Review of Sea of Poppies

sea-of-poppies.png Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh Reviewed by Poonam Srivastava

Amitav Ghosh is a world-renowned best selling author. After reading Sea of Poppies I see why. He is a damn good storyteller. The subject of Sea of Poppies is vast and rich. Despite the huge intellectual effort that is required by the writer of such a historical epic, readers are served a tale that takes them easily by the heart. Ghosh sets his work in the world of the early global economy at the beginnings of the nineteenth century, India 1830s. The economy of the British Empire is in its transformation from the export / import of slaves from Africa to indentured servants from the subcontinent. The first Opium War is a mere decade or so away when the Ibis sails into the Hooghly River preparing to load up.

The ship is named for the ibis bird. The mascot of the University of Miami is an American White Ibis. The ibis was selected as the school mascot because of its legendary bravery during hurricanes. The ibis is the last sign of wildlife to take shelter before a hurricane hits and the first to reappear once the storm has passed. Miami's sports teams are nicknamed "The Hurricanes"(Wikipedia)

The Ibis is about to face many hurricanes. This majestic ex-slave ship is meant to carry a cast of passengers and crew that include an unlikely amalgam of souls: from both the East: India and China; and West: Britain – of course, but also France, and the U.S. -- from every class: from the Raja who exults in the noble art of flying kites with his heir apparent to the lowest of the low -- a giant of a Dalit who eats road kill and dares to disobey society’s dictums. A hurricane is brewing that will cause these souls to choose sides on their voyage across the Black Water. A hurricane is also gathering between the forces of these economies: the Chinese, the Indians, the merchants and the governments.

The writer presents all the key players in a story about the basics of human existence. He shows the various existences that keep them true to their stations. There are beautifully crafted moments portraying fully the effect of Erwin Goff’s understanding of institution. (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959) Ghosh’s brilliance is that he doesn’t content himself with description of the everyday. He goes further. He shows the raw passions that rule despite the social pressures and norms; he studies the inner mechanisms of meaning-formation. His women are free even within their total subjections to their men. His men are powerless whether mere kings of their households or actual sons of royal blood holding lands as far as the eye can see.

Sea of Poppies opens up with Deeti’s vision. She is called Deeti, short for her given name. She is also called mother of Kabutri. She has married well and is a dutiful member of her new home, a village near Ghazipur – an inland suburb of a medium sized city nearly two days journey away. Her husband is a respected worker of import in the local opium factory that has in the past generation appropriated the lands of this fiefdom. Where people had gardens that allowed subsistence as well as money, there is now only debt. So, despite Deeti’s being well off and dutiful she has her own pool of troubles. Not the least of it is that her husband is an addict to the stuff he produces. He is completely incapable of any of his duties except to go to work and come home. How she conceived Kabutri on the night of her wedding, which took her virginity, is something Deeti would rather not think about. In the ten years of married life she knows that there were more than the usual bride and groom present in her opium drenched wedding bed. The bruises on her wrists that first morning after her wedding night given her husband’s physical reality suggested a mystery that she uncovers much to her disgust and shame.

The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny, for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in Northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast. Her village was so far inland that the sea seemed as distant as the nether-world: it was the chasm of darkness where the holy Ganga disappeared into the Kala-Pani, ‘the Black Water.’

This first paragraph sets us up so quickly for the great adventure that is this book; for the many great adventures that it contains. Deeti’s journey is just as important to the reader as that of the raja, or the servant boy of the French botanist’s estate, or the half Negro sailor that brings the Ibis physically in front of Deeti’s eyes, or the big hulk of a man who is whipped and raped by the royal guards for falling out of favor, or the British shipping mogul that has just converted his slave ship into opium carrier only to discover that the Chinese aren’t buying it any more. The action moves quickly towards fortunes made and lost; loves betrayals and surprises, and the ineffable surfacing and resurfacing of the human spirit being slapped by wave after wave of circumstance. Jodu was not among those who was hoping for an all-out fight, and he was unreservedly glad when another voice rang across the deck to put an end to the altercation: ‘Avast there...Bas!’

With the two malums going at it hank for hank, no one had noticed the Kaptain coming on deck: ...He was much older...for the effort of climbing up the side-ladder had robbed him of his wind, sending streams of perspiration down his face...“Stash it there, you two! Enough with your mallemarking.”

What one is treated to through the 468 pages is a delicious attention not only to plot and historical accuracy but to voice and sound. The book gracefully incorporates the various versions of language of the colonized and the colonizers and brings the sound quality to a higher resolution to give each character his or her distinct cadence and tone. Sea of Poppies is a delight to the inner ear as well as the inner eye. It is a soulful book that can be digested on many levels. No mere rant, this novel moves the reader to a place beyond understanding. The ending is a cliffhanger that has this reader aching to begin the second book.

I highly recommend this novel to all but the most prudish.