Some years ago, I read Barry Unsworth’s mighty but epically-depressing masterpiece Sacred Hunger, which dealt with the way nations bowed to the god of the cotton trade and offered slaves on its shrine. In one way, Amitav Ghosh’s novel Sea of Poppies reminded me of Sacred Hunger: here, too, nations revolve around the commerce of the holy poppy and all the nostrums (and all the money) it produces, and those nations are ruthless, even after the abolition of the slave trade, in order to keep that poppy-juice flowing. But let me reassure you that the experience of reading Sea of Poppies is utterly different from Unsworth’s book: while it’s sometimes harrowing, it’s also beautiful, funny, tender, and flecked with light.
As Teresa said in her excellent review, this book has a very large cast of characters, set in India in 1838. The characters are drawn from all walks of life, all different social classes, all races and religions and castes and countries of origin. Each of them is beautifully drawn, each has a rich inner life, each has secrets, and it slowly begins to become clear that they are all mysteriously linked by four things: opium, fortune, race, and destination, as they all eventually come aboard the sailing ship Ibis, bound for Mauritius.
Opium saturates this book. From the first pages, when Deeti, an Indian woman walking through her fields of white-blossoming poppy, to the sight of Ah Fatt, an afeemkhor (addict) in the final stages of withdrawal, it is opium that drives the plot: opium floats the ships, puts food on the table, soothes pain, robs children, and foments trouble.
It’s opium, too, directly or indirectly, that causes most of the changes of fortune that affect the characters. Zachary Reid is a mulatto sailor who can pass for white, and his change of dress catapults him into the rank of gentleman. The death of Deeti’s husband puts her in grave danger, and she abandons family, land, and caste to escape. Paulette Lambert, a young Frenchwoman in a different kind of danger, disguises herself to make her own escape. Raja Neel Rattan Halder loses everything he holds dear, including his sense of himself, and finds something that may turn out to be still more precious. The stories continue, but they are all linked by this sense of fortune’s wheel (the story felt very medieval in this way: peasant to king, king to peasant.) You can see, perhaps, too, that the notion of race and caste is crucial to these story lines. Many of the characters are mixed-race, and many speak several languages. This wild mixture of tongues and lineage might divide them, but it doesn’t:
But aren’t you afraid, she said, of losing caste? Of crossing the Black Water, and being on a ship with so many sorts of people?
Not at all, the girl replied, in a tone of unalloyed certainty. On a boat of pilgrims, no one can lose caste and everyone is the same: it’s like taking a boat to the temple of Jagannath, in Puri. From now on, and forever afterwards, we will all be ship-siblings — jahazbhais and jahazbahens — to each other. There’ll be no differences between us.
Perhaps. Perhaps the connections, forged by the ship, by opium, by fortune’s wheel, will be stronger than the undeniable divisions made by race, by language, by class and need. But Ghosh’s lovely book, which ends on a breathless note, is the first of a trilogy, and I will have to read River of Smoke to find out.
I enjoyed this book tremendously. It’s beautifully written, full of the wild energy that comes from the meeting of many peoples and languages and cultures, and often very funny. I have to thank Teresa for pushing this book my way. She always knows just what I will like, and an Indian seagoing language opium adventure was just that.