(The following review contains the opinions of Ruchira Paul and Narayan Acharya.)
Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, the first part of a projected trilogy may be his most straight forward narrative to date. A historian/ anthropologist by training, Ghosh has a proclivity of whipping around between distant times and places while weaving his tales. The present in his books is almost always connected to a contextual past. The intricate and shifting backdrops often make his books unappealing to some readers who find them difficult to read. Sea of Poppies, on the other hand, unfolds in a single time frame - early 19th century.
Since the 1980s when I first discovered Ghosh's Circle of Reason, I have read nearly all his books and enjoyed them. Sea of Poppies was no exception. A detailed and exotic novel, it is set in the burgeoning days of the British Raj in India. The author takes us on a downriver journey into the "black waters" of the open sea on a refurbished slave ship of an era when slavery was common practice in the US and European nations were vying with each other to find their colonial foothold in Asia and Africa.
A historical novel, Sea of Poppies is also a love story(ies) flowering both on land and water. It is the account of thriving global trade, addictions, greed, betrayal, war, occupation and the rigid hierarchy of class, caste, race and power. Thoroughly researched, Ghosh meticulously creates the culture of 19th century India in the early grips of foreign occupation and that of seafaring adventurers, pirates and mercenaries. It is set in a time when the East India Company had discovered that among the varied natural resources across the vast expanse of India, the land and climate of the north central Gangetic plains offered one more lucrative opportunity of raising revenues for the British crown which had the additional enticing value of becoming the gateway to China. Under British supervision, the first large scale opium production in India's history began in a region across eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar where farmers were commissioned (coerced) to devote their entire tracts of agricultural land to the growing of poppies for opium. Some quantities of the opium produced in India entered the local markets and it was also utilized for medical purposes in the form of morphine, an effective pain killer and anesthetic. But a large portion of the raw opium was exported to China, the other large Asiatic nation whose wealth and resources the Brits eyed hungrily and whose rulers, fearful of the European intent in Asia, had adamantly barred entry to foreigners. The plan was to make the Chinese so addicted and dependent on opium that out of desperation, the wily mandarins would open the doors of the secretive land to the procurers of the drug. Apart from the complicated shenanigans of opium trafficking, the novel also introduces readers to another British export - the first large scale relocation of Indian laborers to Africa, the Caribbeans and the far east as indentured servants, slaves with a new name.
At the heart of the epic saga lie the goings and comings of Ibis, a converted American slave ship purchased by a British businessman in Calcutta to transport human cargo for labor needed in the plantations of Mauritius. The novel's characters include a motley mix - the scruffy multinational crew of the Ibis and its nervous passengers who set sail together, some fleeing their destinies in their native land and others on a mission to find new ones on foreign shores. Ghosh has promised us a trilogy. Sea of Poppies, the first installment, ends on an uncertain note. We are not quite sure where the Ibis is headed - to the intended East African coast or off course, somewhere else. We will have to wait until the next two books to find out.
A survival tale of desperation and adventure, Sea of Poppies is also very much about language. In fact, the author seems to have deliberately set about to create a primer for his readers in Maithili / Bhojpuri (lilting dialects of north central India) and the arcane domestic English of the Indian subcontinent which was to become the common parlance of the British ruling class. The linguistic calisthenics of the dialogues, rather than the dense story line, may prove to be the main stumbling block for many readers. While the foreign tongue of the native characters is dutifully clarified in standard English, Ghosh liberally puts words from Lascar lingo and Hobson-Jobson without the benefit of translation in the mouths of characters who actually converse in English. Those fluent in Hindi, Urdu and Bengali, will be able to decipher the antiquated mongrel English of those speakers. Others may lose patience after a few tries.
My copy of Sea of Poppies, signed by the author, is published by Viking, a branch of Penguin India. My brother-in-law presented it to me on my last birthday. It comes without a glossary. The US edition evidently does contain one for the convenience of American readers. Rather, it contains a Chrestomathy. More about that from Narayan Acharya:
In fiction of any consequence it is impossible to separate the work from its author. Amitav Ghosh has emerged as a leading writer of India and one can’t read his novels without thinking about the man himself. The balance is a subjective thing to the reader and so brings up the question ‘Who is he writing for?
So who is the intended audience? People who want to know about nautical terms current in the 19th century? People who want to know about native boats and sails? People who want to know about languages of Avadh? This audience is well served. To others, Ghosh’s insistence in using every ounce of his knowledge on these subjects can be irritating at best, and worse, seriously detracts from the narrative every step of the way, all 486 pages of it.
Not satisfied with this, he gives us, in place of a glossary, a Chrestomathy. Not just your garden variety Chrestomathy, it is the Ibis Chrestomathy based partly on the Oracle and the Glossary and on Roebuck’s Naval Dictionary. What silly conceit this is! The Chrestomathy gives the reader a black eye. It is presented in the style of Hobson-Jobson (excuse me! The Glossary) or of Fowler, without conveying information or meaning succinctly. God help you if you should want to know what launda means. The Chrestomathy gives “Neel’s optimistic auguries for this word are yet to be vindicated”, prefaced by the lexicographer’s signpost “see chuckeroo”. Of course, to see chuckeroo one needs to own a copy of Hobson-Jobson (sorry, the Glossary). Worse, Ghosh doesn’t seem to know his place in the Chrestomathy, referring to himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third person, the lofty “this author”. Did I say conceit? Where Yule and Fowler were quaint and eccentric, Ghosh comes across as conceited.
The whole exercise with words is meaningless. Take the frequent references to all the tradesmen and people in service. To be sure, there were rissaldars, subedars, silahdars, paiks, barkandaz and other denominations of Indian paltan, but even Hobson-Jobson (the Glossary) throws up its hands on the distinctions. And should one get the childish urge to seek out the meanings of louche words of sexual connotation, Ghosh takes on yet another persona, that of Bowdler. The oxford Hindi-English Dictionary gives the meaning of choot as ‘vulva’. There is no hint there that it is anything but an anatomical term; there is no other word in Hindi for it. See for yourself if the Chrestomathy provides any explanation of this word in 17 lines of explication. Chrestomathy, Shrestomathy! Get a life, Amitav! You are coming across like a schoolboy preening over some arcane word that no one else in his class knows. If ‘calmaria’ is the accepted word in Spanish and Portuguese for ‘doldrums’, why point the finger at Roebuck by spelling it ‘kalmariya’, which has no additional phonetic information; in fact why not ‘doldrums’? And why claim that pirates were called ‘ladrones’ after the ‘Islas de ladrones’, when there is a closer connection between ‘pirate’ and ‘ladron’?
I doubt that casual readers will have the patience to consult the Chrestomathy; on the other hand there is the risk that many more of his readers than Ghosh suspects are invested enough in language to see his wordy exercise of a Chrestomathy as laughable. On a personal note I will say that I am grateful to Ghosh for the word girmitiya, which I have never heard before, and for all the Bhojpuri his Bihari characters speak.
Where the language fails Ghosh is when Crowle enters the story. Where the mangled language of the other English characters seems excusable to me, Crowles utterances are pure garbage and so over the top as to be vindictive caricature – even an arch-villain deserves better. So intrusive is this vocabulary that it took me a week to go through the last 30 pages, having to re-read sections that I had skipped out of sheer boredom, only to find that I had missed some crucial piece of the action. Besides this, the exchanges between the white characters are so drawn out and strained, in the manner of novels of earlier centuries, that they invite big yawns.
Having left the Bengal littoral, the Ibis seems to float in a geographic doldrums. Where is she when the novel ends? Invested as the novel is with opium, I fear she is headed East. I for one would rather that the next installment took her West to Mauritius.
To those who would prefer the opium route I recommend reading Christopher Hibbert’s excellent book on the Opium Wars as an easy and informative read. (Oops! Out of print. I’m sure there are others.)
Editor's note - girmitiya: the mostly poor Indian villagers who made a contractual agreement (girmit) with the agents of the British to sign up as indentured servants.