Soldiers and Victims of the Opium War

Reviewed by Shashi Tharoor
Sunday, October 19, 2008; Page BW03


By Amitav Ghosh

Farrar Straus Giroux. 515 pp. $26

Since the publication of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children in 1981, a new and ancient land has imposed itself on the world's literary consciousness, -- a land whose language and concerns have stretched the boundaries of the possible in English literature. A generation of post-colonial Indian writers has brought a larger world -- a teeming, myth-infused, gaudy, exuberant, many-hued and restless

world -- past the immigration inspectors of English literature. 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 outcaste 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 is a former under secretary general of the United Nations and the author, most recently, of "The Great Indian Novel" and "The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cellphone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-Century Power."

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