Sea of Poppies
By Amitav Ghosh
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
515 pages, $26
The West has a pernicious dependence on China, and Western business barons are bent on a war that will allegedly liberate a foreign people, as well as secure less lofty things, like the free flow of commodities and profit. While this might sound like a critique of present-day U.S. economic policy and the invasion of Iraq, it’s actually a description of the mid-19th-century world vividly conjured up by veteran Indian author Amitav Ghosh in Sea of Poppies. (The first in his Ibis Trilogy, the book was short-listed for the Booker prize but lost to Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger.)
A sweeping opus set just before the First Opium War, Sea of Poppies contains traces of Dickens and Twain and also recalls Lucas—George Lucas that is—and his Star Wars trilogy. Yes, Mr. Ghosh’s book resembles less a modern novel than a cinematic epic; and this style, despite some drawbacks, actually complements a work of profound historical magnitude.
Maryland-born Zachary Reid, the son of a freed slave and a white master, has survived a perilous voyage to Calcutta, a cosmopolitan port teeming with Armenians, prostitutes and lascars, the vagrant pan-Asian sailors who manned Europe’s merchant navies. A slave ship called the Ibis has delivered him here, and he must refit the schooner for her new job, the export of British East India Company opium into China.
Opium, which at the time provided the British with profits that rivaled the entire revenue of the United States, forms the murky web that links Zachary to the book’s immense cast of characters, like Deeti, a poppy farmer coaxed into debt by the English. When Deeti’s opium addict husband dies, she’s destined to be burned alive on his funeral pyre. But her low-caste neighbor Kalua rescues her, and the pair flee down the Ganges. Meanwhile, Neel Rattan Halder contemplates British philosophy on his opulent houseboat downstream. Neel is the scion of a landowning Bengali family known for its fixation with oppressive caste codes and erotic dancers. But he’s unsettled that his family fortune is dependent on Mr. Burnham, the evangelical owner of the Ibis, who’s made millions getting the Chinese hooked on dope.
When officials in Canton block the flow of opium into China, the fortunes of Neel and the entire British empire are thrown into jeopardy. “To end the trade would be ruinous,” so Burnham nudges the Crown into war with “the Manchu tyrant.” But this war, “when it comes, will not be for opium. It will be for a principle: for freedom—for the freedom of trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people.” Burnham also makes Zachary an officer on the Ibis, and the ship will once again deliver human cargo: Neel, now a debt-ruined prisoner who will be interned in Mauritius, and Indian indentured servants who will toil on the island’s tropical plantations. Among these bonded laborers are Deeti and Kalua. Although the Ibis is an obvious symbol of depravity, it provides a strange (and temporary) form of sanctuary to these two.
Sea of Poppies is defined by such provocative ironies and nuances. The author has no illusions about the hypocrisy that underpinned colonialism. His colonial agents have the audacity to call the slave trade “the greatest exercise in freedom since God led the children of Israel out of Egypt” and refer to Hindi and Urdu as “nigger-talk.” But native Indians are oppressive in their own right and end up as cogs in the cruel colonial machinery.
PROJECTS AS AMBITIOUS AS this are rarely flawless. The book’s countless subplots are mostly well imagined, but they sometimes feel like occasions for Mr. Ghosh to convey fascinating anthropological tidbits—the lascar crew’s hybridized speech (which recalls Star Wars’ Jar Jar Binks) or the origin of the word “canvas” (it comes from “cannabis”). But this isn’t a conventional novel; it’s an epic and must be read according to different rules. If the plot drags, Mr. Ghosh’s 19th-century world is worth savoring for its meticulous props and sets—an Armenian boarding house, Calcutta’s botanical gardens. Neat coincidences like Deeti’s vengeful relative appearing as a guard on the Ibis are permissible and even necessary. It’s this uncle, after all, who eventually captures Deeti, which leads to torture, murder and a cliffhanger ending that leaves fans of historical fiction hungry for volume two of this trilogy.
For other readers, what makes Sea of Poppies vital is the chilling mirror it holds up to our world. “We are no different from the Pharaohs or the Mongols,” says the captain of the Ibis. “[T]he difference is only that when we kill people, 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.”
Hirsh Sawhney is the editor of Delhi Noir, forthcoming from Akashic Books. He can be reached at email@example.com.