Sea of Poppies is a historical novel about 1830’s India, in the midst of blossoming of the opium trade. I’ve been reading a lot about the opium trade these last couple of months, particularly about Afghanistan (I also wrote about it a little), so Sea of Poppies served as my time machine, a ticket to 19th century opium trade. Although this is a novel, Amitav Ghosh did a remarkable amount of research to provide a credible portrayal of the period. That is, to me, the biggest achievement of this book.
Reading about opium trade, I still don’t know what to make of it, is it a good thing, bad thing, can we really moralize about it, how do we deal with people dependent on it, people whose only income comes from the opium trade… This novel deals with the complex moral questions of the opium trade in an emphathetic way, it provides context, immersing in true motivations and needs. Ghosh writes:
“It was a single poppy seed…she rolled it between her fingers and raised her eyes past the straining sails, to the star-filled vault above. On any other night she would have scanned the sky for the planet she had always thought to be the arbiter of her fate – but tonight her eyes dropped instead to the tiny sphere she was holding between her thumb and forefinger. She looked at the seed as if she had never seen one before, and suddenly she knew that it was not the planet above that governed her life: it was this minuscule orb – at once bountiful and all-devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful. This was her Shani, her Saturn.”
Sea of Poppies is the first book of Ibis trilogy. Ibis , a vast ship, is at the heart of this saga. Its destiny is to sail across the Indian Ocean, to fight China’s vicious nineteenth-century Opium Wars. The Ibis crew is as diverse as it can be – sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts, bankrupt raja and French oprhan, Indians and Westerners…
“Sometimes, the lascars would gather between the bows to listen to the stories of the greybeards. There was the steward, Cornelius Pinto: a grey-haired Catholic, from Goa, he claimed to have been around the world twice, sailing in every kind of ship, with every kind of sailor – including Finns, who were known to be the warlocks and wizards of the sea, capable of conjuring up winds with a whistle.”
When they board Ibis, they must leave their history behind and became ship-brothers. In this story about colonialism, the characters are just as diverse as the British Empire itself, each with their own dialects and idiosyncracies. The language Ghosh uses is too old school and uptight for my taste but it is very much in spirit with the time described. Although dialects add to the authenticity of the voices of the characters, emphasizing dialects was distracting at times, almost a little annoying. That was one of my problems with the novel.
Another problem is the overly black and white portrayal of some of the characters. The British are represented by Ghosh as unsymptathetic buffoons, which is understandable, taking in consideration the colonial context. Still, at times it is almost like a caricature. It could be intentional, of course, for they are not to be liked, but I think there were more subtle and nuanced ways of showing the cruelty and ignorance of colonizers. It could have provided a deeper criticism, and this way – I don’t feel like Ghosh says anything new (in relation to colonizers).
Those were some of my issues with this novel, but I would still recommend it, for it offers a great historical insight into an interesting and very much defining period of time for India and for the opium trade.
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