JACKI LYDEN, host:
The year is 1838. The opium trade rages. The trade route starts in Northern India, and that's where Amitav Ghosh begins his new novel, "Sea of Poppies." This is a landscape of flowering poppy fields and hellish opium factories.
(Soundbite of novel "Sea of Poppies")
Mr. AMITAV GHOSH (Author, "Sea of Poppies"): (Reading) They were bare-bodied men sunk waist-deep in tanks of opium, tramping round and round to soften the sludge. Their eyes were vacant, glazed, and yet somehow they managed to keep moving as slow as ants in honey, tramping, treading. When they could move no more, they sat on the edges of the tanks, stirring the dark ooze only with their feet.
LYDEN: "Sea of Poppies" is an epic tale with an epic cast of sailors, rajas, indentured servants, opium addicts, and struggling poppy farmers. They're all passengers on an old slave ship called the Ibis. Amitav Ghosh tells us where they're heading.
Mr. GHOSH: The Ibis is on its way to Mauritius, and it's just a few years since slavery has been finally banned in Mauritius. So the plantation owners in Mauritius are busy looking around for some other substitute labor. And Indian indentured workers are the substitute.
LYDEN: This ship is full of people who fall into strikingly different categories and castes. This is, after all, colonial India. Would you just introduce us to some of the principal characters onboard the Ibis, please?
Mr. GHOSH: Sure, you know, first of all there's Deeti, who's a woman. She's a young farmer. She's been recently widowed. And now she's managed to make her escape from her village where she was bound for some sort of terrible fate. And she and her rescuer, Kalua, they are, for me, in some ways the sort of main mast of the book. And it's their journey that really carries the book along.
LYDEN: And Kalua, I just want to point out, is a massive guy. And he saves her from committing sati, where a widow would throw herself on a funeral pyre, in a very amazing way. And then there is, for me, a character who is in some ways the most fascinating, because many people are changing on this ship, and one of them is Neel.
Mr. GHOSH: Yes. Well, Neel is actually one of the few characters in this book who's actually based upon a real life person. While I was doing research for this book and so on, I came across various forgery cases in Bengal. And there was one man, a raja, who was extremely, sort of, successful, was always busy entertaining the Englishmen and the whole city and so on. And then it was - in 1829, he was hauled up in front of a court for forgery. And just reading about it and thinking about this character, I began to think of what would actually happen to a young, gently brought up Indian Bengali of that period who suddenly found himself being transported across the sea.
LYDEN: So things like that actually did happen in British East India. Someone of raja status could literally be given a show trial, thrown in prison, and stripped of all of his lands.
Mr. GHOSH: Yes, there were many such instances.
LYDEN: Amitav Ghosh, you have such a stew of languages and dialects in "Sea of Poppies." Most of the novel is done in a very intricate vocabulary. I'm not even sure what you call it, but it goes from pidgin into something else. How do you describe it, and where did you get it?
Mr. GHOSH: Well, any 19th century sailing ship was an incredibly cosmopolitan kind of unit because, you know, there would be sailors from all around the world. And it was especially so in the Indian Ocean. So, what actually happened is that they developed this kind of language of command, and this language was called Laskari. And I was very fortunate in that I actually managed to track down a dictionary of Laskari which was written in 1812 by an Englishman and published in Calcutta. And I really followed that dictionary very closely, in fact.
LYDEN: There's all kinds of wonderful nouns like dumbcow and malum instead of mate, serang for boson, tindal for bosun's mate, seacunny. Do you have a favorite phrase?
Mr. GHOSH: I love dumbcow. It's actually from the Indian word dumkow(ph), which means to scold. But one thing I should point out to you, though, which you probably will not believe, but which is absolutely true, is that most of these words are in the Oxford English Dictionary. English in the 19th century was actually much more open to Asian influences than is the case today.
LYDEN: Back onboard the Ibis, where Deeti has fled, a dying woman gives her some poppy seeds. And it's an odd gift because the opium trade has so oppressed her. Maybe you could take us onto the deck with Deeti looking at these seeds in her hand with a reading from your book?
(Soundbite of novel "Sea of Poppies")
Mr. GHOSH: (Reading) She looked at the seed as if she had never seen one before. And suddenly she knew that it was not the planet above that governed her life. It was this miniscule orb, at once beautiful and all devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful. This was her Shani(ph), her Saturn. When Kalua asked what she was looking at, she raised her fingers to his lips and slipped the seed into his mouth. Here, she said, taste it. It is the star that took us from our homes and put us on this ship. It is the planet that rules our destiny.
LYDEN: The ship is a horrible place to be, but your characters are constantly interacting, and there's a lot of tenderness that goes on. I almost had the sense that you could hear these people speaking. Did you hear their voices in your head as you were writing?
Mr. GHOSH: Absolutely. Absolutely I did. And, you know, Jacki, one point you made which is really so spot on is that these people are traveling in the most appalling circumstances. I mean, it beggars belief. And yet, you know, when I was reading accounts of these voyages, and these were accounts written mainly by Europeans, one thing they constantly point to in relation to the Indian indentured workers and Chinese indentured workers, is that they were always singing. They were singing, they were laughing. And I think this is an aspect of the story which really resonates for me that, you know, the incredible resilience that people are able to find in suffering. And I think it has something to do with the ability to create communities, you know, to spontaneously create communities and to see each other through.
LYDEN: Amitav Ghosh. His new novel is called "Sea of Poppies." Thank you so much for being with us.
Mr. GHOSH: Thank you, Jacki. Thank you so much for having me.
LYDEN: You can read an excerpt of "Sea of Poppies" on our Web site, npr.org.