Amitav Ghosh: Sea of Poppies

Amitav Ghosh by David Shankbone.jpg

This terrific novel, the first volume in a projected trilogy, unfolds in north India and the Bay of Bengal in 1838 on the eve of the British attack on the Chinese ports known as the first opium war. In Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh assembles from different corners of the world sailors, marines and passengers for the Ibis, a slaving schooner now converted to the transport of coolies and opium. In bringing his troupe of characters to Calcutta and into the open water, Ghosh provides the reader with all manner of stories, and equips himself with the personnel to man and navigate an old-fashioned literary three-decker.

He begins in the villages of eastern Bihar with Deeti, soon to be widowed; her addicted husband, who works at the British opium factory at Ghazipur; and Kalua, a low-caste carter of colossal strength and resource. Moving downstream, we meet a bankrupt landowner, Raja Neel Rattan; an American sailor, Zachary; Paulette, a young Frenchwoman, and her Bengali foster-brother Jodu; Benjamin Burnham, an unscrupulous British merchant, and his Bengali agent, Baboo Nob Kissin; and every style of nautch girl, sepoy and lascar.

On their way to the "black sea", these characters are exposed to a suttee or widow-burning, a shipboard mutiny, a court case, jails, kidnappings, rapes, floggings, a dinner party and every refinement of sex. The story proceeds at pace without too much by way of coincidence, dreams or - the bane of this sort of book - the supernatural. This volume ends with the Ibis, storm-tossed, off Sumatra. I cannot tell whether we are headed for Mauritius or China, but am happy to sail.

Yet Sea of Poppies is a historical novel, which means that the story is only half the story. Ever since Walter Scott published Waverley in 1814, readers have turned to historical fiction not just for escape from a straitened and conventional present, but also for instruction. Scott gave his readers not merely the bizarre character-types and wide open spaces of a fantastic pre-industrial Scotland, but antiquities, dialect, history, geography and lashings of political economy. Ghosh finds the educational programme of the Scottian novel very much to his purpose.

Thus he dramatises (or rather roman-ticises, in the sense of makes a novel out of) two great economic themes of the 19th century: the cultivation of opium as a cash crop in Bengal and Bihar for the Chinese market, and the transport of Indian indentured workers to cut sugar canes for the British on such islands as Mauritius, Fiji and Trinidad.

At a more everyday level, Ghosh creates an encyclopedia of early 19th-century Indian food, servants, furniture, religious worship, nautical commands, male and female costume and underlinen, trades, marriage and funeral rites, botany and horticulture, opium cultivation, alcoholic drinks, grades of clerk and non-commissioned military officers, criminal justice, sexual practices, traditional medicines and sails and rigging.

His technique, which was also Scott's, is to supply the maximum information that the story can support. For example, he has read the description of the great Sudder opium factory at Ghazipur published in 1865 (a little late, but it will do) by the factory superintendent, JWS MacArthur. Given that there are probably not 20 copies of MacArthur's Account of an Opium Factory on earth, Ghosh is amply justified in using it. His device is brilliant. He has Deeti rush in terror through every single shed of the factory in search of her dying husband. Yet whereas MacArthur wanted to show how the factory operated in each season, Ghosh makes all its activities simultaneous. Poppy flowers, sap and trash are processed before Deeti's terrified village eyes. Ghosh has not forgotten the agricultural calendar; it's just that he will no more waste a fact than MacArthur wasted poppy.

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