What was the impact of the opium trade on India? This wasn’t a question I’d ever considered until I read Sea of Poppies, the wonderful new novel from Amitav Ghosh. Set in the period leading up to the outbreak of the First Opium War, the book describes the epic voyage of the ship Ibis and its motley crew of convicts, indentured laborers, sailors, and ex-pirates from Calcutta to the island of Mauritius.
The story starts in a small village near to Varanasi, where the farmers have been enchained in a vicious cycle of debt after being forced to plant their fertile fields with poppies instead of staple crops to feed the opium factories run by the East India Company.
There, after Deeti’s opium-addict husband dies, she is pushed into committing Sati by his family but is rescued just as she is about to step on the funeral pyre by the lower caste Kalua and flees with him down the River Ganges, only to find that the only way for the couple to survive is to sign up as indentured laborers and brave the unknown perils of the voyage across the “Black Water” to Mauritius.
Joining them on the ship is a large number of other bewildered unfortunates, all desperate to escape the grinding poverty of their lives in exchange for what at best is an uncertain future, as well as a couple of convicts, one of whom is a former Raja sentenced to transportation on trumped up charges.
Add in Zachary, an ambitious mulatto American freedman, Paulette, the passionate daughter of a now-dead French botanist who grew up outside the constrictions of colonial society, Baboo Nob Kissim, a highly superstitious bureaucrat obsessed by the movements of his bowels, and the pompous and ruthless British merchant Benjamin Burnham, and you have a quite breathtaking all-star cast of characters spanning an astonishing array of races, creeds, and castes of both native Indian and colonial society.
The author weaves their tales in a meticulous and lyrical fashion, drawing the disparate strands of the narrative ever closer and tighter until the book reaches its brutal climax, sparing no effort to decry the greed and hypocrisy of the British colonial rulers and to describe the suffering of the villagers grinding out their lives in poverty bound tightly by the restrictions of caste and custom.
But despite the gloomy picture he paints, the author does allow chinks of humor and kindness to shine through the darkness. For this is not a political tract out to make a point about the evils of colonialism; it’s a rich and vivid portrait of humanity at its basest and – occasionally – its finest.