Amitav Ghosh, raised in Calcutta, educated in India, Egypt and England, now a resident of his homeland and Brooklyn, has long been inclined toward sweeping, panoramic novels such as The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide, works that successfully transport readers to densely rendered locales.
With Sea of Poppies a work of astonishing ambition that was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Ghosh has widened his aperture to take in a larger landscape enlightened by discovery yet shackled by racial prejudice and immutable attitudes toward class and faith. It’s one of the best 19th-century novels of the year.
Set in 1838 on the eve of the Opium Wars, Sea of Poppies begins with the arrival of the schooner Ibis in Ghazipur on the Ganges, near the vaunted Benares poppy fields. A former slave ship, the Ibis embarks on a journey promising freedom for some of its human cargo and indentured servitude for others, setting out to Mauritius by way of the Andaman Islands.
The universe described here is one of unwitting subjugation. Opium, the Ibis’ other haul, proves an apt metaphor for the fate of many characters. The drug initially intoxicates, serving as a palliative from daily suffering, until ultimately forcing bondage upon the addict.
India is at the mercy of the ruling British and the East India Co. monopolizing the opium trade while restricted by its own byzantine caste system, as oppressive as any tyranny. Meanwhile, the Chinese risk bondage to the English through addiction.
The ship’s two prisoners mirror this quagmire. They’re educated and upper class: One is an Indian raja who has fallen into debt to an Englishman, and the other is a Chinese addict. Zachary Reed, the lone American in Sea of Poppies and its romantic hero, is an octoroon, passing as white while shackled by slavery’s dark legacy, risking exposure at any moment from the ship’s manifest.
Sea of Poppies grand love affair is with language. The book is drunk with words, phrases both rich with 19th-century sailor-speak and rushing over regional boundaries. Language is a river of the unknown, with characters as unaccustomed to one another’s language as the reader is.
“If ye’re born with a wooden ladle, Mannikin, it don’t matter if y’can eat the wind out o’a topsail. There’s always the little Lord Mannikins and Hobdehoys and Loblolly-boys to gammon the skippers, and pitch slum to the shipowners. Ne’er mind they don’t know a pintle from a gudgeon, nor a pawl from a whelp, but there they are—at the weather end of the quarterdeck, with Jack Crowle eating their wind.”
This heady, thick idiom requires patience despite Ghosh’s inclusion of “The Ibis Chrestomathy”, allegedly written by the Indian prisoner, the aesthete Neel Rattan Halder. “Words! Neel was of the view that words, no less than people, are endowed with lives and destinies of their own. Why then were there no astrologers to calculate their kismet and make predictions about their fate?”
The glossary is illuminating and maddening, witty but only half useful. Footnotes might have been kinder. Ultimately, it’s best to surrender to the novel’s rush of words and carry on, full throttle without brakes, seduced by the dizzying pleasure and otherwordly prose that matches its subject.
Dickensian in scope, the novel renders a textured portrait of 19th-century India and the shipping trade. Where it stumbles is in the limited breadth of its myriad characters.
The comedians are very silly. Villains are out of Nazi central casting, one given to torture and humiliation, another prone to sexually charged masochism. The two pairs of lovers are near flawless, recognizable literary constants, hidden by disguise and manufactured identity. They’re exceptionally modern in their dismissal of racial and caste differences, a theme Ghosh has explored in earlier works with more success.
Zachary’s star-crossed intended is the French “child of Nature” Paulette. She’s initially “defeated by the impossibility of everything” but possesses the requisite pluck and intelligence to propel her fate forward. As her father notes of her, “If she remains here, in the colonies, most particularly in a city like this, where Europe hides its shame and its greed, all that awaits her is degradation.” Then, he conveniently dies. Ghosh’s world, like that of Dickens, is populated by orphans and outcasts untethered by home.
Sea of Poppies is the first volume of a proposed Ibis trilogy. The novel ends with a longboat embarking off-course into uncharted territory with a crew of stowaways and strangers. With any luck, Ghosh’s second installment will not only broaden the fertile territory, but also enrich his characters so that they’re equal to the glory of his subject and the ardor of his language.