Sea of Poppies is an absolutely enthralling historical novel, the first of a trilogy. Set in India in the 1830’s, it is centered around the opium trade, which the British East India Company forced upon both India and China. The novel is an ensemble piece, following the fates of several characters who all find themselves by the end of the book on the Ibis, an old slave ship bound for Mauritius.
The novel begins with Deeti. Like the other Indian farmers in her area of eastern India north of Calcutta, she has been forced to replace her food crops with poppies, destined for the Ghazipur Opium Factory. Now she can barely grow enough to feed her family, while the price for poppies sinks. As a girl, she was tricked by her husband’s family into marrying a hopeless opium addict. Soon fate will cause her to leave her home and flee down the Ganges.
Zachary Reid is a mulatto sailor who ships out from Baltimore on the Ibis as an ordinary seaman. A series of misfortunes onboard leave him without officers to sail the ship to Calcutta from Africa with only the help of Serang Ali and his fellow lascars. Once in Calcutta, his employer Benjamin Burnham hires him to help refit the ship and take the third mate position for the voyage to Mauritius.
Raja Neel Rattan Halder, the zemindar of Rashkali, is deeply in debt because of poorly timed investments in the opium trade. Although Neel is careful of the welfare of his hundreds of dependents, he is careless of business and expects to go on in his pleasure-loving ways. But the self-righteous Burnham wants the Raja’s estates for himself.
Paulette Lambert, the daughter of an eccentric French naturalist, has been left destitute by his death. Burnham has taken her into his family out of charity, but she is having a hard time adapting to his household. She is expected to behave like a proper young English lady, but she was primarily raised by an Indian woman, treats her son Jodu like a brother, and prefers to dress in a sari. Jodu has recently returned to Calcutta after his mother’s death and wants to be taken on as a hand on a sailing ship.
The fates of all these characters, and others, converge aboard the Ibis, which is scheduled to journey across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius with a load of indentured workers and then to sail to China to participate in the impending Opium Wars.
The novel is filled with entertaining characters and the colors, smells, and languages of India. It is beautifully written and crammed full of unusual words–Bengali words, sailor and lascar jargon, ornate oriental English, and various patois. The book has a glossary, but it is ironically intended. Comic, cruel, vivid, and deeply engrossing, the novel is rich and teeming with life. Amitav Ghosh’s novel, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is wonderful.