Deeti, an Indian woman who grows poppies, has a vision of a ship – an odd vision because she lives 400 miles from the sea and has never seen a boat such as this…but her vision is a premonition and the ship has a name: Ibis. Thus begins Amitav Ghosh’s sprawling, historical saga Sea of Poppies. What follows is a story with a vast cast of characters whose paths ultimately cross enroute to the island of Mauritius aboard the Ibis – a former slave ship manned by a motley crew including an opium addicted captain, a freed American slave, and a foul-mouthed first mate with a penchant for cruelty. The voyagers include Paulette (a French woman with a sense of adventure who is fleeing an unacceptable situation in India), and Neel (a man who has been convicted of a crime he did not commit). But it is the Indian indentured workers who take center stage in a novel about caste, freedom, and human connection. And it is Deeti who becomes the central figure – a strong woman who marries beneath her caste and is respected by the other women aboard the ship.
The novel is beautifully imagined and captures the hopelessness of the opium factory workers, the daily lives of the villagers, the violence of ship law, and the diversity of an India in the mid-nineteenth century. Ghosh’s use of language in the novel is brilliant. Filled with strange words, pidgin English, and unusual sentence structure – the book at first seems unwieldy. But Ghosh succeeds where other less talented authors might not. The language, used with appropriate context, becomes almost like a musical score in a movie. Ghosh’s use of language demonstrates the way language can unite or divide people, and confuse or clarify situations. It is a powerful technique that works.
Historically, Sea of Poppies is set just prior to the Opium Wars and revolves around the British involvement in India and their trade practices exporting opium from India to China. Ghosh reveals the damage done by British colonial rule and the devastation wreaked upon the Indian economy, as well as society at large. Although apparently Ghosh’s creative inspiration was the indentured people of India, he says in an interview: “[...] once I started researching into it, it was kind of inescapable – all the roads led back to opium. The indentured emigration [out of India] really started in the 1830s and that was [around the time of] the peak of the opium traffic. That decade culminated in the opium wars against China.”
Ghosh is skilled at creating character…and in Sea of Poppies the characters are memorable and complex.
This was a personage of formidable appearance, with a face that would have earned the envy of Genghis Khan, being thin, long and narrow, with darting black eyes that sat restlessly upon rakishly angled cheekbones. Two feathery strands of moustache drooped down to his chin, framing a mouth that was constantly in motion, its edges stained a bright, livid red: it was as if he were forever smacking his lips after drinking from the opened veins of a mare, like some bloodthirsty Tartar of the steppes. The discovery that the substance in his mouth was of vegetable origin came as no great reassurance to Zachary: once, when the serang spat a stream of blood-red juice over the rail, he noticed the water below coming alive with the thrashing of shark’s fins. How harmless could this betel-stuff be if it could be mistaken for blood by a shark? – from Sea of Poppies, page 13 -
Although filled with adventure and interesting plot twists, Sea of Poppies is also about what makes us human in the face of crisis. One particularly memorable part of the novel to me was when Neel loses his caste and is convicted of the crime of forgery. Thrown into jail, he is forced to share a cell with an Asian named Ah Fatt who is hopelessly addicted to opium and lies in his own waste. For Neel, a man of stature who is fastidously clean, the situation is almost unbearable. And then he makes a self-discovery about what it means to care for another human being:
To take care of another human being – this was something Neel had never before thought of doing, not even with his own son, let alone a man of his own age, a foreigner. All he knew of nurture was the tenderness that had been lavished on him by his own care-givers: that they would come to love him was something he had taken for granted – yet knowing his own feelings for them to be in no way equivalent, he had often wondered how that attachment was born. It occurred to him now to ask himself if this was how it happened: was it possible that the mere fact of using one’s hands and investing one’s attention in someone other than oneself, created a pride and tenderness that had nothing whatever to do with the response of the object of one’s care – just as a craftsman’s love for his handiwork is in no way diminished by the fact of it being unreciprocated? - from Sea of Poppies, page 300 -
It was moments like these in the story which elevated it above the typical historical novel.
Some readers have found the ending of Sea of Poppies to be abrupt and unresolved. I would agree. However, this book is the first in a planned trilogy which may explain the ending. At any rate, Sea of Poppies completely enthralled me and I am looking forward to the next two books.
Readers who love world and historical literature, and who enjoy richly textured sagas will love Sea of Poppies.
Read more about Amitav Ghosh and his work at the author’s website.