“Sea of Poppies” by Amitav Ghosh – cast out on the Black Water

The first book in the “Ibis” trilogy, named after the sailing ship which is the setting for some of the action, “Sea of Poppies” focuses on the C19 opium trade operated by the ruthless East India Company. It begins in rural India, where Deeti struggles to make a living from the poppy harvest which has replaced the crops which at least guaranteed a level of self-suffciency. She is resigned to marriage with a man who has become addicted to opium to ease the pain of his wounds, gained in fighting for the British colonialists. The fact he is employed in an opium factory does not help.
At the other end of the social scale is Neel, the unimaginably privileged native landowner, so complacent in his sense of entitlement that he has allowed himself to be trapped into debt by the hard-nosed employee of the East India Company, Mr Burnham. Aided by his eccentric Indian agent Baboo, Burnham is prepared to do whatever is necessary to gain full control of Neel’s lands.

Flitting between an at times confusing horde of characters, some larger than life and stereotyped, reminiscent of a Dickensian novel, the storylines gradually merge to bring the main players together on the Ibis, a converted former slave ship, which is scheduled to transport a group of criminals and unlucky migrants rejected by their families to provide cheap labour for the East India Company.

One of the most likeable and straightforward characters is Zackary Reid, the American carpenter-turned-sailor who, being the son of a slave girl and the master who freed them both, has a natural sympathy for some of the disadvantaged Indians he encounters. Another is Paulette, the spirited and frankly quite devious daughter of a deceased European botanist.

There is a good deal of humour, often somewhat heavy-handed, along with considerable violence and degradation. Despite the frequently implausible, exaggerated to the point of ludicrous events, with people on the brink of death miraculously saved, the novel provides vivid descriptions and creates a strong awareness of the nature and implications of the opium trade, and the attitudes and values of the various parties concerned. For instance, with the risk of an imminent war between Britain and China, Burnham, despite claiming to be a devout Christian, has no understanding of why Chinese rulers might wish to end an exploitative trade which is wreaking havoc on their population, and is over-confident that the conflict will be short-lived.

His Indian roots may make it easier for the author to identify with and portray a period perhaps understandably neglected by western writers. He has certainly undertaken an impressive amount of research on every aspect of the story, including opium manufacture and the operation of sailing ships. A downside of all this is that the presumably authentic language used by, for instance the Lascar and British sailors or even Burnham’s wife is so peppered with native language, jargon or slang as to be virtually incomprehensible at times. I found this very distracting, and would have liked a glossary, together with a map and list of characters for quick reference.

I do not mind the abrupt ending of the story, clearly akin to a cliff-hanger to encourage us to read on, although the novel could be regarded as free-standing, leaving one to imagine “what happens next”. However, for the time being, I do not feel sufficiently engaged to read the rest of the trilogy, I think mainly because I find some of the drama needlessly overdone.

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