Title: Sea of Poppies
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Genre: Historical fiction
For the Indian subcontinent, whose geography, culture and psyche has been shaped by hundreds of years of colonial invasions, it is natural that scores of books be written about those times. Sea of Poppies is one such book, with excellent research and eminently etched characters.
Sea of Poppies is the first of the Ibis trilogy, the second and third being, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire, respectively. It opens in 1838, on the eve of the Opium Wars. The economic themes of Opium being pushed as a cash crop in Bihar and Bengal, without any regard for the collapse of the local economy or the social consequences and the sending of indentured labour to the sugarcane plantations of islands like Mauritius make up the backbone of this piece of historical fiction.
Set in the plains of North India and moving on to the waters of the Bay of Bengal, where the marine schooner, Ibis sets sail for the distant islands with a crew and passengers as distant and interesting as the places they are drawn from.
The book has the license to be expansive and provides meticulous detail by dint of fantastic research. It combines the anthropological training of the author with his skill of a novelist to create a masterpiece that recreates the places and the situations as closely as possible.
What works well
There is a virtual cornucopia of characters, which is a delight. They are introduced, developed and inevitably packed off on the impending journey over the seas by the author.
The settings are explained in great detail, be it the opium producing factory or the coolie’s quarters in the ship.
The author recreates the Bhojpuri dialect of the peasants and the exchanges between the characters have a richly vernacular feel. At the same time, he showcases the sailors’ jargon.
Recurrently, it is a study of contrasts. There is a juxtaposition of and a quick transition from land to sea, from farmers to indentured labourers, from royalty to ignominious imprisonment, from a worldly wise businessman heading towards spiritual awakening, the coming together of high and low caste where caste was considered an explosive subject, a Frenchwoman turned ‘desi’, a mulatto who is a freedman – the comparisons are endless.
What does not work so well
Inspite of the deft handling of the story, the end comes as a kind of anti climax. The reader expects to land up in the much dreaded islands of Mauritius. The culmination, as it comes, is a little abrupt and is as bewildering to the reader as to the protagonist Deeti, in the closing scene.
A fantastic storyline and a plethora of interesting characters, along with rich detail makes Sea of Poppies a must read.
Drawing heavily from scholars, dictionarists, linguists and chroniclers, Ghose has produced a book which is an encyclopedia in its own right.