'Sea of Poppies': An Epic Tale Of Opium And Empire

Amitav Ghosh

Born in Calcutta in 1956, Amitav Ghosh was raised and educated in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Iran, Egypt, India and England. He is the author of numerous books, including The Hungry Tide and The Glass Palace, the 2001 winner of the Grand Prize for Fiction at the Frankfurt International e-Book Awards. Dayanita Singh hide caption

itoggle caption Dayanita Singh

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A colorful, enticing, yet dangerous image is evoked by the title of Amitav Ghosh's entrancing new novel, Sea of Poppies. That sea is mirrored by another: the Bay of Bengal, where the opium trade flourished in the early 19th century. Both seas provide backdrop and engine for Ghosh's tale, the first volume in a projected trilogy.

Sea of Poppies begins with the conversion of a former slave ship, the Ibis, into a transport vessel. The ship will henceforth carry opium bound for China and indentured servants to colonies like the British West Indies.

As the Ibis is outfitted, readers are led through the splendidly exciting cosmos of 1838 Calcutta. The bustling port city is the site of forbidden romance, disguise, deceit, courtroom dramas and ritual suttees (the practice of burning recent widows).

The ship's crew and passengers — opium factory workers, American sailors, French runaways, lascars, coolies, convicts, rajas and sahibs — reflect Calcutta's cosmopolitan racial and socioeconomic swirl. Theirs is a polyglot world, ringing with pidgin, Chinglish, Hinglish and the inimitable slang of seafarers. While the glories of their meticulously recreated lexicon may occasionally stump readers, the author has helpfully included a witty glossary (supposedly compiled by one character).

Ghosh, a former newspaper reporter who holds a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford University, is bent on bringing the voices of India's historical underclass to life. So he immerses readers in such doings as the workings of an opium factory and in the savage underpinnings of colonial economic engines like the East India Company.

In 2008, Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, England's most prestigious literary award. The book has been glowingly reviewed as "breathtaking" (The Independent), "utterly involving" (London Times) and boasting both "a plot of Dickensian intricacy" (The New York Times) and "characters of force and imagination" (The Guardian).

Ghosh is one of India's best-known writers. In this country, he's contributed to such magazines as The New Yorker and The New Republic. He's most famous for his equally epic novel, The Glass Palace, about Indians in Burma.

This reading of Sea of Poppies took place in November 2008 at Politics and Prose, bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt: 'Sea Of Poppies'

Sea of Poppies
By Amitav Ghosh
Hardcover, 528 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $26
'Sea of Poppies'

PART I

The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny, for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast? Her village was so far inland that the sea seemed as distant as the netherworld: it was the chasm of darkness where the holy Ganga disappeared into the Kala-Pani, 'the Black Water'.

It happened at the end of winter, in a year when the poppies were strangely slow to shed their petals: for mile after mile, from Benares onwards, the Ganga seemed to be flowing between twin glaciers, both its banks being blanketed by thick drifts of white-petalled flowers. It was as if the snows of the high Himalayas had descended on the plains to await the arrival of Holi and its springtime profusion of colour.

The village in which Deeti lived was on the outskirts of the town of Ghazipur, some fifty miles east of Benares. Like all her neighbours, Deeti was preoccupied with the lateness of her poppy crop: that day, she rose early and went through the motions of her daily routine, laying out a freshly washed dhoti and kameez for Hukam Singh, her husband, and preparing the rotis and achar he would eat at midday. Once his meal had been wrapped and packed, she broke off to pay a quick visit to her shrine room: later, after she'd bathed and changed, Deeti would do a proper puja, with flowers and offerings; now, being clothed still in her night-time sari, she merely stopped at the door, to join her hands in a brief genuflection.

Soon a squeaking wheel announced the arrival of the ox-cart that would take Hukam Singh to the factory where he worked, in Ghazipur, three miles away. Although not far, the distance was too great for Hukam Singh to cover on foot, for he had been wounded in the leg while serving as a sepoy in a British regiment. The disability was not so severe as to require crutches, however, and Hukam Singh was able to make his way to the cart without assistance. Deeti followed a step behind, carrying his food and water, handing the cloth-wrapped package to him after he had climbed in.

Kalua, the driver of the ox-cart, was a giant of a man, but he made no move to help his passenger and was careful to keep his face hidden from him: he was of the leather-workers' caste and Hukam Singh, as a high-caste Rajput, believed that the sight of his face would bode ill for the day ahead. Now, on climbing into the back of the cart, the former sepoy sat facing to the rear, with his bundle balanced on his lap, to prevent its coming into direct contact with any of the driver's belongings. Thus they would sit, driver and passenger, as the cart creaked along the road to Ghazipur – conversing amicably enough, but never exchanging glances.

Excerpted from Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. Copyright © 2008 by Amitav Ghosh. Published in October 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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