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Sea of Poppies

A Novel

Amitav Ghosh


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ISBN10: 0312428596
ISBN13: 9780312428594

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560 Pages


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Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
Longlisted for the International IMPAC Literary Award

An Economist Best Book of the Year
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year

Winner of the Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand Prix

At the heart of this vibrant story is a vast ship, the Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean to fight China's vicious nineteenth-century Opium Wars. The crew is a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts.

In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt raja to a widowed tribeswoman, from a mulatto American freedman to a freespirited French orphan. As their old family ties are washed away, they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, or ship-brothers. An unlikely dynasty is born, which will span continents, races, and generations.

This historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, the exotic backstreets of Canton. But it is the panorama of characters, whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself, that makes Sea of Poppies so vibrant.


Praise for Sea of Poppies

"In 1883, the British government sent the accomplished linguist Sir George Grierson to look into alleged abuses in the recruitment of indentured servants from India (known as 'coolies') who ended up on ships bound for British plantations throughout the world. In his diary, Grierson wrote about an encounter with the father of one female coolie in a village along the Ganges, noting that the man 'denied having any such relative, and probably she had gone wrong and been disowned by him.' The historical record provides only a trace of this woman: a name, a processing number, a year of emigration. In his ambitious new novel, Sea of Poppies, a finalist for this year's Man Booker Prize, Amitav Ghosh attempts to fill in the blanks left by the archives. Set partly in Bengal, the scene of Grierson's inquiry, and drawing on accounts the Englishman left, it opens in 1838 on the eve of the Opium Wars. A former slave ship called the Ibis has been refitted to transport coolies from Calcutta to the sugar estates of Mauritius, and for hundreds of pages we watch as its crew and passengers are slowly assembled until it finally gets on its way. The first in a projected trilogy, Sea of Poppies is big and baggy, a self-styled epic with colossal themes and almost a dozen major characters, including the son of an American slave (who is passing as white), the orphaned daughter of a French botanist (who is passing as a coolie) and an Anglophile raja (who has been wrongly sentenced to a penal colony on Mauritius). But a majority onboard are Indian peasants from the opium-producing countryside, forced by famine or scandal to seek a new life elsewhere. Devoted to reinvention, Ghosh's plot focuses on one of these villagers: Deeti, a widow who assumes another name and the (lower) caste of a new love as they escape together on the Ibis."—Gaiutra Bahadur, The New York Times Book Review

"Today it seems no year goes by without yet another Indian novel announcing its entry into the global canon, confirming Indian writing as among the most innovative and interesting anywhere. Over the last two decades, the Indian author Amitav Ghosh has established himself as a writer of uncommon talent who combines literary flair with a rare seriousness of purpose. His first novel, The Circle of Reason, seemed very much in the Rushdie magical-realist tradition, but he has evolved considerably since then, notably in works like The Shadow Lines and more recently The Glass Palace, which deal movingly and powerfully with the dislocations of post-imperial politics in Bengal and Burma. Sea of Poppies, his sixth novel (and the first of a projected trilogy), marks both a departure and an arrival. It sees Ghosh painting upon a larger canvas than ever before, with a multitude of characters and an epic vision; and the novel is his first to be shortlisted for Britain's Man Booker Prize, one of two Indian novels in a list of six. The year is 1838, and the setting British India, a country immiserated by colonial rule, as fertile agricultural lands are swamped by the flower of the novel's title, grown to produce opium that the British are exporting to addicts in an increasingly resistant China. Hungry Indian peasants, meanwhile, are being driven off their land, and many are recruited to serve as plantation laborers in far-off British colonies like Mauritius. Meanwhile, the clouds of war are looming, as British opium interests in India press for the use of force to compel the Chinese mandarins to keep open their ports, in the name of free trade. Against this background, Sea of Poppies brings together a colorful array of individuals on a triple-masted schooner named the Ibis. There is the widow of an opium addict, saved from a drugged self-immolation on her husband's funeral pyre by an outcast who signs up for a new life as a worker in Mauritius; a free-spirited French orphan and the Muslim boatman with whom she has grown up; the Ibis's second mate, an American octoroon sailor passing for white; a clerk and mystic possessed by the soul of his female spiritual mentor; a lascar seaman with a piratical past; and a dispossessed Raja who has been stripped of his lands and honor and sentenced to transportation for an innocent act of forgery. The novel unfolds with the stories of the events that bring these 'ship-siblings—jaházbhais and jaházbahens' on board and traces the beginning of their voyage from Calcutta to their unknown destinies across the Black Water. The principal characters' fates are left unresolved—this is a book that is clearly 'to be continued'—but their stories are compelling. Even though the Ibis's journey is incomplete, it provides enough dramatic tension to keep the reader turning the pages. Ghosh's purpose is clearly both literary and political. His narrative represents a prodigious feat of research; one does not need the impressive bibliography of sources at the end to be struck by the wealth of period detail the author commands. His descriptions bring a lost world to life, from the evocatively imagined opium factory, the intricacies of women's costumes and the lovingly enumerated fare on the opulent dining tables of the era, to the richly detailed descriptions of the Ibis and its journey. At times, Sea of Poppies reads like a cross between an Indian Gone with the Wind and a Victorian novel of manners. And yet Ghosh has managed a sharp reversal of perspective. His ship, with the author's fine feel for nautical niceties, sails in Joseph Conrad territory, through waters since romanticized by the likes of James Clavell. But whereas those writers and so many others placed the white man at the center of their narratives, Ghosh relegates his British colonists to the margins of his story, giving pride of place to the neglected subjects of the imperial enterprise: colonialism's impoverished, and usually colored, victims. He writes with great compassion and empathy about members of the underclass, most of all the migrants, 'the men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain . . . [from] a soil that had to be sown with suffering to yield its crop of story and song.' Ghosh portrays his characters with integrity and dignity; even those with walk-on parts enjoy well-constructed back-stories, and if his Brits—scheming, perverse and ruthless to a man—are occasionally caricatures, they all come vividly alive. He is particularly good at representing the distinctive voices: the charming Franglais of the French orphan, the fractured Babu English of a clerk, the semi-comprehensible Anglo-Indianisms of the pilot and the literate cadences of the educated Raja. Occasionally, he goes overboard with his Anglo-Indian argot ('Wasn't a man in town who could put on a burra-khana like he did. Sheeshmull blazing with shammers and candles. . . . Demijohns of French loll-shrub and carboys of iced simkin. And the karibat!') Nor will many readers have the slightest idea what a boatman is doing on deck 'tirkaoing hamars, and hauling zanjirs through the hansil-holes.' But it doesn't really matter; the language brings in period authenticity and local color, and as with any good vessel, you get the drift quick enough. With this novel, Ghosh, an anthropologist and historian, has come a long way from the magic realism of his first novel. Sea of Poppies is written in a direct and flowing style, its prose confident and unadorned, though on a handful of occasions the author produces a flourish almost as if to show he can do it, as with the hills and crags that 'sat upon the plains like a bestiary of gargantuan animals that had been frozen in the act of trying to escape from the grip of the earth.' The disgraced Raja enters a courtroom and 'the hubbub ceased abruptly, leaving a few last threads of sound to float gently to the floor, like the torn ends of a ribbon.' The migration of peasants from the Gangetic plains 'was as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart. But the fine writing is in service of a larger cause, the reclaiming of a story appropriated for too long by its villains, those who, centuries ago, conquered foreign lands, subjugated and displaced their peoples, replaced their agriculture with cash crops that caused addiction and death, and enforced all this with the power of the gun masked by a rhetoric of civilization. 'When we kill people,' a British sea-captain says, 'we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this pretence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.' Ghosh, on behalf of history, is unforgiving, but his novel is also a delight. I can't wait to see what happens to these laborers and seamen, the defrocked raja and the transgendered mystic in the next volume."—Shashi Tharoor, The Washington Post Book World

"Ghosh's best and most ambitious work yet is an adventure story set in nineteenth-century Calcutta against the backdrop of the Opium Wars. On the Ibis, a ship engaged in transporting opium across the Bay of Bengal, varied life stories converge. A fallen raja, a half-Chinese convict, a plucky American sailor, a widowed opium farmer, a transgendered religious visionary are all united by the 'smoky paradise' of the opium seed. Ghosh writes with impeccable control, and with a vivid and sometimes surprising imagination: a woman's tooth protrudes 'like a tilted gravestone'; an opium addict's writhing spasms are akin to 'looking at a pack of rats squirming in a sack'; the body of a young man is 'a smoking crater that had just risen from the ocean and was still waiting to be explored.'"—The New Yorker

"Amitav Ghosh, an Indian anthropologist, historian, and novelist who lives and teaches in New York and India, is the author of ten books. His new novel, Sea of Poppies, which is the first in a projected trilogy, has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is set in India in 1838, in the days leading up to the Opium Wars. Ghosh tracks the lives, and the language, of an unlikely collection of men and women—princes, sailors, merchants, pirates, peasants, and runaway girls—all of whom eventually converge on an American's schooner called the Ibis. It is a rollicking tale, or rather collection of tales—politically forceful, historically fascinating, and rarely subtle . . . Ghosh has taken all of his considerable historical knowledge and passion and funneled it into the language of his characters . . . Ghosh has given to each of the many disparate characters a patois, an idiom, a poetry that is utterly irresistible. The novel presents itself as a tale of opium and pirates and cruelty and love, but at its best, Sea of Poppies is a celebration of language—its idiosyncrasies, its prejudices, its humor, cruelty, freedom, and, finally, its generous, open-armed invitation to escape . . . Sea of Poppies is unapologetically messy and broad: a celebration of the survivors of Britain's rule, a historical catalog of obscure and fascinating detail, a joyous festival of linguistic amalgamation, and a postcolonial allegory, all set afloat in a swashbuckling tale of sea-going adventure."—Cathleen Schine, The New York Review of Books

"Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh, is a more buoyant saga of another dark age, that of China's 19th-century Opium Wars. The first installment of a proposed trilogy, Ghosh's exuberant novel transports us to 1830s India, where the British Empire prepares for war with China, its most lucrative drug market. We first meet Deeti, who survives on the poppy crop and faces ritual death when her husband is killed in an opium factory. The novel's cast soon expands to include the American son of a slave and Deeti's master; a local prince dispossessed by a British businessman; a courageous French orphan fleeing a loathsome betrothal; and numerous other villains and heroes. Each character, however minor, commands our interest as the party sets sail on the Ibis, a former slave ship, bound for the plantations of Mauritius and then for war. The novel's playful language, ranging from Anglo-Indian to seafaring dialect, and its descriptions of opium's cultivation, use, and trade are fascinating, but Sea of Poppies is first and foremost an irresistible adventure story."—Anna Mundow, The Boston Globe

"Amitav Ghosh's anthropological incursions into the migrants of yore have resulted in fine specimens of both fiction and non-fiction. In his bestselling novel, The Glass Palace, Ghosh wove a rich tapestry of a precocious 11-year-old Indian boy's adventures in Burma. In The Hungry Tide, an Indian-American biologist explores the lush beauty of the Sunderban delta, only to discover the terrible secrets that the mangroves hide. Now, his latest, Sea of Poppies, the first in a proposed trilogy, dabbles in the seldom explored consequences of the British opium trade on Indian colonials. The East India company, a trading enterprise that morphed into the British crown in the late 19th century, was the world's chief opium trader at the time. The novel is set on the eve of the Opium Wars—occasioned by the British smuggling of opium from British India into China and the Chinese government's efforts to ban this illegal trade. After the outlawing of slavery in British India in 1833, British merchants took to transporting 'coolies' or indentured labor to nearby islands, most notably Mauritius, to continue work on their plantations. Along with coolies, criminals, too, were transported across the Bay of Bengal to be sent to island prisons. Ghosh brings these disparate strands together in crafting a story of rapacious greed and its inhuman aftermath. Benjamin Burnham, a sexually deviant merchant, is the owner of the Ibis, a giant vessel formerly meant to carry slaves. By a quirk of fate orchestrated consummately by Ghosh, a motley set of people converge on the Ibis. A heartbroken zemindar-turned-convict, the widow of a poppy grower, the runaway daughter of a French biologist—many a life discovery is played out on the Ibis. Ghosh does many things to the art of novel-writing here. Not only does his exact historical inquiry blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, but also the intricacy with which he meshes diverse tongues to come up with an eccentric pidgin is truly ingenious. From genuine languages (Bhojpuri) to workers' lingo (Laskari), Ghosh dispenses with convention in not including a glossary at the end, leaving his readers to derive meaning from context. Sea of Poppies is a veritable cauldron of energy intermingling with craft."—Vikram Johri, The Chicago-Sun Times

"Imagine if Charles Dickens had signed on for a berth on the Pequod. We get some of that fusion to great effect in Amitav Ghosh's sprawling and rather wonderful new historical novel Sea of Poppies. The cast of characters is vast, and at the same time each person stands out as sharply rendered and dramatically urgent. A mixed-race novice sea hand from Baltimore, Zachary Reid, serves as one of the leads, along with an Indian peasant woman named Deeti and her giant of a paramour, Kalua, who rescues her from the funeral pyre of her first husband's body and decamps with her, first to Benares and then belowdecks of the Ibis, the ship of which Reid is the second mate. Yes, the plot is dense, if not thick, and the book builds slowly. But every page you turn is worth it . . . As in any fine historical fiction, authenticity is paramount, which includes the proviso that knowledge shouldn't hamper the drama. Ghosh has done an extraordinary amount of research and possesses the deep dramatic sense that makes what he knows plausible—all truth stands this test in fiction—in light of the unfolding of the plot. Moreover, he tells his story in an appealing, somewhat modified, lingo of the period—when British English mingled with Indian Englishes, and dallied with dozens of other dialects, from ship's lore to pirate talk of the Lascars to the pidgin of the Chinese, and all the other verbal music of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. And beneath it all, like the endless rolling saltwater of the region, Ghosh's own beautifully made sentences and paragraphs buoy up ship, plot, characters and the setting itself with a natural ease and beauty . . . Reading this novel over a number of days—it takes its time and takes your time, but in the best of ways—I often had that same feeling about the book, which sometimes manifested itself as a ship, sometimes as an island, with me the reader sitting balanced on the edge of a precipice. All the good books do that, don't they? Keep us from tumbling into the void."—Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle

"The West has a pernicious dependence on China, and Western business barons are bent on a war that will allegedly liberate a foreign people, as well as secure less lofty things, like the free flow of commodities and profit. While this might sound like a critique of present-day U.S. economic policy and the invasion of Iraq, it's actually a description of the mid-19th-century world vividly conjured up by veteran Indian author Amitav Ghosh in Sea of Poppies. (The first in his Ibis Trilogy, the book was short-listed for the Booker prize but lost to Aravind Adiga's White Tiger.) A sweeping opus set just before the First Opium War, Sea of Poppies contains traces of Dickens and Twain . . . A work of profound historical magnitude . . . This isn't a conventional novel; it's an epic and must be read according to different rules . . . Mr. Ghosh's 19th-century world is worth savoring for its meticulous props and sets—an Armenian boarding house, Calcutta's botanical gardens. Neat coincidences like Deeti's vengeful relative appearing as a guard on the Ibis are permissible and even necessary. It's this uncle, after all, who eventually captures Deeti, which leads to torture, murder and a cliffhanger ending that leaves fans of historical fiction hungry for volume two of this trilogy . . . What makes Sea of Poppies vital is the chilling mirror it holds up to our world. 'We are no different from the Pharaohs or the Mongols,' says the captain of the Ibis. '[T]he difference is only that when we kill people, we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this pretence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.'"—Hirsh Sawhney, The New York Observer

"Rich and panoramic, Amitav Ghosh's latest novel . . . sees this Indian author on masterly form . . . Sea of Poppies is a sprawling adventure with a cast of hundreds and numerous intricate stories encompassing poverty and riches, despair and hope, and the long-fingered reach of the opium trade."—The Economist

"Set on the eve of the Opium Wars, Amitav Ghosh's literary costume drama Sea of Poppies gathers together a boisterous Babel of characters—including the son of an American slave and the Bengali-raised Frenchman who catches his eye—for a storm-tossed adventure worthy of Sir Walter Scott."—Vogue

"No literary outpost of the Anglophone empire has taken up the mantle of Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope with greater enthusiasm and success than India and its diaspora. American novelists have opted for the vein of the British tradition in which the novelist is regarded as a lone genius (viz. D.H. Lawrence); consequently our self-styled great writers usually take themselves (and therefore their heroes) very seriously. Indians, by contrast, tend to favor fat books with dozens of characters, enlivened by lashings of satire and caricature. They give us sagas and epics, about clans rather than isolated individuals. If these novels don't entirely jibe with American notions of high art, they have been welcomed by readers as a superior grade of pure fun. Amitav Ghosh's new book, Sea of Poppies, the first volume in a projected trilogy set in 19th century India and China during the Opium Wars, makes a nimble bid for membership in both categories. First, on the side of entertainment, it is a nautical yarn, brimming with enough fo'c'sles and jibs and fife rails to satisfy the salty cravings of the Patrick O'Brian crowd. . . . On the side of literature, however, Sea of Poppies is drunk on language or, rather, on two languages. The first is the patois produced by the admixture of English and Hindi. One comical minor character, an Englishman with a taste for Indian cuisine and other, less mentionable comestibles, speaks a marginally comprehensible version: 'Now there was a chuckmuck sight for you! Rows of cursies for the sahibs and mems to sit on. Sittringies and tuckers for the natives . . . Oh, that old loocher knew how to put on a nautch all right!' The second language, the polyglot professional slang of the lascars, sailors of the Indian Ocean, is fluently spoken by Serang Ali, the sagacious leader of the Ibis' lascars: 'Captin-bugger blongi poo-shoo-foo. He hab got plenty sick! Need one piece dokto.' The two lingoes combine into a Joycean cacophony that testifies to the fecund energy of English at its fringes and borders. Ghosh himself is obviously besotted with the stuff, and while some readers may need to refer to the glossary (or 'Chrestomathy') at the back of the book, it's not strictly necessary. Likewise, you can harken to Ghosh's sly critique of Britain's colonial mercantilism without feeling like you've been lectured to. My sole criticism of this jolly outing is that it ends too abruptly, or so it seemed before I understood that there were two additional novels to come. 'Wait,' I protested under my breath, 'I want to know what happens when they get to Canton!' And so I shall, though I hope the wait won't be very long."—Laura Miller, Salon

"Fiction set on the high seas has long mixed tense adventure with intelligent drama: Think The Odyssey, Treasure Island and Moby Dick. You can now add to this list Sea of Poppies, the new maritime novel by Indian-born author and Brooklyn resident Amitav Ghosh, 52. Most of the book is set in the 1830s on the Ibis, a former slave ship, now helmed by a British captain, that carries opium from India to China. It is the first installment in an ambitiously plotted trilogy about South Asia and tackles many of the same themes that occupied Melville in his day—commerce, violence, class and the brutally democratizing power of the ocean . . . In addition to its historical insights, Sea of Poppies displays many elements of a picaresque nautical adventure and is frequently as engrossing as the final showdown in Jaws. Meanwhile, the interplay between the crew members lends a certain lighthearted quality that offers some relief from the horrors of drug abuse and human degradation. Communication is a significant concern in the book, which features long passages of pidgin spoken among the lascar chief Serang Ali and the crew. This piecemeal lingua franca of the seas—which, says the author, is a mishmash of English, Portuguese, Bengali, Chinese and Arabic—is one of the great joys of the novel, not unlike Twain's portrayal of Huck Finn's regional Mississippi dialect. It is also a necessary engine for Ghosh's multicultural petri dish of a boat. 'The thing about sailing is that it's one of the few machines that can't function without language,' Ghosh explains. 'Someone has to give an order, and 15 or 20 people have to implement it immediately. What struck me is that you can see from the crew lists of the period that the crews were incredibly varied. I began to suspect very early on that there must be a language of command which allows the ship to operate.' Though his language is a multivalent, almost chaotic triumph, Ghosh didn't always fare well while studying maritime life. 'I did try and learn how to sail while researching the book and didn't do a very good job of it,' the author laughs. That said, his characters know how to maneuver a boat, and he knows how to direct them on the page—so well, that readers will be happy to know that there are two books still to come."—Drew Toal, Time Out New York

"In this first of three planned novels, Amitav Ghosh has vividly brought to life a dark section of history, Sea of Poppies explores the costs, human and otherwise, of the British Raj's creation of the opium industry, growing and manufacturing it in India and shipping it to China to keep the populous there docile and controllable. So many fields, originally used for food, were converted to opium, that it often caused poverty and hunger among the local communities. Scenes range from the opium fields and manufacturing plants, to the highs and lows of the Indian cities in 1838 and some of the best 19th century sailing writing in many years. Most of the book is set on the sailing ship Ibis, and the characters are as varied as one could possibly imagine. A British captain and first mate, an American second mate, regarded as 'black' but passable as white, a French woman raised by a Muslim wet nurse, and bankrupt rajah. The mix of language creates almost a Babel-ish environment, though Ghosh uses the resulting language as an additional character."—Sacramento Book Review

"Ghosh gives the full panoramic treatment to a fascinating subject—the opium industry in 1830s India—and its colorful participants: peasants tending the poppy crop, feces-cakes addicts, and sadomasochistic imperialist villains . . . Sea of Poppies is the beginning of a trilogy; read it now."—New York magazine

"With Sea of Poppies, a work of astonishing ambition that was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Ghosh has widened his aperture to take in a larger landscape enlightened by discovery yet shackled by racial prejudice and immutable attitudes toward class and faith. It's one of the best 19th-century novels of the year. Set in 1838 on the eve of the Opium Wars, Poppies begins with the arrival of the schooner Ibis in Ghazipur on the Ganges, near the vaunted Benares poppy fields. A former slave ship, the Ibis embarks on a journey promising freedom for some of its human cargo and indentured servitude for others, setting out to Mauritius by way of the Andaman Islands. The universe described here is one of unwitting subjugation. Opium, the Ibis' other haul, proves an apt metaphor for the fate of many characters. The drug initially intoxicates, serving as a palliative from daily suffering, until ultimately forcing bondage upon the addict . . . Poppies' grand love affair is with language. The book is drunk with words, phrases both rich with 19th-century sailor-speak and rushing over regional boundaries. Language is a river of the unknown, with characters as unaccustomed to one another's language as the reader is . . . Poppies is the first volume of a proposed Ibis trilogy. The novel ends with a longboat embarking off-course into uncharted territory with a crew of stowaways and strangers. With any luck, Ghosh's second installment will not only broaden the fertile territory, but also enrich his characters so that they're equal to the glory of his subject and the ardor of his language."—Karen Heller, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Early in Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh's eighth novel, there is a confrontation between an Indian raja named Neel Rattan Halder and a British trading house owner, Benjamin Brightwell Burnham, over the commerce that is about to change their lives: '"Well then, it falls to me to inform you, sir," said Mr. Burnham, that of late the officials in Canton have been moving forcefully to end the inflow of opium into China. It is the unanimous opinion of all of us who do business there that the mandarins cannot be allowed to have their way. To end the trade would be ruinous for firms like mine, but also for you, and indeed for all of India." '"Ruinous?" said Neel mildly. "But surely we can offer China something more useful than opium?" '"Would that it were so," said Burnham. "But it is not. To put the matter simply: there is nothing they want from us—they've got it into their heads that they have no use for our products and manufactures. But we, on the other hand, can't do without their tea and their silks. If not for opium, the drain of silver from Britain and her colonies would be too great to sustain."' So it is, that just as the teak trade was the pivotal enterprise in Mr. Ghosh's vaunted novel The Glass Palace (2002), tensions over the global trade in opium give Mr. Ghosh the opportunity to weave a gorgeously sprawling and affecting tale. In Sea of Poppies, the aspirations of 19th-century British colonizers, native cultural imperatives and business realities compete and move the book's tumultuous tapestry of a story forward. The book is divided into three parts: 'Land,' 'River' and 'Sea' and the narrative moves with a sense of the elemental from parts of rural India to Calcutta to the open seas to Mauritius and Canton. The book opens, however, with a young mother's mystical experience: 'The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly the apparition was a sign of destiny for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast?' In the book, that ship, the Ibis, becomes the linchpin between commerce and chaos, a way of life lost and a culture preserved. And it will carry an unlikely crew of ship hands, migrants, officers and various representatives of four major families who are touched or swept up by the overwhelming tide of the opium trade and the dissolution of life as they knew it. While the book bears all the earmarks of a historical novel, Mr. Ghosh here both deepens and elevates the genre. There is no way to read this book without thinking (during the sea passages) of Melville and Conrad, or (on land) of Dickens and even Tolstoy. The language is evocative and clear and moves from the breathtakingly beautiful to the playful. Consider this rollicking passage of ship pidgin: 'Now there was another chuckmuck sight for you! Rows of cursies for the sahibs and mems to sit on. Sittringies and tuckiers for the natives. The baboos puffing at their hubble-bubbles and the sahibs lighting their Sumatra buncuses.' It barely matters that one doesn't understand every word; it sings of time and place. For the fastidious reader, there is a glossary in the back of the book that bears witness to Mr. Ghosh's attention to historical detail and scholarship. But one may also get by with the advice given Zachary by a British host, '"The zubben, dear boy, is the flash lingo of the East. It's easy enough to jin if you put your head to it."' In the end, however, what one remembers most are the unexpected peeks into the terrifying and hellish operations of the opium factories and the trials its characters endure. Readers come to embrace those such as Deeti, who is ultimately forced to leave her village near Benares; Zachary Reid, the American freedman whose light skin helps him advance through the ranks on board the ship; Neel, who faces humiliation and the dismantling of his family estate; and the lumbering Kahlua, who endures untold disgrace on his way to heroism. It is a cast of characters readers will not soon forget. This is good since Sea of Poppies is the first book of a planned trilogy. And it may well possess the most memorable and heartbreaking scene of how the poppy was integrated into the daily lives of the unsuspecting, often leading to addiction and adding to the plight of the most poverty-stricken: 'The sun was past its zenith now and a haze was dancing over the flowers, in the warmth of the afternoon. Deeti drew the ghungta of her sari over her face, but the old cotton, cheap and thin to begin with, was now so worn that she could see right through it: the faded fabric blurred the outlines of everything in view, tinting the edge of the plump poppy pods with a faintly crimson halo . . . The sweet, heady odour of the bleeding pods had drawn swarms of insects, and the air was buzzing with bees, grasshoppers and wasps; many would get stuck in the ooze and tomorrow, when the sap turned colour, their bodies would merge into the black gum, becoming a welcome addition to the weight of the harvest. The sap seemed to have a pacifying effect even on the butterflies, which flapped their wings in oddly erratic patterns, as though they could not remember how to fly. One of these landed on the back of [her daughter's] hand and would not take wing until it was thrown up in the air. '"See how it's lost in dreams?" Deeti said. "That means the harvest will be good this year. Maybe we'll even be able to fix our roof."' The panoramic adventure and humanity in this big book is not to be missed. The intelligence with which Mr. Ghosh tackles one of the singularly vexing political and economic bungles in history is an inspiration and a caution."—Carol Herman, The Washington Times

"Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, the first in a seafaring trilogy, unspools its tale in the run-up to the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century, when an expanding East India Company fought to smuggle opium grown in India into China for enormous profits. At the heart of this tale of colonialism and migration sails the Ibis, a British trading ship that holds out the prospect of both slavery and liberation for its motley crew. But the voyage of the old-fashioned schooner has barely begun by the novel's end, and much of this rich and absorbing book (which was shortlisted for the 2008 Booker prize) is spent assembling an extraordinarily diverse cast of sailors and passengers from all parts of the world . . . Ghosh's new novel bears the hallmarks of his best fiction–an evocative, scholarly recreation of a historical period and a painstaking attention to social and economic detail that reflects his training as a social anthropologist . . . Ghosh, who has written about Burma, Cambodia, and Bangladesh, folds in some serious historical themes. For one, he touches on the damage that British opium peddling inflicted, both on those forced to farm poppies and those addicted to opium. The novel also provides a rare look at the shipping of indentured labor from the Indian subcontinent to colonial outposts such as Mauritius . . . One of the novel's biggest achievements is the re-creation of the lost language of the lascars, a nautical Babel of English, Portugese, Malay, Hindi, and other languages (As one sailor asks: 'What for make big dam bobbery'n so muchee bukbuk?'). Getting eyes, ears, and head around the sailors' dialogue is the book's biggest challenge—and its chief delight."—Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar, The Christian Science Monitor

"[A] remarkably rich saga . . . which has plenty of action and adventure a la Dumas, but moments also of Tolstoyan penetration—and a drop or two of Dickensian sentiment."—Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer (UK)

"India in the 1830s is wonderfully evoked—the smells, rituals and squalor . . . Coarseness and violence, cruelty and fatalism are relieved with flashes of emotion and kindness. This is no anti-colonial rant or didactic tableau but the story of men and women of all races and castes, cooped up on a voyage across the 'Black Water' that strips them of dignity and ends in storm, neither in despair nor resolution. It is profoundly moving."—Michael Binyon, The Times (UK)

"In bringing his troupe of characters to Calcutta, 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 . . . Yet for all its research, Sea of Poppies is full of the open air. It never, as the 18th century used to say, 'smells of the lamp.'"—James Buchan, The Guardian (UK)

"Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies is a virtuoso number: a wonderful multilayered novel about a group of disparate characters in 1830s India whose lives knit together as they come together to take to sea on the ship Ibis. The poppies of the title are opium poppies—the coming opium wars between Britain and China form the backdrop to this story, the first in a trilogy. One of the real joys of this book is the language—Ghosh mingles English, American, Indian, Anglo-Indian and Lascar dialects with wonderful abandon. It's very rich."—Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian: Books Blog (UK)

"The seaboard sections rival those in Melville and Conrad, but the scenes ashore are equally gripping and one leaves this long page-turner wishing it could continue. One waits eagerly for its sequels. Sea of Poppies is a tremendous novel . . . his 'Ibis' trilogy will surely come to be regarded as one of the masterpieces of twenty-first-century fiction."—John Thieme, Literary Review (UK)

"Ghosh [is] master of a rich vernacular . . . Sea of Poppies is a thoroughly readable romp of a novel, filled with excellent set pieces, comic digressions (especially its comedies of manners), love interest, subterfuge and betrayal."—Toby Lichtig, New Statesman (UK)

"Ghosh conjures up each character with alacrity, fixing even minor players in the reader's mind with a few deft words . . . The narrative rolls along to the rhythms of the sea, seasoned with salty language and bawdy badinage. Its characters speak in exotic farragoes of English, French and Indian dialects, yet you don't necessarily need the glossary provided in the U.S. edition of the book . . . This is a deeply old-fashioned novel, unburdened by post-modern trickery and driven by plot devices that Robert Louis Stevenson would have loved: Grudges must be avenged, debts paid off, pasts hidden. As love, greed and ambition hasten the pace, more nuanced themes of faith and ideology languish, though boundaries of class, caste and race blur subversively once the Ibis leaves the dock for Mauritius."—Hephzibah Anderson, Bloomberg News

"Sea of Poppies, the eighth novel by Indian writer Amitav Ghosh and the first in a projected trilogy, was shortlisted this year for the prestigious Man Booker Prize and deservedly so. It's a wonderful book, a large, ambitious novel in which extraordinary people come to life and vibrant, exotic places are memorably depicted—the poppy fields of India, the streets of Calcutta, the alleyways of Canton. Set in 1838, the novel tells the stories of a great many disparate people on board the Ibis, a refitted slave ship from Calcutta traveling to Canton, China, and on to penal colonies in Mauritius to deposit the Indian prisoners and indentured servants it transports. The novel takes place as the Opium Wars are about to begin. Indian peasants have been forced by the British, in particular the East India Co., to turn their land over for the growing of poppies for export to China. This has destroyed their livelihoods and threatened their spirits. The opium, originally used medicinally, has become a lucrative recreational drug, and many entrepreneurs have gotten rich in this trade. A notable example is Benjamin Burnham, owner of the Ibis. Burnham is a former slave trader and, all in all, a rather unsavory character. In years when the poppy growth is scant, he makes his money transporting these 'undesirables,' whose reasons for being on his ship are as varied as their nationalities and personalities. This is less a political novel than a historical and cultural novel. We learn many fascinating details about the production and trade of opium, the living conditions on land and boat and the strategies for survival employed by his characters. Ghosh places his emphasis solidly on the people, offering a rich assortment of characters. We meet a bankrupt raja whose profligate spending and resulting indebtedness lead him to a life of crime (forgery) and to a sentence of transportation to a penal colony in Mauritius. Several characters are girimitayas, the indentured servants also being transported to Mauritius. Then there's Paulette, a young Frenchwoman fleeing her own demons. Fearing she may be recognized by the captain, who knows and threatens her, she disguises herself as an indentured servant. She falls in love with the American second mate, who's on the ship because his mixed race has made him less than welcome in his homeland. All these characters and many others speak their own languages, follow their own traditions and somehow form strong bonds with one another. Although Ghosh provides an enjoyable and witty glossary at the end of the book, for the most part, context clarifies the terms, and a great deal of pleasure in reading the novel comes from our growing familiarity with them and accepting his invitation into this polyglot world. Because Sea of Poppies includes so many characters, initially it can take some looking back over the novel to remember someone's background and to place him in the action. But that confusion passes quickly; no two characters are interchangeable. All are complex and complete as individuals. One of the most sympathetic is Deeti Singh, a peasant woman whom we meet at the novel's beginning. She's a young mother who, in her teens, married a man addicted to opium. Consequently, he's useless as a husband and provider. She's victimized by his family, and when he dies, she's drugged and prepared for a sati, a ritual burning on the husband's funeral pyre. Saved by an unlikely man she'd befriended earlier, she escapes with him on the Ibis to begin a new life. With the elegant rolling syntax and skillful blending of external events and internal emotions typical of his writing style, Ghosh describes Deeti's awakening on a raft with the man, being splashed by the waves: 'Under the impact of these dousings, the fog that clouded Deeti's mind began slowly to dispel and she became aware that she was on a river with a man beside her, holding her in place with his arm. None of this was surprising, for it was in exactly this way that she had expected to awaken from the flames—afloat in the netherworld, on the Baitarini River, in the custody of Charak, the boatman of the dead. Such was her fear of what she would see that she did not open her eyes: every wave, she imagined, was carrying her closer to the far bank, where the god of death, Jamaraj, held sway.' Sea of Poppies is not a quick read. It's not a book to be flipped through while sitting on a tarmac waiting for a delayed plane to finally take off, and no one should try to read it that way. This is a work to savor. Ghosh's love of language is demonstrated on every page. It's a long book, but I, for one, can't wait for the second volume of the trilogy."—Mary J. Elkins, Rocky Mountain News

"Ghosh knows of what he speaks. Born in Calcutta, India, he was educated in Dehradun, New Delhi, Alexandria and Oxford and has lived in a half-dozen other cities. His books have made their way into the world, allowing him to travel in their wake. Since 1986, he has published 11 works of fiction and nonfiction. All explore issues of migration and many of them reveal how cultures collide. But none of them does so in quite so dramatic a fashion as his grand new Booker Prize finalist novel, The Sea of Poppies, an epic seafaring adventure about a misbegotten crew of Indians, Americans, British traders and East Asians who wind up sailing toward the heart of British traders' first Opium War with China aboard a former slave ship called the Ibis. The book is the first in what promises to become a trilogy about these characters and a ratty corner of imperial history."—John Freeman, The Denver Post

"Sea of Poppies is a miraculous book about even more than the 19th-century opium trade, which is an exciting tale in and of itself, fraught with voracious greed, power-mongering, and racism. One that travels from India's poppy fields, where subsistence farmers are being starved off their land, to Canton and the Opium Wars. In this sprawling novel of England's rapacious hunger for sterling, Ghosh creates various patois used by ship hands, English merchants, and their Indian subordinates, each word so vulgar in its descriptive assumptions and implications that we at once understand the implicit order of colonial class and native caste. The hierarchies imposed by Ghosh's masterful play with language reveal a subtext of social and sexual insults almost Joycean in their rants. This is at once a high-seas adventure, a ripping cut of the English carpet baggers unlike any I have ever read, and a historical novel painstakingly researched to give us a full and detailed account. Sea of Poppies has a huge cast of finely wrought characters; Dickensian outcasts, the offspring of miscegenation, orphans and criminals are the heroes of this tale. They survive through sagacity, willful strength, and patient stealth."—Betsy Sussler, Bomb

"Sea of Poppies takes place in 1838, when the opium trade between British-ruled India and China was in full swing . . . The range of characters is as diverse as their lingo, social standing and skin color, yet accomplished novelist Amitav Ghosh suggests the differences are illusory . . . Ghosh revels in the unique vocabulary of his British, American, French, Indian, and Lascar characters, providing a Babel of colloquial phrases and obscure naval terms . . . Sea of Poppies is the first in a planned trilogy, which may be why the action in the last quarter of the book steps up to a feverish pace. You can almost hear the narrative gears grinding as Ghosh maneuvers everyone into place to create a cliffhanger ending. But this doesn't take away from the rollicking energy and heart of a very engaging novel."—Lauren Bufferd, Bookpage

"[Ghosh's] sixth novel, the first in a projected trilogy, traces the global effects of a gargantuan drug-trafficking enterprise. While the slave trade in the Atlantic triangle between England, Africa, and the Americas has long been a rich source of epic fiction, Sea of Poppies casts light on a less well-charted triangular trade. From the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth, British India led the world as an opium supplier, an export business imposed and monopolized by the East India Company expressly to balance the colonial power's trade with China. Though Britons thirsted for tea, silk, and porcelain, China's relative imperviousness to British manufactured goods meant that, without the addictive lure of opium, that demand would have drained the empire's coffers. The novel unfolds on the eve of the Anglo-Chinese opium wars of 1839–43 and 1846–60, just as China's mandarins are cracking down on the illegal import—having failed, as one bellicose British merchant sees it, to 'understand the benefits of Free Trade' . . . With ebullient energy and ingenious plotting, Ghosh assembles a cast of characters whose destinies converge on a single vessel, the Ibis. A former 'blackbirder' slave ship–turned–opium schooner, Burnham's Ibis is now transporting convicts and indentured laborers, or 'quoddies' and 'girmitiyas' (from girmit, a corruption of agreement), between Calcutta and the pepper island of Mauritius, before returning to join the punitive adventure to Canton. Captained by white sahibs and crewed by lascars—Chinese, East African, Arab, Malay, Bengali, Goan, Tamil, and Arakanese seamen with 'nothing in common, except the Indian Ocean'—it is a floating universe, a microcosm of diaspora. Ghosh draws on nineteenth-century lexica, such as Sir Henry Yule's Hobson-Jobson and Thomas Roebuck's English and Hindostanee Naval Dictionary, to create a babel of tongues, from Bengali and Bhojpuri to Laskari and Franglais. The result, though hardly naturalistic, re-creates the disorientation and shock of habituating to new worlds. It is perhaps as alarming and exhilarating as the Western seaman's culinary switch from the 'usual sailor's menu of lobscouse, dandyfunk and chokedog, to a Laskari fare of karibat and kedgeree' . . . The improbable plot piles on suspense and swashbuckling alongside the comedy of disguise. Yet this page-turner also bristles with intriguing historical detail . . . Ghosh, who divides his time between Kolkata, Goa, and Brooklyn, has created a rollicking romantic adventure that dramatizes the individual fears and dreams behind mass migration, as well as the human costs of a ruthless—and enduring—quest for markets."—Maya Jaggi, Bookforum

"Set in 1830s, this is the story of the people on the Ibis, a ship that will sail from the Bay of Bengal to Mauritius. Originally a slave ship, the Ibis has undergone a bit of a transformation after the abolition of slavery. When the story begins, a refurbished Ibis—minus the earlier shackles and chains—is ready to transport indentured labor to British colonies, its cargo men and women from agrarian Eastern India and Bengal who will sail to Mauritius to work as labor on plantations. Called girmitiyas (a corrupted derivative of the English 'agreement' that they have signed to work as labor), these people will by sailing the Black Waters (Kaala Pani) lose not just their hearth and home forever, but also what is most precious to the Hindus of the time: their caste. Why, then, would they want to leave their land for the unknown? This is India in the 19th century. The East India Company's hold on Bengal is complete, and the eastern provinces beyond Bengal are also under the purview of the Company Bahadur's rule. With policies that enforce opium cultivation and destroy indigenous agriculture and trade, this rule spells havoc for India's villages and towns. Bearing testimony to this is the motley crowd on the ship, all products of the disaster brought on by opium cultivation and trade . . . A hugely entertaining and enjoyable read—and an absolutely un-put-down-able book. The next two parts of the trilogy will be eagerly awaited."—Curled Up With a Good Book

"A historical novel crammed almost to the bursting point with incidents and characters, but Ghosh deftly keeps everything under control. It's 1838, and Britain is set on maintaining the opium trade between India and China as a buttress of its economic, political and cultural power. Ghosh orchestrates his polyphonic saga with a composer's fine touch. He lays out multiple narrative lines, initially separate, that eventually conjoin on the Ibis, a schooner bound from Calcutta to China across the much-feared 'Black Water.' Neel, the sophisticated raja of Raskhali, is convicted of a trumped-up forgery charge. Kalua, a prodigiously strong member of the lower caste, rescues the higher-caste Deeti from ritual burning on the death of her egregious husband. Paulette, a feisty French orphan, stows away on the Ibis to escape the restricted life of a white woman in India. It also might have something to do with the attractions of Zachary Reid, the ship's mixed-race second mate from Baltimore. He's commanded by brutal first mate Jack Crowle, who has no sympathy for anyone of any color, and by Captain Chillingworth, who warns passengers and crew, 'at sea there is another law, and . . . on this vessel I am its sole maker.' Ghosh could be accused of using coincidence a bit too freely, but a more charitable view will judge the inevitability of these characters' intertwinings as karma—and part of the pleasure of reading the novel. The density of settings, from rural India to teeming Calcutta to the Sudder Opium Factory, is historically convincing, and the author pays close attention to variations in speech, from the clipped formality of the educated class to a patois ('the kubber is that his cuzzanah is running out') that definitely requires the glossary that Ghosh provides. Planned as the first of a trilogy, this astonishing, mesmerizing launch will be hard to top."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Diaspora, myth and a fascinating language mashup propel the Rubik's cube of plots in Ghosh's picaresque epic of the voyage of the Ibis, a ship transporting Indian girmitiyas (coolies) to Mauritius in 1838. The first two-thirds of the book chronicles how the crew and the human cargo come to the vessel, now owned by rising opium merchant Benjamin Burnham. Mulatto second mate Zachary Reid, a 20-year-old of Lord Jim–like innocence, is passing for white and doesn't realize his secret is known to the gomusta (overseer) of the coolies, Baboo Nob Kissin, an educated Falstaffian figure who believes Zachary is the key to realizing his lifelong mission. Among the human cargo, there are three fugitives in disguise, two on the run from a vengeful family and one hoping to escape from Benjamin. Also on board is a formerly high caste raj who was brought down by Benjamin and is now on his way to a penal colony. The cast is marvelous and the plot majestically serpentine, but the real hero is the English language, which has rarely felt so alive and vibrant."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Read an Excerpt

SEA OF POPPIES (Chapter One)One

The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny, for she had never seen such a vessel...

About the author

Amitav Ghosh

AMITAV GHOSH is the internationally bestselling author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Glass Palace, The Great Derangement, and the Ibis Trilogy (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire). He is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes. Ghosh divides his time between Kolkata and Goa, India, and Brooklyn, New York.

Ivo van der Bent

Amitav Ghosh

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