When the third part of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, Flood of Fire, was published to great acclaim last year, I was drawn to Sea of Poppies, the book that started it all.
In his review in the Guardian, James Buchan admires the way Ghosh ‘dramatises (or rather roman-ticises, in the sense of makes a novel out of) two great economic themes of the 19th century: the cultivation of opium as a cash crop in Bengal and Bihar for the Chinese market, and the transport of Indian indentured workers to cut sugar canes for the British on such islands as Mauritius, Fiji and Trinidad.’
Set in India in 1838 the novel introduces us to Deeti, living with her husband and daughter in a village ‘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’. What possible meaning could Deeti’s vision of a vast ship with two tall masts have? In the pages that follow, we are introduced to the colourful cast of characters that, by the end of the novel, will be drawn together in the bewildering and at times violent world of the Ibis as it sets sail from Calcutta for Mauritius. From Zachary Reid, through whom we learn about life aboard ship, Serang Ali, and his company of Lascars, the orphan Paulette and her childhood friend Jodu, to Neel, the Raja of Raskhali, Ghosh draws us into to the complex lives of this disparate group.
I learnt so much from Sea of Poppies: from how women use their saris in different ways, to the production and use of opium and the caste system. As for life aboard ship: not since William Golding’s Rites of Passage have I read a book which immerses us with such power in the brutal world of life at sea. Ghosh has a fine ear for language, and a fascination with words; we learn about the Lascar’s shipboard vocabulary and the extraordinary pidgin English of the ship’s pilot Mr Burnham. He tells Zachary that ‘for a rank griffin, you’re a pucka sort of chap’;
This was India, where it didn’t serve for a sahib to be taken for a clodpoll of a griffin: if he wasn’t fly to what was going on, it’d be all dickey with him, mighty jildee. This was no Baltimore … If he, Zachary, wasn’t to be diddled and taken for a flat, he would have to learn to gubbrow the natives with a word or two of the zubben’.
Ghosh brings humour and romance to his tale, making it a work of Dickensian proportions. Whilst the books can be read as stand-alone novels, I can’t wait to find out what happens to a set of characters that have started to feel like friends.
The Ibis Trilogy: Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire are published by John Murray. Flood of Fire is published in paperback on 5th May 2016.