Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh [A Review]

Sea of Poppies, the first novel of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, has all the credentials of a major literary work. It is an historical novel where disparate characters, trapped by the confines of class, caste, race, religion, gender, addiction or sexuality, fight for the opportunity to escape, transform and find independence. But despite this apparent complexity, and the fact that it benefits from thorough research, Sea of Poppies is highly ‘readable’ and has all the page-turning qualities of a good-old-fashioned yarn.

In 1838, the Ibis, a two-masted schooner, arrives on the east coast of India. A former blackbirder, a slave ship, the Ibis is not swift enough to evade the British Navy ships on the west coast of Africa now that the slave trade has been abolished. The new owners of the Ibis plan to put her to a new use – shipping opium from India to China. The Ibis, then, is about to begin her second life, and she is not the only one.

The Ibis was not a ship like any other; in her inward reality she was a vehicle of transformation, travelling through the mists of illusion towards the elusive, ever-receding landfall that was Truth.

Arriving with the Ibis, having made the entire voyage with her from Baltimore, is Zachery Reid. A carpenter, Reid is no sailor, but the calamitous voyage to India saw him have to take command of the ship. He and the ship might never had made it if it were not for the help of some lascars – gangs of sailors of varying ethnicity and dubious background who crew ships – and their leader, Serang Ali. Reid’s mother was a house slave, his father was her master and Reid, a freeman, is the descendent of several such relations. As Serang Ali shows him, with a change of clothes, careful manners and a little confidence, Reid can be easily mistaken for a white man.

Far inland, in northern Bihar, lives Deeti; a young woman with a husband and a daughter, who grows poppies for producing opium on a small plot of land. Her husband, Hukam, was formerly a sepoy in the British Army but was wounded in action and now works in a nearby opium factory. Years earlier, Deeti had married Hukam by arrangement. As Hukam explained on their wedding night, Deeti can only hope to be her husband’s second love.

From the carved box, he took a long needle, dipped its tip in the soft black Chandu and roasted the droplet on the flame of a candle. When the opium began to sizzle and bubble, he put it on the pinhole of his pipe and took a deep draught of the smoke, through the mouthpiece. He sat with his eyes closed, while the smoke drifted slowly out of his nostrils. When it was all gone, he ran his hands lovingly over the length of the bamboo tube.

You should know, he said at last, that this is my first wife. She’s kept me alive since I was wounded: if it weren’t for her I would not be here today. I would have died of pain, long ago.

Marriage to an opium addict and his controlling family is not the happy future Deeti had hoped for herself. But she is not as naïve or submissive as she may seem and she has her own ways of making her life work for her. But it is a precarious life, one that cannot survive sudden change. When she is told her husband has been killed in some sort of accident at the opium factory, the only future she seems to have is of throwing herself onto her husband’s pyre. Again, Deeti is not likely to submit to what fate has decided for her.

Also not willing to submit to the plans men have for her is Paulette. Paulette’s father was a French botanist working in India. His sudden death 14 months earlier left her an orphan but she was saved from poverty by Benjamin Burnham, of Burnham Bros – a trading firm with extensive Indian and Chinese interests. Though she is grateful to Burnham, she misses her old life of freedom with her father – learning botany at her father’s side, reading French Enlightenment philosophers and playing with Indian children in their native tongue. Living under Burnham’s care means Paulette must submit to the confinements expected of European women while receiving strict evangelical instruction from Burnham.

[Paulette] has never worshipped at any altar except that of Nature; the trees have been her Scripture and the Earth her Revelation. She has not known anything but Love, Equality and Freedom: I have raised her to revel in that state of liberty that is Nature itself. 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: the whites of this town will tear her apart, like vultures and foxes, fighting over a corpse. She will be an innocent thrown before the money-changers who pass themselves off as men of God…

When Burnham expects even more from her, Paulette’s mind turns to escape. She is tall, intelligent, strong-willed and fond of the story of her grand-aunt, who sailed around the world disguised as a man.

One with no plans for voyage or escape is Neel; a Raja from one of the most eminent and established families of Bengal. Like many descendants from landed aristocracy, Neel has little understanding of how his wealth is managed or what his financial position is really like. He contentedly lives a life of pleasure and luxury beyond his means, unaware of machinations underway by those he thinks he can trust. Bankruptcy and criminal prosecution on a technicality come as a complete surprise to Neel. His fall is steep; from being treated as a living deity for much of his life, he now occupies the lowest social rung possible and faces a life of hard labour in a penal colony.

Central to each of these characters is Burnham. A self-made man, Burnham was a violent youth sent East by his family where he came under the influence of missionaries and worked his way up the opium trade, though his first big break in business came from shipping Indian convicts to various Indian Ocean penal colonies. It is Burnham’s business that is linked to the opium factory where Hukam works. It is Burnham who saves Paulette by bringing her into his care before trying to take advantage of her situation. It is Burnham who plots to depose Raja Neel and claim his Zamindari for growing more opium. And it is Burnham’s firm which has purchased the Ibis, though its first trade mission for his firm will not be to ship opium to China but to take a human cargo of convicts and indentured labourers to Mauritius.

Like the tributaries of the mighty Ganga, these disparate characters, and others, slowly wind their way to where the Ibis lies waiting on the coast. For the time being they are unaware of each other and the ship but, despite their different backgrounds, religions and languages, they will come to depend on each other, will come to be jahaj-bhais – ship-brothers – and each will have a say in each other’s fate.

I bought Sea of Poppies years ago and have been desperately eager to read it ever since but, seeing that it was to be the first novel in the Ibis Trilogy, I held my enthusiasm in check, with difficulty, until the trilogy was finished so that I could read the novels together. Delayed gratification certainly made the experience sweeter and it was a pleasure to finally indulge.

I know very little about author Amitav Ghosh, but from I have learned from bits and pieces over the years is that he is a writer who loves to research his novels to the extent that the two exertions become joint pleasures – he writes so that he may research and he researches so that he may write. We’ve all read novels where the author’s research effort is pretty transparent in the text. Often it is a disruption to the flow of the story. It can read like the author is trying to show that they did their homework and it can feel like we are reading homework.

The same cannot be said about Sea of Poppies. Ghosh, I believe shows how research should be used in fiction; pragmatically. Clearly, a lot of research has been done, but it has been carefully edited to remove the superfluous and is selectively used to serve a purpose to the story. It either colours a scene or location and brings it to life, provides a backstory to a character or it serves the plot. It is an excellent achievement of craft.

Ghosh’s skill is also reflected in the language used in the novel. He frequently uses words of local languages, period words, sailor slang or spells some character’s dialogue phonetically. Ghosh does not necessarily translate or explain any meanings of these words for the reader. He ensures there is enough context for the reader to get the gist.

If you read fiction to be transported to another world, Sea of Poppies is total immersion.

The result is that Sea of Poppies contains some amazing evocative scenes that will stay with me for a long time. There are several examples of research and story coming together to create an amazing moment. One would be when Deeti visits the opium factory and moves from section to section of the immense operation, witnessing some incredible and disturbing sights as she does.

Another achievement of the story-writing craft worth mentioning is the pacing on the novel. With so many storylines and characters, rich in detail but still separated from each other, the novel could easily become slow and tedious. Ghosh moves from one storyline to another quickly, often after just a few pages, but ensures that the story keeps advancing even within short sections. So, despite the detail, the complexity, the literary quality, this not-short novel is highly ‘readable’ and a real page-turner.

Politics seems to be an inescapable element of a lot of Indian fiction, certainly those that I have read – the novels of Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry and Paul Scott, as well as The White Tiger, The God of Small Things and others. Though this trilogy is arguably not ‘Indian’ like those mentioned, it was refreshing to read Sea of Poppies and find that politics was certainly not a focus. That being said, there are enough issues to consider for the reader who goes looking for them.

Issues such as the use of Indian indentured labour to fill a vacuum once slavery was abolished and whether it was simply slavery by a different name.

Not slaves – coolies. Have you not heard it said that when God closes one door he opens another? When the doors of freedom were closed to the African, the Lord opened them to a tribe that was yet more needful of it – the Asiatick.

Issues such as the forcing of Indian villagers to grow cash crops instead of food by British corporations, claiming to help Indians while impoverishing them.

In the old days […] a few clumps of poppy were enough to provide for a household’s needs, leaving a little left over, to be sold: no one was inclined to plant more because of all the work it took to grow poppies – fifteen ploughings of the land and every remaining clod to be broken by hand, with a dantoli; fences and bunds to be built; purchases of manure and constant watering; and after all that, the frenzy of the harvest, each bulb having to be individually, nicked, drained and scraped. Such punishment was bearable when you had a patch or two of poppies – but what sane person would multiply these labours when there were better, more useful crops to grow, like wheat, dal, vegetables? But those toothsome winter crops were steadily shrinking in acreage: now the factory’s appetite for opium seemed never to be sated. Come the cold weather, the English sahibs would allow little else to be planted; their agents would go from home to home, forcing cash advances on the farmers, making them sign asámi contracts. It was impossible to say no to them: if you refused they would leave their silver hidden in your house, or throw it through a window. It was no use telling the white magistrate that you hadn’t accepted the money and your thumbprint was forged: he earned commission on the opium and would never let you off. And, at the end of it, your earnings would come to no more than three-and-a-half sicca rupees; just about enough to pay off your advance.

Issues such as the escalation of British colonisation, motivated by greed and power in the guise of Free Trade, Christianisation and claims of beneficence.

I am sure it will do a great deal of good for some of us. But I doubt it will be of that number, or that many Chinamen will. The truth is, sir, that men will do what their power permits them to do. We are no different from the Pharaohs or the Mongols: the 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.

Such moments are few, but poignant, and not the focus of the novel; they are left for the reader to ponder without guidance from the author. As refreshing as it was to read such a novel, I also wonder whether such an omission counts against it at award time. Sea of Poppies was a shortlister for the 2008 Booker Prize, won by Arivand Adiga for The White Tiger – an unmistakably political novel. It is hard for me to say which novel I enjoyed the most. There are many things I respect about the writing of each. Yet, I can’t help feel that, because The White Tiger dives into contemporary political issues, it feels more ‘important’ and ‘relevant’ than Sea of Poppies, which simultaneously feels very unfair to Sea of Poppies.

Or perhaps the difference is a matter of subtlety. Because with issues of gender equality, labour conditions, free trade, global corporations, drug smuggling and others; Sea of Poppies can sometimes seem disconcertingly close to our time.

If the novel does have a main theme, then, rather than the political elements, I would say the main theme was of personal transformation. The highlight of Sea of Poppies is definitely the characters. My favourite was Neel, the deposed Raja, whose transformation was one of the most severe, least planned and full of unexpected enlightenment.

Most of the trilogies I have experienced, on page or screen, have a mostly tied-up first part with few loose ends. It is almost as if the writer was unsure whether they would have the opportunity to continue if the first part did not succeed commercially. The same cannot be said for Sea of Poppies. I think Ghosh was never in any doubt that there was more to come no matter what the response was to this first novel. Ghosh gives you enough to leave you with a degree of satisfaction with an ending that is very open, with many loose threads and unanswered questions. It made me doubly glad I waited to read Sea of Poppies as I could pick up the next novel, River of Smoke, immediately.

For my reviews of the other novels of the Ibis Trilogy, see here.

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