Sunday, November 02, 2008

'Poppies' set before Opium Wars

Amitav Ghosh's anthropological incursions into the migrants of yore have resulted in fine specimens of both fiction and non-fiction. In his bestselling novel, The Glass Palace, Ghosh wove a rich tapestry of a precocious 11-year-old Indian boy's adventures in Burma. In The Hungry Tide, an Indian-American biologist explores the lush beauty of the Sunderban delta, only to discover the terrible secrets that the mangroves hide.

Now, his latest, Sea of Poppies, the first in a proposed trilogy, dabbles in the seldom explored consequences of the British opium trade on Indian colonials. The East India company, a trading enterprise that morphed into the British crown in the late 19th century, was the world's chief opium trader at the time. The novel is set on the eve of the Opium Wars -- occasioned by the British smuggling of opium from British India into China and the Chinese government's efforts to ban this illegal trade.

After the outlawing of slavery in British India in 1833, British merchants took to transporting "coolies" or indentured labor to nearby islands, most notably Mauritius, to continue work on their plantations. Along with coolies, criminals, too, were transported across the Bay of Bengal to be sent to island prisons.

Ghosh brings these disparate strands together in crafting a story of rapacious greed and its inhuman aftermath. Benjamin Burnham, a sexually deviant merchant, is the owner of the Ibis, a giant vessel formerly meant to carry slaves. By a quirk of fate orchestrated consummately by Ghosh, a motley set of people converge on the Ibis. A heartbroken zemindar-turned-convict, the widow of a poppy grower, the runaway daughter of a French biologist -- many a life discovery is played out on the Ibis.

Ghosh does many things to the art of novel-writing here. Not only does his exact historical inquiry blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, but also the intricacy with which he meshes diverse tongues to come up with an eccentric pidgin is truly ingenious. From genuine languages (Bhojpuri) to workers' lingo (Laskari), Ghosh dispenses with convention in not including a glossary at the end, leaving his readers to derive meaning from context. Sea of Poppies is a veritable cauldron of energy intermingling with craft.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun Times. Sea of Poppies was a finalist for this year's Booker.

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