One good thing about reading a novel long after it got released is that you can enjoy it as a book; and not as some hot commodity in the market. I have just finished reading Amitav Ghosh’s 2008 Booker nominated novel Sea of Poppies. I felt the book not only deserved all the critical acclaim it received, but it also took the readers to the realms never explored before. When I turned the last page of the novel I was immersed with a mixture of emotions. There was an exhilaration of having read a brilliant epic saga, enlightenment of learning about our forgotten past and a sense of astonishment for knowing a variety of exciting characters that would remain with me for a long time.
Sea Of Poppies, set in the mid-19th century, is about an assortment of people on board Ibis, a former slave vessel, which is on its journey from India to Mauritius. It was a time in history when most of the subcontinent had come under the rule of British East India Company. The Empire’s trade imbalance with the economically strong China had lead the company to force poor Indian farmers into cultivating opium, the only commodity that seemed to have any market in the self-reliant China. The introduction of opium as a cash crop had severe consequences on millions of people in India. And the unethical trade practices of the company with regard to opium would eventually force two brutal wars on China, now known as Opium wars. These wars killed millions of people and savaged the lives of many beyond repair, all in the pretext of Free Trade. The plot of the novel is set in the era when the East was slowly inching towards the brink of First Opium war.
Ibis is filled with a motley array of characters. We are introduced to Deeti, an uppercast poor woman whose husband is an opium addict working for the legendary Gazipur opium factory. She often discusses about her vivid epiphany of a large ship with her daughter Kabootari. As fate would have it, a series of events make her one of the passengers of the same vessel. Boarding the ship with her is Kalua, a lower caste ox-cart driver. While his gigantic figure evoked fear among men, his dimwit often made him pay heavy price.
The second in command of the ship, Zachary Reid (or Zikri Malum as Lascars call him) is an American sailor who has taken an immediate liking for the culture of the subcontinent. Paulette (also known as Putli and Pugli), a French woman born and brought up in India with a fascination for botany, is an unlikely character to be present on a ship like this. Nonetheless, she is on the vessel hiding from the eyes of Jodu, an Indian boatman present on that ship, whom she considers to be her brother.
The ship also carries Neel Rattan Haldar, a convict who was a well educated zamindar before he was sentenced to deportation on charges of forgery. Baboo Kissin Pander is another interesting character. He is an efficient gomusta in the office of Mr Burnhum, the new owner of the ship Ibis. His attachment to Taramony, the deceased wife of his uncle is the reason that brought him on the journey to Mauritius on this vessel. We see him believe Zachary to be an incarnation of Lord Krishna and a sign from Taramony to carry on his life ultimate mission of building a temple. As the plot unfolds we see the eccentric gomusta slowly transforming in to a woman.
All these main characters have some of the most brilliant back stories. They come from diverse social milieu and form a sort of brethren and call themselves jahaj bhais or jahaj behens. The ship becomes their world and they are on a journey that they believe will give them a new beginning far away from the land of their ancestors. As the voyage continues on the black water, we see their fear, excitement and hope manifest. They unveil their stories in a way that is both beautiful and profound. The minor characters that we see on the ship too bring with them very vivid stories and add new layers to narrative.
Amitav Ghosh is a master storyteller. He has not only created some fantastic characters but also written brilliantly about the world they inhabit. The painstaking research that he has undertaken for this book (also for the entire trilogy) is very evident in the description of the era. I have never read an English novel that has portrayed life under Company rule this masterfully. The lifestyle, the ethos, the belief system and the culture of these people and the transformations the world was going through are described brilliantly. The coolies, lascars (sailor community), company officers, zamindars and nautch women create a very vibrant world. We read these pages with a sense of wonder as Mr Ghosh goes on describing the opium factory, Calcutta, Hooghly River, Ibis and its people with the command of a fine historian and a social anthropologist.
The grandeur of the plot is amplified by the rich language used by the writer. English has never seemed this Indian before. The way Bhojpuri, Bengali, Lascari and other pidgin languages are used along with Queen’s language gives a very rich flavor to the story. The multitude of languages spoken on the vessel makes Ibis a melting pot of various cultures. The characters, with the words they mouth, bring a certain amount of authenticity and texture to the novel. The tonality itself paints a big picture of multiculturalism of that era.
The story grows on us in many layers like an addiction. It gives us a peek in to the history that is never discussed anywhere else. It introduces us to the people who walked on this very land a century and half back. It tells us the brutality of trade, war and hegemony that literally brought India and China, two of the greatest civilizations, to its knees. It tells us about the pursuit of freedom in the times of gross adversity. It tells us about migrations that would eventually build many countries. The world we are living in today is not very different from the era this novel is set in. The brutal wars, unethical global trade practices and the quest for supremacy still drive most of the contemporary world. In that sense the book is an allegory to the world we are living in today.
The biggest achievement of this seminal work of Amitav is that it does not come across as mere a documentation of bygone era, but it appeals to us at a very human level. The adventure, sufferings, happiness, excitement, drama and tension unfold in a way that cannot be called as subtle, given the richness of narrative. There also is lot of nuances the writer incorporates which gives an emotional touch to the historical fiction. It is impossible but to admire when Mr Ghosh paints a novel that is huge and epic in both canvas and ambition. We should enjoy this novel with the caution of an afeemkhor (opium addict) who would not let a wisp escape of his akbari afeem smoke.
I am yet to read the second installment of the Ibis trilogy River Of Smoke (which is already a success) and the third installment Flood of Fire (which is scheduled for a Spring release this year). Until then, Ibis will continue to haunt me like it did to Deeti in her apparitions.