Amitav Ghoshâ€™s Sea of Poppies is a remarkable novel, complex and challenging enough to test even the most experienced reader and historian, but relatable and powerful enough to touch someone who solely appreciates a great story. Dickensian in its scope and power, the story follows riveting characters from all origins as they navigate the complex contours of 1830â€™s opium-ridden India, a land where the weight of history lies heavily, yet identities are transformed overnight.
Warning: Some plot details are included! If you are going to read the book (which you should), read the rest of the review afterwardsThe heroine we are first introduced to is Deeti, the hardened wife of an opium worker and loving mother of a young daughter, who is completely ordinary in every way, except for her ability to see â€œvisions.â€ With this character development, it might seem as though the book is taking a typical turn into the exotic world of rural India, with its spirits and spooky romance, but this is far from the case. Deetiâ€™s journey is the most real experience that can be written about, a journey where she leaves home, finds love, becomes a leader, fights evil, and as a village woman, rises to the most extraordinary heights in a novel that also includes a dashing and good-hearted American sailor, a caring oxcart rider, various sketchy seamen, a dorky young French orphan, a Chinese opium addict, and an Indian raja.
The list of characters might make it seem as though the author is trying too hard to include everyone, as many good authors (think Herman Wouk in the Winds of War) are sometimes guilty of doing, but the author leaves you with the (correct) impression that the nature of 19th century India was a land of many identities and origins, of complex personalities and changing ideas that added layers and dimensions to identities. Ah Fatt might be a disheveled Chinese opium addict, but he is also the son of a great businessman from Bombay. The power of Ghoshâ€™s storytelling is evident in the development of Fattâ€™s friendship with the Raja of Rashkali, who both are able to make a genuine friendship and find themselves only once they are both convicts.
All of these charactersâ€™ lives intertwine on the Ibis, a ship carrying wretchedly treated migrant laborers and convicts to Mauritius. The sea is really where Ghosh is at his best â€“ his knowledge of the Indian seas and seamen at the time, the life and language of the â€œlascars,â€ the motley and diverse sailing crews of 19th century Asia, and the journey down India to the â€œBlack Waters,â€ all show a staggering depth of historical research and a unique skill of subtly and unobtrusively using this research in fiction. Ghosh is the rare writer to write about colonial India without resorting to easily typecast roles or storylines; he understands that colonial India was not a clear spectrum of â€œgood and evil,â€ but rather of complex allegiances and personalities, unseen evil and hidden heroes.
Whether when a marriage takes place in the â€œdabusa,â€ the cramped ship hold, the deep insecurities of a cruel sailor are revealed, or a humiliated husband vows to return to his wife and son, Ghosh writes with such a stunning clarity and understanding of the human spirit that the reader relishes every moment of the book, reveling in the peaks, valleys, and sheer power of the human experience. Just as there is a little of Sydney Carton and Madame Defarge in all of us, readers will discover that there is a little Deeti and Zachary Reid, a little Paulette and Munia, a little Jodu and Serang Ali, in every one of them.
This book is certainly one of the best written on colonial India, fiction or nonfiction, but perhaps the greatest imprint of this novel transcends its setting. Near the end of the novel, there is a moment in which an issue of race and identity comes to the forefront. Ghosh writes
â€œThat the essence of this transformation should inhere in a single word â€“ all of this spoke more to the delirium of the world than to the perversity of those who had to make their way in it.â€
And perhaps it is our delirium that would make us identify this as a great â€œIndianâ€ novel, for it is clear that a story this extraordinary could happen anywhere.