Adventures in the Opium Trade

Raghu Rai
Boatmen on the Hooghly River, Calcutta, 2000; photograph by Raghu Rai from Raghu Rai’s India: Reflections in Colour, just published by Haus Publishing

Amitav Ghosh, an Indian anthropologist, historian, and novelist who lives and teaches in New York and India, is the author of ten books. His new novel, Sea of Poppies, which is the first in a projected trilogy and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is set in India in 1838, in the days leading up to the Opium Wars. Ghosh tracks the lives, and the language, of an unlikely collection of men and women—princes, sailors, merchants, pirates, peasants, and runaway girls—all of whom eventually converge on an American schooner called the Ibis.

It is a rollicking tale, or rather collection of tales—politically forceful, historically fascinating, and rarely subtle. Ghosh may not be a stylistically exciting writer, sentence for sentence, and the discipline and freshness of his earlier, less extravagant books seem to have been abandoned; nevertheless, this new work is a linguistic triumph. For if the prose is sometimes commonplace, the dialogue never is. Ghosh has taken all of his considerable historical knowledge and passion and funneled it into the language of his characters. They themselves may occasionally fail to come completely to life, but their words are alive. Ghosh has given to each of the many disparate characters a patois, an idiom, a poetry that is utterly irresistible. The novel presents itself as a tale of opium and pirates and cruelty and love, but at its best, Sea of Poppies is a celebration of language—its idiosyncrasies, its prejudices, its humor, cruelty, freedom, and, finally, its generous, open-armed invitation to escape.

The novel begins with Deeti, a young woman from a small village in the northern Bihar province of India. While splashing in the Ganges with her six-year-old daughter, Deeti, who has never seen the sea or any of its vessels, has a vision of a great ship with two triangular sails and a figurehead in the shape of a graceful, curved-beaked bird. She rushes from the river to her own tiny shrine where she draws a quick, crude picture of the ship to add to a collection of family relics and religious statues.

At this same moment, four hundred miles away, where the Ganges meets the Bay of Bengal, the Ibis, a schooner with a “carved head of a bird that held up the bowsprit,” has dropped anchor. Deeti’s supernatural vision feels like an almost obligatory nod to the magical realism many have come to expect from the postcolonial novel, because Ghosh quickly leaves it behind for a far different kind of miracle, one that he is clearly much more interested in: the brilliant tangle of Indian culture that grew in spite of, and because of, Southeast Asia’s history under the imperial rule of Britain.

The title of the novel…

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