Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Going back to the Ibis trilogy after a couple of years, this time to the start of the story – the Booker shortlisted Sea of Poppies. Wary of Ghosh’s fiction after not being enamored by the couple of books I had read of his earlier, I had started this trilogy from the middle, i.e with River of Smoke. That one I liked quite a bit, and thought it was time to see how the story started off. Suffice to say, this is a rip roaring historical yarn of seafaring heroes and villains backed up by some strikingly researched characters and social commentary of the time.
The time is early to mid-19th century India during the days of the Raj and the East India Company. Opium is the crop of choice for the company and they enforce it on the indentured farmers, who have to grow vast swathes of it forgoing their traditional crops. Predictably, this leads to difficult situations when the trade loses some of its lucre intermittently because of the temporary blockade the Chinese emperor imposes on Opium imports to his country. One such family affected is Deeti’s, whose husband is an opium addict and works in a factory for the same. Kalua, their regular ox cart driver is of a lower cast and not someone who Deeti would usually confer with. However, circumstances they could hardly account for causes these two to take off in flight from their homeland, as they join a bunch of grimitiyas to be transported across the seas.
A similar fate awaits Raja Neel Rattan Halder, erstwhile prince who suddenly finds himself bankrupt through a series of actions caused by his own lack of guile and plain bad luck. His destiny henceforth lies beyond the Black Waters away from his native lands. The person directly responsible for his fate, Mr. Burnham, has two people directly or indirectly related to him who also find the need to cross the seas. One is a half French, half Indian orphan who came under the care of the Burnhams when her father passed away. The other, a portly gomusta of his, who has an intriguing story of devotion behind him and who decides to follow the signs which he is sure points to a reincarnation of his favorite deity.
All of these disparate characters and a few others end up on the Ibis, a former slave ship turned smuggling vessel, and their fates inextricably linked to it as it crosses the oceans to Canton. On the Ibis is another of the main characters – a more conventional hero figure, Zachary Reid. Born from the union of a former slave and her white master, he is mistaken to be white by most people. He joins the ship as a carpenter, but as misfortune and desertions plague the ship finds himself rising in the ranks of authority on board. After most of the crew desert, he is joined by a crew of local Lascars led by the incorrigible Serang Ali, who looks on Zachary as almost a son and starts to fit him for the purpose of serious life. The ship belongs to Burnham’s company and forms the backdrop for most of the book, especially the second half, where the private and public lives of these characters are played out. The ending is suitably poised on a cliffhanger, though after having read River of Smoke before this I can understand how some readers may have been disappointed with the seemingly disjointed nature of the narrative there as a continuation of this story.
It’s quite swashbuckling to be honest, with Ghosh’s usually intensely descriptive style mixed with some page turning adventure. There are some villains and some interesting characters among the company on board and Ghosh as usual has done amazingly detailed research on the time period it is set in. Some readers may find a problem with the colloquial slang and pidgin which is used in a lot of places, but there is no doubt this adds to the unique flavor of the book. How this lost out on the Booker to the mediocre ‘The White Tiger’ I cannot understand.
This fascinating series set at the dawn of the Opium Wars makes me quite eager now to get my hands on the final volume of the trilogy, Flood of Fire.