Sea of Poppies
by Amitav Ghosh
The last sea-faring trilogy I read was William Golding's To The Ends Of The Earth (made up of Rites of Passage, Close Quarters and Fire Down Below). Ok, it's the only sea-faring trilogy I've read but I really enjoyed it. Sacred Hunger, which shared the Booker Prize in 1992 with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (what a year!), is another fantastic maritime narrative so I had high hopes for the first instalment of Amitav Ghosh's projected trilogy; would I be left in the doldrums or with wind in my sails?
The setting is an interesting one: the Indian subcontinent in the 1830's finds the British East India Company exerting their influence through the trade in opium. Ghosh shows us the effects of this trade immediately through Deeti whose husband, as well as working in the local opium factory, is also an acknowledged addict or 'afeemkhor'. In a great set piece we are guided through the processing of opium as a distressed Deeti runs through the factory to find her husband. Soon she is widowed and in order to avoid the attentions of her brother in law is prepared to place herself on her husband's funeral pyre. It is a fate she will be rescued from and as she and her rescuer Kalua, a gentle giant, run from the pursuing funeral party they become the first of many who find themselves heading towards a ship, the Ibis.
Ghosh assembles a varied cast covering the wide spectrum of nationalities, castes and background that his colonial setting provides. A fallen aristocrat, an opium addict and a freed slave are just a few of the characters whose fate is tied up with the Ibis and the slow, inevitable progress of the characters towards her is like the flowing of tributaries into a river, growing and developing as they move until combined, they head out together to sea.
The Ibis is as strong a character as any of its passengers. Appearing first in a vision, Deeti sees it as an animal, a bird in flight, later the hold of the ship seems like a cave, the hammocks strung across it appearing like cobwebs. The ship is known as a 'blackbirder' having been used as a slave ship and it is a human cargo for her again at this time of tension with China and the constraints that places on the trade in opium. Most of those on board are going to the island of Mauritius as indentured labourers, the differences between them as regards caste or culture dissolved by their predicament. The women are the first to articulate their new status.
'...from now on there are no differences between us, we are jahaz-bhai and jahaz-bahen to each other; all of us children of the ship.'
That short extract gives you a taste of the exotic language employed. I wrote recently about how the wealth of research condensed into Michael Chabon's 'Gentlemen Of The Road' had lead to the text groaning under the weight of obsolete words. But given the scale of this novel Ghosh's peppering of the text with exotica, whilst at first creating a disorienting effect similar to reading the nadsat language invented by Anthony Burgess for his teenagers in A Clockwork Orange, slowly grows into a rich and exciting language of the period and in particular the language of those that live on the water.
'From the silmagoors who sat on the ghats, sewing sails, Jodu had learnt the names of each piece of canvas, in English and in Laskari- that motley tongue, spoken nowhere but on the water, whose words were as varied as the port's traffic, an anarchic medley of Portugese caluzes and Kerala pattimars, Arab booms and Bengal paunchways, Malay proas and Tamil catamarans, Hindusthani pulwars and English snows - yet beneath the surface of this farrago of sound, meaning flowed as freely as the currents beneath the crowded press of boats.'
The ship's first mate Crowle has a true sailor's vocabulary ('Pander, y'spigot-sucking gobble-prick. With all the wide welkin around us, why d'ye always have to be beating the booby right here?). The man he's speaking to there, Baboo Nob Kissin (whose name is enough to raise a smirk I'm afraid) has the kind of broken English perfect for double entendre but flirts dangerously with the 'Yoda' problem, where disordered syntax can make it all sound a little ridiculous. But with such a broad pallet Ghosh is able to show the full range of diversity on board with differences in class, caste or station indicated by the words or language used to communicate.
As befits a novel of this scale we are able to look at the wider world. The period is perfect territory for a view on the politics of colonialism, trade and that notion of freedom which is so tested in an era where slavery is coming to an end only to be replaced by the subjugation of people through addiction. It is a place from which we can look both backwards and forwards of course and it is this ability which means the writing has not only a historical significance but a resonance for the times we live in now.
'The truth is, sir, that men do what their power permits them to do. We are no different from the Pharaos or the Mongols, the difference is only that when we kill people we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this presence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.'
It is that which means that the Ibis trilogy could be not just fantastic storytelling but an important comment on our history.