the intricacies of women's costumes and the lovingly enumerated fare on the opulent dining tables of the era, to the richly detailed descriptions of the Ibis and its journey. At times, Sea of Poppies reads like a cross between an Indian Gone with the Wind and a Victorian novel of manners. And yet Ghosh has managed a sharp reversal of perspective. His ship, with the author's fine feel for nautical niceties, sails in Joseph Conrad territory, through waters since romanticized by the likes of James Clavell. But whereas those writers and so many others placed the white man at the center of their narratives, Ghosh relegates his British colonists to the margins of his story, giving pride of place to the neglected subjects of the imperial enterprise: colonialism's impoverished, and usually colored, victims. He writes with great compassion and empathy about members of the underclass, most of all the migrants, "the men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain . . . [from] a soil that had to be sown with suffering to yield its crop of story and song."
Ghosh portrays his characters with integrity and dignity; even those with walk-on parts enjoy well-constructed back-stories, and if his Brits -- scheming, perverse and ruthless to a man -- are occasionally caricatures, they all come vividly alive. He is particularly good at representing the distinctive voices: the charming Franglais of the French orphan, the fractured Babu English of a clerk, the semi-comprehensible Anglo-Indianisms of the pilot and the literate cadences of the educated Raja. Occasionally, he goes overboard with his Anglo-Indian argot ("Wasn't a man in town who could put on a burra-khana like he did. Sheeshmull blazing with shammers and candles. . . . Demijohns of French loll-shrub and carboys of iced simkin. And the karibat!") Nor will many readers have the slightest idea what a boatman is doing on deck "tirkaoing hamars, and hauling zanjirs through the hansil-holes." But it doesn't really matter; the language brings in period authenticity and local color, and as with any good vessel, you get the drift quick enough.
With this novel, Ghosh, an anthropologist and historian, has come a long way from the magic realism of his first novel. Sea of Poppies is written in a direct and flowing style, its prose confident and unadorned, though on a handful of occasions the author produces a flourish almost as if to show he can do it, as with the hills and crags that "sat upon the plains like a bestiary of gargantuan animals that had been frozen in the act of trying to escape from the grip of the earth." The disgraced Raja enters a courtroom and "the hubbub ceased abruptly, leaving a few last threads of sound to float gently to the floor, like the torn ends of a ribbon." The migration of peasants from the Gangetic plains "was as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart."
But the fine writing is in service of a larger cause, the reclaiming of a story appropriated for too long by its villains, those who, centuries ago, conquered foreign lands, subjugated and displaced their peoples, replaced their agriculture with cash crops that caused addiction and death, and enforced all this with the power of the gun masked by a rhetoric of civilization. "When we kill people," a British sea-captain says, "we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this pretence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history." Ghosh, on behalf of history, is unforgiving, but his novel is also a delight. I can't wait to see what happens to these laborers and seamen, the defrocked raja and the transgendered mystic in the next volume. ·
Shashi Tharoor is a former under secretary general of the United Nations and the author, most recently, of "The Great Indian Novel" and "The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cellphone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-Century Power."
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh"Sea of Poppies," set in Calcutta, is a swashbuckling saga full of sadists, weaklings and tyrants -- and, thankfully, there are two more volumes to come.
No literary outpost of the Anglophone empire has taken up the mantle of Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope with greater enthusiasm and success than India and its diaspora. American novelists have opted for the vein of the British tradition in which the novelist is regarded as a lone genius (viz. D.H. Lawrence); consequently our self-styled great writers usually take themselves (and therefore their heroes) very seriously. Indians, by contrast, tend to favor fat books with dozens of characters, enlivened by lashings of satire and caricature. They give us sagas and epics, about clans rather than isolated individuals. If these novels don't entirely jibe with American notions of high art, they have been welcomed by readers as a superior grade of pure fun.
Amitav Ghosh's new book, "Sea of Poppies," the first volume in a projected trilogy set in 19th century India and China during the Opium Wars, makes a nimble bid for membership in both categories. First, on the side of entertainment, it is a nautical yarn, brimming with enough fo'c'sles and jibs and fife rails to satisfy the salty cravings of the Patrick O'Brian crowd. Second, its characters are brightly, if broadly drawn; there are good guys to root for and bad guys to hiss, yet none of them are too crudely rendered. Paulette Lambert, the obligatory spunky female aspiring to a man's freedom, is occasionally misguided in that very spunkiness. Zachary Reid, second mate on the Ibis, the schooner at the center of Ghosh's trilogy, is brave and true, the son of a "quadroon" Maryland freedwoman though passing for white, whose strict moral compass sometimes leads him astray. Deeti, a runaway widow from an opium farm up the Ganges, overestimates the scope of her benevolent maternal authority. Zeel Halder, a raja cheated out of his landholdings and framed by an English merchant, has a hard time abandoning the fastidious anxieties of his caste.
It takes the better part of the novel to gather these four (and many more) characters aboard the Ibis, where they will be thrillingly harassed by assorted sadists, weaklings and tyrants. Hints are dropped that we are being told the story of the founding of a "dynasty," but in this first volume, most of the characters are simply on the lam. Paulette doesn't want to marry an old puritan of a judge. Deeti, intended for a suttee (ritual suicide) flees from her village down the Ganges with a lower-caste man. Baboo Nob Kissin, the long-suffering factotum of a rich Englishman, believes that he is gradually changing sex, becoming the avatar of the woman who was his spiritual mentor. He also thinks Zachary is an incarnation of Krishna, sent to guide him out of Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), where "Sea of Poppies" is largely set. There are near-death escapades, chase scenes and disguises, enough to earn the novel its stripes as a swashbuckler.
On the side of literature, however, "Sea of Poppies" is drunk on language or, rather, on two languages. The first is the patois produced by the admixture of English and Hindi. One comical minor character, an Englishman with a taste for Indian cuisine and other, less mentionable comestibles, speaks a marginally comprehensible version: "Now there was a chuckmuck sight for you! Rows of cursies for the sahibs and mems to sit on. Sittringies and tuckers for the natives ... Oh, that old loocher knew how to put on a nautch all right!" The second language, the polyglot professional slang of the lascars, sailors of the Indian Ocean, is fluently spoken by Serang Ali, the sagacious leader of the Ibis' lascars: "Captin-bugger blongi poo-shoo-foo. He hab got plenty sick! Need one piece dokto." The two lingoes combine into a Joycean cacophony that testifies to the fecund energy of English at its fringes and borders. Ghosh himself is obviously besotted with the stuff, and while some readers may need to refer to the glossary (or "Chrestomathy") at the back of the book, it's not strictly necessary. Likewise, you can harken to Ghosh's sly critique of Britain's colonial mercantilism without feeling like you've been lectured to.
My sole criticism of this jolly outing is that it ends too abruptly, or so it seemed before I understood that there were two additional novels to come. "Wait," I protested under my breath, "I want to know what happens when they get to Canton!" And so I shall, though I hope the wait won't be very long.
Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
San Francisco Chronicle reviewby Alan Cheuse
October 19, 2008
Imagine if Charles Dickens had signed on for a berth on the Pequod. We get some of that fusion to great effect in Amitav Ghosh's sprawling and rather wonderful new historical novel "Sea of Poppies."
The cast of characters is vast, and at the same time each person stands out as sharply rendered and dramatically urgent. A mixed-race novice sea hand from Baltimore, Zachary Reid, serves as one of the leads, along with an Indian peasant woman named Deeti and her giant of a paramour, Kalua, who rescues her from the funeral pyre of her first husband's body and decamps with her, first to Benares and then belowdecks of the Ibis, the ship of which Reid is the second mate. Yes, the plot is dense, if not thick, and the book builds slowly. But every page you turn is worth it.
As one of the passengers, a mystically inclined Indian named Baboo Nob Kissin, considers it, "the Ibis was not a ship like any other; in her inward reality she was a vehicle of transformation, travelling through the mists of illusion towards the elusive, ever-receding landfall that was Truth."
In that ship in 1838 sea and land come together, as a multitude of Indians from the environs of the southern shores of the Ganges - figures high and low such as a rajah in debt to a British businessman and a Chinese criminal, farmers and soldiers, Malay crewmen and a female French stowaway - set sail to Port Louis on Mauritius. It's a voyage that will somehow play a role - some sea fog rolls in here to make this end somewhat unclear - in the British war to open up China to the opium trade.
As in any fine historical fiction, authenticity is paramount, which includes the proviso that knowledge shouldn't hamper the drama. Ghosh has done an extraordinary amount of research and possesses the deep dramatic sense that makes what he knows plausible - all truth stands this test in fiction - in light of the unfolding of the plot. Moreover, he tells his story in an appealing, somewhat modified, lingo of the period - when British English mingled with Indian Englishes, and dallied with dozens of other dialects, from ship's lore to pirate talk of the Lascars to the pidgin of the Chinese, and all the other verbal music of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.
And beneath it all, like the endless rolling saltwater of the region, Ghosh's own beautifully made sentences and paragraphs buoy up ship, plot, characters and the setting itself with a natural ease and beauty. As in this passage, pun intended, when the Ibis, with its crowded crew and indentured passengers, most of whom had never seen the ocean, anchors for one last night in Indian waters, "the last place from which the migrants would be able to view their native shore: this was Saugor Roads, a much trafficked anchorage in the lee of Ganga-Sagar, the island that stands between the sea and the holy river. ... The very name Ganga-Sagar, joining, as it did, river and sea, clear and dark, known and hidden, served to remind the migrants of the yawning chasm ahead; it was if they were sitting balanced on the edge of a precipice, and the island were an outstretched limb of sacred Jambudvipa, their homeland, reaching out to keep them from tumbling into the void."
Reading this novel over a number of days - it takes its time and takes your time, but in the best of ways - I often had that same feeling about the book, which sometimes manifested itself as a ship, sometimes as an island, with me the reader sitting balanced on the edge of a precipice. All the good books do that, don't they? Keep us from tumbling into the void.
Alan Cheuse is a book commentator for National Public Radio. His new novel, "To Catch the Lightning" (Sourcebooks), came out earlier this month.
With war on the horizon, cultures collide at sea
BookPage review by Lauren Bufferd
Sea of Poppies takes place in 1838, when the opium trade between British-ruled India and China was in full swing. Opium factories employed hundreds, and farmers were obliged to clear their fields for opium production. Ships that once carried slaves were refitted to carry opium, as well as indentured servants, to other parts of the Empire. Meanwhile, China was determined to stop the trade that turned thousands into addicts.
At the center of this saga is the Ibis, an immense ship with a British captain, an American second mate, Indian troops and a crew of Lascars—a term that was used to identify sailors originating from the Pacific Rim. The ship has docked in Calcutta awaiting the arrival of men and women traveling to Mauritius as indentured migrants.
The range of characters is as diverse as their lingo, social standing and skin color, yet accomplished novelist Amitav Ghosh suggests the differences are illusory. Clothed in a sari, the orphaned daughter of a French botanist is able to blend in among the migrant workers; the biracial second mate realizes that passing as white can work to his advantage; and a Bengali accountant filled with the spirit of a deceased holy woman begins to experience a shift in gender. Most powerfully, a rich, pampered rajah, charged with bankruptcy, is jailed aboard the Ibis with a derelict opium addict. Though brought low in the utter filth of his shared cell, he is still able to make a treasured human connection.
Ghosh revels in the unique vocabulary of his British, American, French, Indian and Lascar characters, providing a Babel of colloquial phrases and obscure naval terms. Readers can use the glossary at the end of the book, but it's easy enough to catch the tone of the dialogue, where at least the gist is clear.
Sea of Poppies is the first in a planned trilogy, which may be why the action in the last quarter of the book steps up to a feverish pace. You can almost hear the narrative gears grinding as Ghosh maneuvers everyone into place to create a cliffhanger ending. But this doesn't take away from the rollicking energy and heart of a very engaging novel.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.
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