October 13, 2008


Lascars, sepoys and nautch girls: James Buchan climbs aboard the first part of a trilogy set at the time of the opium wars: a review of Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (James Buchan, The Guardian)

This terrific novel, the first volume in a projected trilogy, unfolds in north India and the Bay of Bengal in 1838 on the eve of the British attack on the Chinese ports known as the first opium war. In Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh assembles from different corners of the world sailors, marines and passengers for the Ibis, a slaving schooner now converted to the transport of coolies and opium. In bringing his troupe of characters to Calcutta and into the open water, Ghosh provides the reader with all manner of stories, and equips himself with the personnel to man and navigate an old-fashioned literary three-decker.

He begins in the villages of eastern Bihar with Deeti, soon to be widowed; her addicted husband, who works at the British opium factory at Ghazipur; and Kalua, a low-caste carter of colossal strength and resource. Moving downstream, we meet a bankrupt landowner, Raja Neel Rattan; an American sailor, Zachary; Paulette, a young Frenchwoman, and her Bengali foster-brother Jodu; Benjamin Burnham, an unscrupulous British merchant, and his Bengali agent, Baboo Nob Kissin; and every style of nautch girl, sepoy and lascar.

On their way to the "black sea", these characters are exposed to a suttee or widow-burning, a shipboard mutiny, a court case, jails, kidnappings, rapes, floggings, a dinner party and every refinement of sex. The story proceeds at pace without too much by way of coincidence, dreams or - the bane of this sort of book - the supernatural. This volume ends with the Ibis, storm-tossed, off Sumatra. I cannot tell whether we are headed for Mauritius or China, but am happy to sail.

Yet Sea of Poppies is a historical novel, which means that the story is only half the story.

-AUTHOR SITE: Amitav Ghosh (Penguin Books)
-A pukka old pishpash : a review of Sea of Poppies (Sameer Rahim, Daily Telegraph)

While researching his doctorate at Oxford, Amitav Ghosh came across a collection of letters written by medieval Jewish traders. In one letter, an Egyptian merchant arranges an exchange of silk and cardamom with a friend in Bangalore; he also complains that a shipment of Indian pepper has been lost at sea.

What really caught Ghosh's eye, though, was a mention of the Bangalore trader's "slave and business agent". This man, whose origins and name are uncertain, could easily have been forgotten by history. Ghosh spent the next 14 years tracking down the few references to him in other documents, travelling to Egypt and learning Judaeo-Arabic. What he found is told in his superb book In an Antique Land (1992).

Much of Ghosh's historical fiction has been driven by what he described in a note to The Glass Palace (2000) as "a near-obsessive urge to render the backgrounds of my characters' lives as closely as I could".

-The call of the running tide: a review of Sea of Poppies (The Economist)
As well as his ability to portray character (even minor players are drawn with astonishing breadth) Mr Ghosh is renowned for giving his novels a haunting sense of place. “The Hungry Tide”, his previous work, drew plaudits for its portrayal of the beauty of the Sundarbans, the tide country of the Ganges delta.

Here, he paints a lustrous picture of the heat and dust of colonial India: a mud-walled village hut floating like a tiny raft “upon a river of poppies”; airy merchants' mansions full of punkah-wallahs and protocol; the calls of boatmen floating across the silt- and salt-flavoured Hooghly river; and, in the midst of it all, the British-owned Sudder Opium Factory with its dead-eyed labourers slaving “as slow as ants in honey” in air as fetid as that of a “closed kitchen”. Most powerful is his portrayal of life aboard the Ibis as she plunges through the sapphire waters of the Bay of Bengal, her bowsprit pointing to the future, her sails cracking in the wind and her hold so hot “it was as if the migrants' flesh were melting on their bones.”

-PROFILE: Amitav Ghosh’s Floating Berlitz Tape: More fun than learning a new language: Reading one. (Boris Kachka, Aug 24, 2008, NY Magazine)
You might glibly describe Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, already long-listed for the Booker Prize, as Moby Dick with a little Treasure Island thrown in. A motley crew of ship hands, migrants, and officers sets course for Mauritius in an American slave ship refashioned to transport labor, opium, and eventually soldiers for China’s Opium Wars. Ghosh, who splits his time between India and Brooklyn, rose to worldwide recognition with The Glass Palace, an equally epic novel about Indians in Burma, and he’s long been preoccupied, like V. S. Naipaul, with Indian migration. “Much of the nautical world in the nineteenth century consisted of Asians,” he says, “yet Asians never figure in the historical record.” His own entry into the ledger is peppered with an indecipherable Esperanto invented by sailors from Portugal, Bengal, Shanghai, etc.

There’s a glossary of sorts, and Ghosh makes no apologies for his pidgin-riddled sentences. “When Melville says ‘the mizzenmast,’ who today knows what that is? The idea that language is a warm bath into which you slip in a comfortable way, to me it’s a very deceptive idea.”

REVIEW: of Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh (Shirley Chew, Independent)
Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, the first volume in his "Ibis trilogy", revisits in new, breathtakingly detailed and compelling ways some of the concerns of his earlier novels. Among these are the incessant movements of the peoples, commerce, and empires which have traversed the Indian Ocean since antiquity; and the lives of men and women with little power, whose stories, framed against the grand narratives of history, invite other ways of thinking about the past, culture and identity. [...]

The broad canvas of Sea of Poppies displays many features of a sensational novel – a widow rescued from the funeral pyre, a court trial, runaways, disguise, heroic exploits, vengeful acts, murder. A controlling theme running through the many strands of plot is the question of identity.

Cut off from their roots, in transit, and looking ahead to a fresh start, the migrants are prone to invent new names and histories. For some, like Paulette, disguised as an Indian coolie to escape her guardian, the "layers of masking" do no more than bear witness to a human being's "multiplicity of selves". For others, like Zachary, the second mate, the truth is bleaker by far. The son of a slave and her white master, he will always be bound, it seems, to a brutal history and the stigma of colour. All have stories to tell and secrets to hide. Like the sketches of people which Deeti finger-paints as keepsakes for her "shrine", their narratives tease the mind with discontinuities and suggestiveness; and, as with Ah Fatt the opium addict's descriptions of Canton, his old home, "the genius... lay in their elisions".

With the colourful characters, another bedazzling aspect of Sea of Poppies is the clash and mingling of languages. Bhojpuri, Bengali, Laskari, Hindustani, Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and a fantastic spectrum of English including the malapropisms of Baboo Nob Kissin, Burnham's accountant, create a vivid sense of living voices as well as the linguistic resourcefulness of people in diaspora. The "motley tongue" is as much a part of the cultural scene at the lower reaches of the Ganges, and of the multi-layered history of the subcontinent, as the collision of peoples on one of the great rivers of the world.

REVIEW: of Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (Michael Binyon, Times of London)
THE BRITISH VERSION of history glosses over the time when this country was the world's biggest drug pusher. Afghanistan now produces the poppies to supply Europe's heroin. But two centuries ago it was British fortune seekers in India who turned the banks of the Ganges into a sea of poppies and tried to force refined opium on the reluctant Chinese. They almost succeeded.

Despite the emperor's decrees banning the drug that dulled his subjects and addled his empire, British traders kept shipping out jars of opium to Canton, counting on the growing number of addicts to defy his orders. In the end, they used force - denouncing Chinese restrictions on free trade, and persuading London, shamefully, to wage the notorious opium wars.

Against this background, Sea of Poppies paints a poignant picture of the human devastation of this trade.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 13, 2008 8:58 PM
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