Book Review: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

September 2008, Issue 10
Desi Life (Toronto Star)

For the past twenty-five years, Amitav Ghosh has used his writing to explore how people remake their lives along the periphery. In Sea of Poppies, the first novel in a trilogy, he builds a world where cultures seep into each other, breaking taboos and creating new ways of being.

Set in 1838 when the British have engineered a new economic model of world trade: grow poppies and process into opium in India for export to China to pay for tea consumed at home. But with war looming between the two powers, a Calcutta opium trader, the pious Mr. Burnham, finds a new use for the schooner that is meant to carry opium. The former slave-ship from Baltimore, the Ibis, will carry a new cargo: indentured labourers and convicts bound for Mauritius.

The novel shifts effortlessly and often as Ghosh introduces an assortment of outcasts. Deeti, on the run from the poppy fields of northern Bihar; Zachary Reid, the son of a slave and her master; and the two convicts, the falsely accused English-educated Bengali zemindar and the Parsi-Han Chinese opium addict are just a few of the strands that make up Sea of Poppies.

Part sea-faring yarn, part bawdy comedy of manners, combined with tragic twists of fate, Ghosh depicts a world where justice is arbitrary and life is made harsher by the codified rules at every level of society. The horrors of the forty-acre Ghazipur opium factory are shocking in its inhumanity. Yet, the Ibis, once it sets sail, becomes both a means of confinement and a “vehicle of transformation,” erasing class, caste, race, and on one occasion, gender.

Like the world around it, language itself is in flux, wildly flying into the barely comprehensible: the lascars’ pidgin tongue does a mash up of vernaculars as does the hybrid Indo-English of the BeeBee and her class. Although Ghosh sometimes gets carried away with nautical lingo, Sea of Poppies is the work of a great writer at play and leaving the reader greedy for more.

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