Sea of Poppies

Remember stories? Those rich fictions that we devoured as children and that gave us a lifelong taste for generous, hearty books? Literary fashion may dictate that we avoid such indulgences and consume instead desiccated novels containing just one gristly ingredient: consciousness. But real readers, however sophisticated, crave real stories now and then. Thankfully, these are still being written, often by postcolonial novelists such as Amitav Ghosh, whose latest historical adventure, Sea of Poppies, is both a writer’s triumph and a reader’s delight. Better yet, it is the first volume of a proposed trilogy.

Ghosh, a former anthropologist and historian, has written about Asia and India, Britain and America, the past and the present, always with a characteristic blend of subtlety and gusto. In The Glass Palace, for example, he memorably described the teak-logging industry of 19th- and early-20th-century Burma, charted the course of an epic love story, and dramatized the British invasion of 1885 as well as the country’s subsequent history.

Like the masters to whom he is sometimes compared (Dickens, Tolstoy), Ghosh does not waste time. In the first chapter of Sea of Poppies, he plunges us into the heavy-scented air of India and infuses that air with a growing sense of unease. “It happened at the end of winter,” Ghosh writes, “in a year when the poppies were strangely slow to shed their petals: for mile after mile, from Benares onwards, the Ganga seemed to be flowing between twin glaciers, both its banks being blanketed by thick drifts of white-petalled flowers.”

Heavenly? Perhaps not. This is, after all, India in the 1830s. The poppy is not just a pretty flower. It is the source of opium, an essential fuel for the British Empire and the ostensible cause of its looming war with China. “The war?will not be for opium,” a British trader insists, “It will be?for the freedom of trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people.” Change the commodity and the argument sounds eerily modern. But Ghosh, wonderfully sly, leaves it at that. We may draw comparisons between the British Empire and any other enterprise that comes to mind while he gets on with the story.

It seems, at first, to be a simple one. Deeti, a young wife and mother who, like many in rural India, depends on the dominant poppy crop for survival, faces disaster when her husband, a worker in Ghazipur’s opium factory, is mortally injured. Escaping immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre, the resourceful widow flees with the gigantic but gentle Kalua. After many adventures, the couple join a shipment of indentured migrants on board the Ibis, a former British slave ship, bound for the plantations of Mauritius.

Deeti’s adventure is just one strand in Ghosh’s deftly strung rigging. By the time the Ibis sets sail — a thrilling moment, tantalizingly deferred — we are just as concerned about the novel’s other characters, each of whom is drawn with tremendous wit and acuity. Zachary Reid, the Ibis‘s second mate, is the fair-skinned American son of a slave and her white master; listed as “black” in the crew list, he appears white — even aristocratic — to the world. Raja Neel Rattan Halder is a na?ve local prince who is ruthlessly dispossessed and imprisoned by the East India Company. Paulette Lambert, the French orphan adopted by a Company family, is a courageous beauty fleeing a loathsome marriage proposal.

Add to this cast Paulette’s Muslim brother; Neel’s cell mate turned soul mate; Burnham, a Company man and genuine British bulldog; Burnham’s cunning but increasingly delusional Hindu underling; assorted sailors, convicts, and indentured migrants — and the novel’s cargo becomes a potentially chaotic jumble. But Ghosh is too disciplined a writer to allow any slippage, on land or at sea. Shuttling between his disparate but equally engrossing dramas, he deftly cinches them together at the port of Calcutta on the eve of a voyage that will dramatically alter each character’s life.

By that time, Raja Neel’s gilded world has been obliterated with a suddenness that Ghosh masterfully conveys. “The touch of the orderly’s fingers had a feel that Neel could never have imagined between two human beings,” Ghosh writes of the imprisoned prince, ” — neither intimate nor angry, neither tender nor prurient — it was the disinterested touch of mastery, of purchase or conquest?.” In such moments, imperialism is exposed in all its subtlety and its crudity. “Freedom, yes, exactly,” Mr. Burnham tells Zachary, “Isn’t that what the mastery of the white man means for the lesser races??.. he Africa trade was the greatest exercise in freedom since God led the children of Israel out of Egypt.” Chillingworth, the ship’s captain, views the Empire differently: “en do what their power permits them to do,” he observes, “?when we kill people we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this pretence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.”

Ghosh, however, rarely preaches. His detailed descriptions of opium cultivation, its use and trade, and of slavery’s mechanisms speak for themselves. And while Sea of Poppies has a definite moral center, it is one that migrates between Deeti, Neel, and even Zachary. Identities, too, shift with circumstance; almost every character, at one time or another, is disguised — black as white, female as male, prince as convict.

Then there is the novel’s language, or rather languages. Ghosh’s own voice is a recognizably 19th-century one, stately yet brisk, but his characters speak a lively assortment of tongues — Anglo-Indian (“the flash lingo of the East”), bastardized Franco-English, pidgin, Bhojpuri, and Bengali in addition to a seafaring dialect familiar from any number of maritime adventures. (Among Ghosh’s acknowledged sources are An English and Hindostanee Naval Dictionary of Technical Terms and Sea Phrases; he also includes a whimsical “chrestomathy” compiled by Neel, a man “obsessed with the destiny of words”). Thus we learn that the Ibis requires, among other things, “canvas by the gudge, spare jugboolaks and zambooras, coils of istingis and rup-yan, stacks of seetulpatty mats, tobacco by the batti, rolls of neem-twigs for the teeth, martabans of isabgol for constipation and jars of columbo-root for dysentery?.”

These verbal high jinks are almost as impressive as the novel’s shamelessly exuberant adventure scenes: the sight of an approaching tidal wave, for example, “on its coiled and tawny haunches, racing upstream as if in pursuit of some elusive prey.” At such moments, we both admire the spectacle and fear for the individuals in its path. We have, in other words, been hooked again. With his grand vision and the seductive intimacy of his tone, Ghosh has not only drawn us into this exotic world. He has allowed us to inhabit these lives.