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The first in Amitav Ghosh's new trilogy of novels,
Sea of Poppies
is a stunningly vibrant and intensely human work that confirms his reputation as a master storyteller. At the heart of this epic saga is a vast ship, the Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean to the Mauritius Islands.
As to the people on board, they are a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts. In a time of colonial upheaval in the mid nineteenth century, fate has thrown together a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt Raja to a widowed village-woman, from a mulatto American freedman to a free-spirited European orphan. As they sail down the Hooghly and into the sea, their old family ties are washed away, and they view themselves as
, or ship-brothers, who will build whole new lives for themselves in the remote islands where they are being taken.
It is the beginning of an unlikely dynasty. The sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields by the Ganga, the rolling high seas, and the exotic backstreets of China at the time of the Opium Wars. But it is the panorama of characters, whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself, which makes Sea of Poppies so breathtakingly alive?a masterpiece from one of the world`s finest novelists.
Although I have been a fan of Amitav Ghosh since I read
The Circle of Reason
in 2005, I was a bit doubtful about the
Sea of Poppies.
I thought that it will be a heavy read and picked it up with mixed feelings. From the first page though, Ghosh takes you on a journey spanning a diverse range of characters.
There is Deeti, the wife of an opium addict, trying to eke out a living and dreaming of repairing her hut's roof. There is Zachary, a "free man" from America, who has signed on as the ship Ibis's carpenter. Then, Paulette, the daughter of a French botanist, who is facing the sudden reversals in her life because of her father's death. And her childhood friend, Jodu, who is determined to live out his dream to be a lascar on a proper jahaj, and not his father's boat. And who can forget Raja Neel, more angrez than a true angrez, who speaks perfect English and has read all the English poets, but has been charged with forgery and has lost his entire fortune and reputation.
Ghosh's meticulous research into the dialects, the food, the clothes, and even the songs of each character breathes life into every one of them. Spanning the fields near Benares to the ghats of Kolkata, and onward toward Mauritius, the story seems to ride the waves of that era. Each page provides enough twists to make one want to go on to the next. Battling demons of their past?imprisonment, poverty, sati, to just mention a few?each character finally sets out on a voyage toward a new future.
Two things remain in my mind: one, when will this book be set to a movie?it's perfect for one; and two, when do I get to read the sequel?
Sea of Poppies is a fiction, at the heart of which is the ship named Ibis. A mosaic of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts are aboard. The ship is to have a turbulent voyage along the Indian Ocean to the Mauritius Island. A diverse cast of Indians and Westerners have been brought together in the ship at a time when colonial disturbances were at its peak. The people aboard sail down the Hooghly into the sea and the writer correlates this journey into the sea, as a phenomenon where old family ties are washed away and the diverse range of people live as ship-brothers. The ship brothers are taken to remote islands where they are to live new lives and this is the start of an improbable dynasty. The story revolves around Deeti, an ordinary village woman, Zachary, a sailor of American Origin, Neel, an Indian Landlord and finally and an evangelist opium trader. The characters are portrayed as poppy seeds originating from the field to form the sea. Like the seed which is unsure of what is to come, they are uncertain of the future that awaits them. Deeti is saved from a customary Sati by ox man from the neighboring village. They unite later which is un-acceptable to the villagers. The American sailor on the other hand, gains utmost attention since he has been on the Ibis since long and hopes to die with it. Neel Rattan Haldar is a wealthy landlord but has sold all his property to pay off the loans due to losses incurred during the opium trade with China. Yet another character is Miss Paulette, a French lady who eventually falls in love with Zachary. The ship Ibis serves as a shelter to all the travelers aboard. But after a series of bloodshed in the vessel, a few of them escape unaware of the future that awaits them. This is certainly a true masterpiece by the much acclaimed writer. One should read it to believe his genius.