THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

In 'Poppies,' an unusual quartet makes the voyage out

By Valerie Miner
November 16, 2008
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SEA OF POPPIES
By Amitav Ghosh
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 515 pp., $26

"Sea of Poppies," the first novel in Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy, follows a polyglot 19th-century cast from rural Bihar to exhilarating, crowded Calcutta to the perilous quarters of a sailing ship. As Ghosh writes historical fiction, his characters explore ways of recording history.

"Sea of Poppies" opens in 1838 in a Ganges village where Deeti Singh has a vision of a ship and makes a drawing for her shrine. The Ibis is, in fact, sailing toward Calcutta under the command of Zachary Reid, a 20-year-old freedman from Maryland. Once a slave ship, the Ibis is destined to carry indentured servants from India to transport opium to China.

Ghosh, fueled with a passion for history and a PhD in social anthropology, dramatizes how India's fortunes crumbled under the British Raj. About a quarter of world trade originated in India before the British arrived; by 1947, it was less than 1 percent. Eventually opium provided 20 percent of the Raj's revenue. The British began exporting opium from India to China in the 1780s, eventually igniting the Opium Wars, which forced China to open ports to trade, missionaries, and other Western influences, and resulted in the transfer of Hong Kong to the British.

This audacious imperialism is the background to a stirring story about wretchedly treated extradition prisoners, intrepid Muslim sailors, and annoyingly irrepressible British nabobs. At the book's heart are four people. Deeti tends poppies and suffers the company of her addicted husband. Zachary is the American son of a slave and her master, who finds himself commanding the Ibis as it arrives in India from Baltimore. Paulette Lambert, orphaned daughter of a French botanist from Mauritius, struggles against stuffy British society. Raja Neel Halder, a wealthy Brahmin, is shocked by a huge debt inherited from his recently deceased father.

Suspense builds in each unpredictable life. Deeti, rescued from immolation on her husband's funeral pyre, is whisked out of town by Kalua, an oxcart driver. Paulette escapes her patron's sadomasochistic sexual advances. Zachary falls in love with Paulette, all the while knowing he must soon set sail. Neel is taken into custody for debt.

Ghosh's detail is dazzling. The cast iron tubs have been shipped from Sheffield. "Paulette's water-closet boasted of many of the latest English devices, among them a comfortable, wood-lidded commode, a painted porcelain basin and a small footbath made of tin." And the names! There's Neel's father, Raja Ram Rattan Halder of Raskhali; the portentous judge, Mr. Justice Kendalbushe; the spiritually questing accountant, Baboo Nob Kissin; the Ibis's owner, Benjamin Brightwell Burnham.

Tension escalates as characters become unexpectedly entwined. Will Deeti and Kalua find refuge? Will Paulette escape? Will Neel be prosecuted?

Soon the Ibis sails toward Mauritius with a full ship of crew, indentured servants, prisoners, and people in various disguises. Second mate Zachary supervises the lascars -Cornelius Pinto from Goa, Simba Cader of Zanzibar, and their comrades from Java, Manila, Persia, China, the Malay Peninsula - who communicate in Laskari, an oceanic creole. "Hab heard Zikri Malum tok Mistoh Doughty sahib-fashion," the bosun says to Zachary.

At sea everyone becomes a shape-shifter, leaving behind caste, class, history, race. Throughout the journey, the characters testify to the advantages of multiple, meshed identities. Paulette speaks Franglais and several Indian languages; Neel mixes Hindi with English. Zachary strains to comprehend it all with his American ears.

Ghosh knows his ship as well as he knows the Burnhams' parlor and the finger paintings around Deeti's shrine. "The Ibis was equipped with six boats: two small, clinker-built jollyboats, two mid-size cutters, and two carvel-built longboats, each a full twenty feet in length."

He appreciates the rhythms of the ship. "For Zachary, the single most disorienting aspect of life at sea was the peculiar cycle of sleep that resulted from the unvarying rhythm of watch-on-watch. . . . While asleep . . . his ears would still keep count of the chimes of the ship's bell, so that even in his deepest slumber, he was never unaware of how much time was left before his next spell on deck."

Dramas abound as the Ibis progresses toward Mauritius: a wedding; a lashing; a transgender metamorphosis; a startled declaration of love; several murders; an escape. These stories are recorded in Deeti's pictures as well as in the elaborate chrestomathy in which Neel traces the languages he hears on board.

"Sea of Poppies" builds on strengths from Ghosh's previous nine books. It echoes the fusion of history and anthropology in his wry memoir, "In an Antique Land." While celebrating the same taste for international exploration in "Circle of Reason," this novel is less frantic and just as exciting. Happily he avoids the fairy-tale ending in the otherwise excellent "The Hungry Tide." Sometimes the prose turns mauve; sometimes it is awkward. Still, we read Ghosh not for poetic language, but to see the world in larger, deeper, more interconnected ways. Thus "Sea of Poppies" succeeds, creating an eager audience for the next two volumes of the Ibis trilogy.

Valerie Miner's 13th book, "After Eden," is a novel set in the coastal range of California. She teaches at Stanford University.

SEA OF POPPIES By Amitav Ghosh

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 515 pp., $26

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