Tuesday 17 February 2009

Sea of Poppies

This is a fabulous book with a cast to rival a Cecil B DeMille movie. Set mainly in Calcutta in 1838 with the opium wars with China as a background, we are introduced to a wonderful array of characters who cover the whole gamut of the social classes in India under the Raj. They include Neel Rattan Halder, a Brahmin Raja, his gomusta, Baboo Nob Kissin a celibate follower of Sri Krishna, Deeti, a widowed former opium farmer and Benjamin Burnham, head of a leading trading house involved in the opium trade. And two outsiders, Zachary Reid, an octoroon from Boston and Paulette Lambert, a pretty young mamzelle. The novel tells the stories of how these and other lesser characters intertwine and come together. Most of them end up on board the Ibis, a former blackbirder, which has been refitted to transport indentured labour (coolies) from India to the sugar cane plantations in Mauritius.

The first two parts of the novel develop at a leisurely pace as we are filled in with the background stories of the main characters. There is much excitement as well, as we are shown how, starting from some of the the far flung corners of the world – Boston, London, France, China and the plains of the Ganges - they all end up in Calcutta. Once the voyage of the Ibis begins however, the pace quickens and builds up to an unexpectedly thrilling and suspenseful climax.

Much of the dialogue uses a mixture of words and phrases from various Indian languages given an English veneer. This seems to have been a kind of lingua franca for seafarers around the Indian Ocean. This takes a bit getting used to, but never interrupts the narrative flow and understanding. It does of course add to the sense of being transported into an older and stranger world. An example from early in the novel. “And I'm James Doughty, formerly of the Bengal River Pilot Service; currently bespoke arkati and turnee for Burnham Bros. The Burra Sahib – Ben Burnham that is – asked me to take charge of the ship. He waved airily at the lascar who was standing behind the wheel. That's my seacunny over there; knows exactly what to do – could take you up the Burrempooter with his eyes closed. What'd you say we leave the steering to that badmash and find ourselves a drop of loll-shrub? Loll-shrub? Claret, my boy, the pilot said airily.”

Amitav Ghosh has done much research for the novel, and the book is a treasure trove of detail about the period. Not just the languages spoken at the time, but also detailed descriptions of an opium factory, the inside of a raja's palace, the workings of various seacraft and the daily routines of ordinary people.

Though set in 1838, the novel has resonance for to-day as the story lays bare very clearly the complicity of western powers not just in the drug trade but also in enforcing, brutally if necessary, an economic system which relies on keeping vast numbers of people not just poor but often hungry. Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose.

This is the first book I have read by Amitav Ghosh, who is a a Bengali writer, though he now lives mainly in New York. A fascinating and moving tale, this is the first part of what is intended to be a trilogy. I am very much looking forward to the next book. As yet I have not been able to find out when the second volume is due for publication.

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