Pilgrims’ progress

Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies
By CHRIS WANGLER  |  October 8, 2008

AUTHENTIC: This one is worth the trips to the appended glossary.

Sea of Poppies | By Amitav Ghosh | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 528 pages | $26
India, 1838. The opium business is booming, and drug money fills the British Empire’s coffers, offsetting a trade imbalance created by imports of Chinese tea and silk. But now the emperor wants the drug trade stopped. 

Along the Gangetic plain northwest of Calcutta, the British East India Company has persuaded peasant farmers to abandon their crops and grow only poppies, which are then processed in the Inferno-esque Sudder Opium Factory. With the first opium war looming, the cash cow seems ready to keel over, leaving famine and poverty for the hapless locals. This is the backdrop of Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh’s eighth novel, the first in a projected trilogy, and his first book to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. (This year’s winner will be announced October 14.)

Deeti, the moral center of the book, tends a poppy field. Her husband is an addict who works in the factory. When he dies, she decides she would rather be burned to death on his sati pyre than submit to her sexually predatory brother-in-law. At the last second she is rescued by a towering untouchable named Kalua. They become lovers and flee, making their way to Calcutta to sign up as girmitiyas, or indentured servants, aboard the Ibis, a schooner bound for Mauritius.

A half-dozen other characters, collected from an array of racial and linguistic backgrounds, also scheme their way on board under the watchful eyes of the British. The most interesting is in shackles. Raja Neel Rattan Halder, a genteel Bengali raja, having failed to pay his debts, has been framed as a forger, stripped of his holdings, and sentenced to a penal colony on Mauritius for seven years. He is reduced to cleaning excrement, lice, and filth off his cellmate, a half-Chinese opium addict whose withdrawal symptoms have rendered him nearly inhuman.

By the time she sets out, the Ibis has been transformed from a battered former slave ship into a fateful “vehicle of transformation,” where rules of caste and empire will be either broken by hopeful exiles or enforced with brutality by the ship’s guards. Although the pilgrims are all in some way victims of the opium trade, the real theme of Sea of Poppies is the alternately terrifying and liberating prospect of migration across the “Black Water” of the Indian Ocean. “On a boat of pilgrims,” says Deeti, “no one can lose caste and everyone is the same.”

The depth of Ghosh’s research is staggering; he strives for authenticity not only in his descriptions but also in his language. If a word in Bhojpuri, Bengali, or hinglish exists — for a kind of ship or an article of clothing — he uses it. This makes the appended glossary handy — and worth the trouble.

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