It can be difficult to get to know people who are different from us. Differences in race, social class, educational level, language, and cultural background can create barriers that make communication and understanding a struggle.
As a reader, I initially felt profoundly separated from the characters in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. The book is set in India in 1838, just before the Opium Wars. The characters hail from a variety of social classes and cultures. Deeti, the first character we meet, lives in a village outside Ghazipur with her opium-addicted husband and their daughter. Zachary Reid, the mixed-race son of a Maryland freedwomen, has just arrived in India as a sailor on the former slave ship, the Ibis. He owes a great deal of his career success to Serang Ali, the head of the lascar crew that served on the Ibis. Paulette Lambert is a young French woman who has been raised in an unconventional manner by her botanist father and her wet nurse, who is the mother of Jodu, Paulette’s childhood playmate and best friend. Neel Rattan is an upper-caste Raja trying to juggle his debts, his mistress, the women she brings with her everywhere, and his wife and son. And there’s Baboo Nob Kissin, an accountant who eventually becomes convinced that one of the other characters is in fact Krishna in human guise.
So there are a lot of characters—many more than I’ve mentioned here–and each one has a story. They’re wonderful creations, these people, but I’ll confess that for the first half of the book I found it a struggle to get to know them. For one thing, there are so many of them, and most of them do not meet until halfway through the book. I couldn’t keep track of who was who for quite a while. (I eventually made a sticky note with character names and descriptions to put in the front of the book for quick reference.) This is a common problem with grand multicharacter epics, but it’s compounded here by the fact that the names and backgrounds are so far removed from my own. Not the book’s fault, but a barrier just the same.
The other challenge is with the language. Ghosh sprinkles the dialogue with unfamiliar nautical terms as well as words from the Indian dialects spoken by the various characters. Here’s a passage in which Mr Doughty, ship’s pilot, explains why Zachary needs to learn the lingo (or the zubben):
This was India, where it didn’t serve for a sahib to be taken for a clodpoll of a griffin: if he wasn’t fly to what was going on, it’d be all dickey with him, mighty jildee. This was no Baltimore—this was a jungle here, with biscobras in the grass and wanderoos in the trees. If he, Zachary, wasn’t to be diddled and taken for a flat, he would have to learn to gubbrow the natives with a word or two of the zubben.
Most of the time, I could get the gist of what was going on, but I was totally at sea at a few points. I think, however, that this was intentional, because the characters are often as lost as I was. Ghosh often plays up the linguistic differences when characters of different cultures are mixing, and the dialects become particularly noticable. It’s sometimes great fun, as in the passage above, but it did add to the difficulty.
Despite the struggle, there were enough terrific scenes to keep me interested in the early pages. Although there were perhaps too many characters to start with, they were almost all written as three-dimensional people. Even the characters who looked like they might just be stereotypes were given enough of an inner life to make them seem real. Plus, the writing was filled with wonderful detail. Here, for example, is what Deeti saw when she visited the mixing room at the opium factory:
The air inside was hot and fetid, like that of a closed kitchen, except that the smell was not of spices and oil, but of liquid opium, mixed with the dull stench of sweat—a reek so powerful that she had to pinch her nose to keep herself from gagging. No sooner had she steadied herself, than her eyes were met by a startling sight—a host of dark, legless torsos was circling around and around, like some enslaved tribe of demons. This vision—along with the overpowering fumes—made her groggy, and to keep herself from fainting she began to move slowly ahead. When her eyes had grown more accustomed to the gloom, she discovered the secret of those circling torsos: they were bare-bodied men, sunk waist-deep in tanks of opium, tramping round and round to soften the sludge. Their eyes were vacant, glazed, and yet somehow they managed to keep moving, as slow as ants in honey, tramping, treading. When they could move no more, they sat on the edges of the tanks, stirring the dark ooze only with their feet. These seated men had more the look of ghouls than any living thing she had ever seen: their eyes glowed red in the dark and they appeared completely naked, their loincloths—if indeed they had any—being so steeped in the drug as to be indistinguishable from their skin.
This kind of writing was enough to keep me going, but I didn’t really start to consistently enjoy the book until the halfway mark, when several of the characters end up on the Ibis as it set sail for Mauritius with a load of opium and indentured servants. As this point, the book went from being a collection of well-written scenes about interesting people to become a harrowing, but sometimes beautiful story of people I cared about but whose fate was uncertain. By the last 100 pages, I was in love. Like Paulette, I was starting to see the differences between me and these amazing people as irrelevant:
Are not all appearances deceptive in the end? Whatever there is within us—whether good, or bad, or neither—its existence will continue uninterrupted, will it not, no matter what the drape of our clothes, or the colour of our skin? What if it is the world that is a draperie, Mr Reid, and we the exceptions to its lies?
Sea of Poppies is the first in a trilogy, and the ending felt conclusive, in that circumstances have changed and a chapter is clearly ending, but it’s also frustratingly open-ended, as one would expect in a continuing saga. I for one am eager to see what happens next.