Sea of Poppies – Amitav Ghosh
This is the first epic instalment of the IBIS Trilogy. The story starts in 1838 on the eve of the first opium wars. Deeti is the initial character introduced to the story and she is the widow of an opium-addicted husband and avoids the immolation pyre (a tradition she should have undergone) to follow a vision of a journey on an ocean-going ship. The IBIS is that ship and she escapes her fate with help, to establish a new destiny.
On the Ibis’ travels to bring coolies from Calcutta to the sugar estates of Mauritius, it assembles a fascinating group of characters, with Deeti, joined by Kalua a low-caste servant, Raja Neel Rattan a bankrupt landowner, Paulette a young French botanist and her Indian foster-brother Jodu, Zachary an American sailor, Benjamin Burnham an unscrupulous British merchant, and his agent Baboo Nob Kissin. The group face all sorts of adventures and trials and there is that inevitable cultural collision between the Indian caste system and the Western world. With the Raja, there is a wonderful gradual erosion of his lofty position, as he becomes bankrupt and his social standing starts to disintegrate. How will other now see and deal with him, especially the low-caste Indians?
The story is a powerful and dramatic tour through mid 19th century British-Indian history with fictional characters that feel so real. The insight into the opium trade and the British global plantation and slavery trade, are brought to life and are really quite shocking. The range of characters is diverse and creates great opportunities for very interesting clashes of culture and perspective.
The language details are incredibly authentic and a lot of research has gone into the traits of dialects and slang language, from sailors to servants, and from merchants to Rajas. For many, the dialogue is what makes this book really stand apart. With dialogue such as
“‘Malum had cuttee he head?’ He said ‘What you wanchee this-piece boy? He blongi boat-bugger – no can learn ship-pijjin. Better he wailo chop-chop.’”
I can appreciate the authenticity of the language and terms associated with sailing and Indian colloquialisms, but for me, it does interrupt the story so much that it slowed my reading considerably. Others may find this a real positive but I found it a little difficult going.
I would recommend reading this book for the wonderful insights into that period and the imaginary portrayed with the characters and locations.