Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh

Strangers under sail
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The Independent Culture

Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, the first volume in his "Ibis trilogy", revisits in new, breathtakingly detailed and compelling ways some of the concerns of his earlier novels. Among these are the incessant movements of the peoples, commerce, and empires which have traversed the Indian Ocean since antiquity; and the lives of men and women with little power, whose stories, framed against the grand narratives of history, invite other ways of thinking about the past, culture and identity.

The action begins in March 1838 with the arrival of the Ibis at Ganga-Sagar Island and, later, Calcutta. Discontinued as a "blackbirder" with the abolition of the slave trade, the schooner is scheduled to transport girmitiyas – indentured coolies – to Mauritius. For the merchant-nabob, Benjamin Burnham (the rhetoric has changed little today), "when God closes one door he opens another".

Back in India, it will join the expedition London is putting together "to take on the Celestials". With the first Opium War, as it will be called, only months away, what is at risk for the British drug industry in India, should the Chinese continue to block the trade, becomes clear. We learn, beyond the brilliant colours of the flower, the realities of the enforced cultivation of poppies: the ways of collecting sap from the pods, the activities in the processing factory, the medicinal uses of opium, its pernicious influence.

Caught within the dark web of the empire's history is a mixed cast of characters for whom the Ibis is a projection of the uncertainties of their lives and the routines of home. On the Ibis a community of sorts begins to form among the migrants. Relationships are forged or break up, hostilities erupt, and individual destinies undergo sudden changes of direction.

The broad canvas of Sea of Poppies displays many features of a sensational novel – a widow rescued from the funeral pyre, a court trial, runaways, disguise, heroic exploits, vengeful acts, murder. A controlling theme running through the many strands of plot is the question of identity.

Cut off from their roots, in transit, and looking ahead to a fresh start, the migrants are prone to invent new names and histories. For some, like Paulette, disguised as an Indian coolie to escape her guardian, the "layers of masking" do no more than bear witness to a human being's "multiplicity of selves". For others, like Zachary, the second mate, the truth is bleaker by far. The son of a slave and her white master, he will always be bound, it seems, to a brutal history and the stigma of colour. All have stories to tell and secrets to hide. Like the sketches of people which Deeti finger-paints as keepsakes for her "shrine", their narratives tease the mind with discontinuities and suggestiveness; and, as with Ah Fatt the opium addict's descriptions of Canton, his old home, "the genius... lay in their elisions".

With the colourful characters, another bedazzling aspect of Sea of Poppies is the clash and mingling of languages. Bhojpuri, Bengali, Laskari, Hindustani, Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and a fantastic spectrum of English including the malapropisms of Baboo Nob Kissin, Burnham's accountant, create a vivid sense of living voices as well as the linguistic resourcefulness of people in diaspora. The "motley tongue" is as much a part of the cultural scene at the lower reaches of the Ganges, and of the multi-layered history of the subcontinent, as the collision of peoples on one of the great rivers of the world.

The novel closes with the Ibis in mid-ocean in a storm. Serang Ali, leader of the lascars, has abandoned ship, along with the convicts and the condemned; the first mate as well as the subedar are dead; of the key figures only Deeti, Paulette, Nob Kissin and Zachary are left, watching from the deck the disappearance of the long boat and those close to them. We also watch, awaiting with eagerness the second volume of the trilogy.

Shirley Chew is professor emeritus of English at Leeds University