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Sea of Poppies, By Amitav Ghosh

Reviewed,James Urquhart
Sunday 29 June 2008 00:00 BST

Amitav Ghosh's eighth doorstop of a novel is set in his native Calcutta where, in 1838, the British East India Company's lucrative opium trade is feeling the pinch from Canton's embargo on poppy imports. Self-made merchant Ben Burnham has purchased the Ibis, an old slaver, to ply the Chinese territories with narcotics from Calcutta, and he frequently moralises on his divine right to force opium on the Chinese. "Merchants like myself are but the servants of free trade, which is as immutable as God's commandments," he declares, with the bombastic false modesty usually reserved for glazing heinous exploitations with a sheen of religious nobility.

In the opening pages of this enthralling saga, Deeti, a poppy farmer's wife bathing in the holy Ganga 400 miles inland from Calcutta, hallucinates a tall-masted ocean-going ship, which she realises is linked to her destiny. When her poppy-raddled husband dies, Deeti escapes the sati ritual of immolation on his pyre by fleeing downstream. At the other end of the social hierarchy, Calcuttan aristocrat Neel Rattan's entire estate has fallen in hock to Burnham's aggressive profiteering, and – unthinkably worse – trumped-up charges of fraud have debased his reputation and caste.

Orphaned Paulette Lambert, taken in by Burnham after her atheist father died, puts up with her guardian's civilising Christian charity as well as his less orthodox peccadilloes. More exciting to her independent spirit is Zachary Reid, a mulatto freedman from Baltimore and the resilient second mate on Burnham's new ship, whom Paulette meets socially. This discreet infatuation falls into the smooth swell of Ghosh's brimming and buoyant novel, meeting the confluence of Neel's and Deeti's fates as the Ibis sets sail.

If these fluent narratives and tributary sub-plots give structure to Sea of Poppies, maritime Calcutta's polyglot throng and the ribald "ship pijjin" give it a rich flavour. "This was no Baltimore," the greenhorn Reid is warned by the marvellously coarse river pilot, Mr Doughty. "If he, Zachary, wasn't to be diddled and taken for a flat, he would have to learn to gubbrow the natives with a word or two of the zubben". If the specifics are obscure, the verve and sense shine through. Here's Serang Ali, the subtle chief of the Ibis's Lascar crew, reporting on the Captain's delicate condition: "Malum Zikri! Captin-bugger blongi poo-shoo-foo... No can chow-chow tiffin. Allo tim do chhee-chhee, pee-pee. Plenty smelly in Captin cabin." Such eloquence needs no glossary, and trips readily off the tongues of Ghosh's largely Dickensian characters.

The exotic, swaggering cadence of Ghosh's port argot has touches of Conrad but more strongly recalls the slave-trade pidgin of Barry Unsworth's 1992 Booker Prize-winning epic Sacred Hunger. Where Unsworth's below-decks detail evoked harrowing conditions, however, Ghosh's gentler tale kindles an adventurous optimism in defiance of its protagonists' privations. As in The Glass Palace, Ghosh's panoramic novel of Burma's abrupt engagement with modernity, Sea of Poppies considers the social and political impact of colonial force majeure on native institutions, but tacks closer to romantic adventure than gritty historical realism.

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