- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

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 sand 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 afternnoon. 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.

By Amitav Ghosh
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26, 514 pages

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