Sea of Poppies

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 September, 2008, 12:00am

Sea of Poppies

by Amitav Ghosh

John Murray, HK$192

It is 1838, the Gangetic Plain of northern India is covered with a sea of poppies, the Chinese emperor has passed a decree banning opium and the British East India Company is contriving the first opium war.

Author Amitav Ghosh trained as an anthropologist, began a career as a reporter and made his mark as a writer of historical sagas. In his eighth novel, Sea of Poppies, he has artfully fused all those skills to produce a masterwork - the first in a planned trilogy - that provides a backdrop to the Anglo-Chinese opium conflicts.

The English rulers of India have managed, through coercion of farmers and persuasion of traders, to convert the Indian plains to expansive fields of poppy. The resultant opium is sent to Canton where it is traded for Chinese silk and ceramics. The trade has led to the destruction of the rural economy in India and the emergence of opium addicts in China - events casually dismissed by the English.

In the words of Benjamin Burnham, an English trader: 'Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ. If it is God's will that opium be used as an instrument to open China to his teachings, then so be it. For myself, I confess I can see no reason why any Englishman should abet the Manchu tyrant in depriving the people of China of this miraculous substance.'

The devastation wrought by Britain is highlighted through the plight of Deeti: her husband, employed by the opium factory, is an afeemkhor, an opium addict. When he dies, Deeti is to be burned alive on his funeral pyre as Sati.

However Kalua, a low-caste village simpleton whose colossal frame has been used by landlords to wrestle bulls for their amusement, rescues her. To escape being hunted down, the caste-crossed lovers sign on as girmitiyas, indentured labourers who are to be transported to Mauritius.

Next, the British tentacles ensnare Raja Neel Rattan Halder, a landed Bengali aristocrat whose father helped Burnham set up his trading empire. The raja - through financial naivete and an indulgent lifestyle - has fallen on tough times. Sensing a breach, the wily Burnham accuses the raja of forgery and has him prosecuted. Neel is sentenced to Kaala Pani, the dreaded Black Waters, a journey across which will take him to the penal colony of Mauritius.

Burnham, a pillar of English society, has - in a show of Christian piety - given shelter to the orphaned Paulette Lambert. She was brought up by an Indian wet nurse; her French botanist father, lost in the lush wonders of Calcutta and dismissive of religion, let Lambert grow up unencumbered by prevailing Victorian mores. However, she is alarmed when Burnham's fetish for educating her in Christian scriptures turns fetishist when he insists on being whacked on the backside with a broom. Lambert flees to the ship on which her nurse's son, Jodu, is a lascar crewman.

Thus the principal characters of the novel converge on the Ibis, an erstwhile slaving schooner owned by Burnham. It is preparing for a voyage to Mauritius under the English captain, Chillingworth; its ragtag team of girmitiyas, prisoners, lascars - crewmen hailing from regions as diverse as India, Malaya, Arabia and China - are all consigned to the same fate and become jahajbhais, or ship brothers.

Two themes dominate: economic ruin in the wake of colonisation and the porousness of boundaries in a globalising world. Lambert dons a sari to take refuge among the labourers; Zachary, a mulatto, is happy to pass himself off as a Yankee gentleman; the Bengali aristocrat spouts English poetry; Chillingworth, in the manner of 'Johnny Chinaman', is a closet opium addict. Even the spoken language mutates and melds to yield something new: an Anglo-Indian Hobson Jobson laced with Lashkari, the language of the seafaring lascars, and Bhojpuri of the Gangetic Plain.

And it is here that the narrative might trip a casual reader. Sample this: 'Instead of the tottee-connah, off you'd go to a little hidden cumra, there to puckrow your dashy.' The intrepid, buffeted by the story, will march on and discover a Dickensian world of mutiny and murder, riot and romance as the ship lurches through stormy waters on its perilous voyage.

The novel is an encyclopaedic window on Indian life in the early 19th century, its food, clothes, customs, rituals, dialects, crops and trades. Ghosh has said that Melville's Moby-Dick is a big influence, initiating in him the idea that the novel is not a small thing. 'To produce a mighty book,' he says, 'you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea.'

Fittingly, this fascinating novel is in the running for this year's Man Booker Prize. This reviewer will not be surprised if it wins - provided, that is, the judges manage to look beyond perennial favourite Salman Rushdie.