Amitav Ghosh's eighth doorstop of a novel is set in his native Calcutta where, in , the British East India Company's lucrative opium trade is feeling the pinch from Canton's embargo on poppy imports. Self-made merchant Ben Burnham has purchased the Ibis, an old slaver, to ply the Chinese territories with narcotics from Calcutta, and he frequently moralises on his divine right to force opium on the Chinese. In the opening pages of this enthralling saga, Deeti, a poppy farmer's wife bathing in the holy Ganga miles inland from Calcutta, hallucinates a tall-masted ocean-going ship, which she realises is linked to her destiny. When her poppy-raddled husband dies, Deeti escapes the sati ritual of immolation on his pyre by fleeing downstream. At the other end of the social hierarchy, Calcuttan aristocrat Neel Rattan's entire estate has fallen in hock to Burnham's aggressive profiteering, and — unthinkably worse — trumped-up charges of fraud have debased his reputation and caste. Orphaned Paulette Lambert, taken in by Burnham after her atheist father died, puts up with her guardian's civilising Christian charity as well as his less orthodox peccadilloes.

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In Amitav Ghosh's remarkably rich saga, the first of three promised volumes, the sea of the title is more like a flood and a man-made disaster at that: the compulsory cultivation of opium poppies imposed on Indians by the East India Company the book is set in The resulting drug was smuggled into China, which had in those days a huge trading surplus and little need for legally imported goods, to the ultimate benefit of the British balance of payments.

Deeti, the first character to be introduced, is a young mother living by the Ganges some 50 miles east of Benares. She grows poppies because she must the destruction of the rural economy is of no concern to the British , but though she is not in any conventional sense a user, opium has infiltrated deep into her family life.

The drug seems to bring a moral numbness, not only to those who ingest it, but to those involved however unwillingly in its production. The process of addiction is almost metaphysical - there comes a point when only opium can make people forget the damage opium has done. Around the opium factory, even the monkeys are stupefied, from drinking the waste water. Inside, men waist-deep in tanks of opium tread it to soften the sludge, 'a host of dark, legless torsos The British unheedingly break up traditional structures, but dislocation need not be experienced as pure loss.

The movement of the book, as shown by its three sections, 'Land', 'River' and 'Sea', is from fixity to flux, a running together of categories that once seemed absolute. As the novel gathers momentum, having only one identity becomes like having no identity at all. This is reflected in the language of the book. The narrative voice has a period neutrality that can seem wan 'her vigil almost came to naught' where it isn't enlivened with local terms. How's this for a CV, for instance?

Spoken English takes on even more of the perfume of the native spices: 'There's a paltan of mems who'd give their last anna to be in your jooties No badmashee at all hours of the night, for one thing. I can tell you, dear, there's nothing more annoying than to be puckrowed just when you're looking forward to a sip of laudanum and a nice long sleep Sometimes, the caricaturally colourful lingo can become rather wearing. The character whose language is least adulterated is Raja Neel Rattan Halder, but that's only an aspect of his weak grip on reality.

The English with whom he deals mistake an educated reference to Chatterton as being to 'Chatterjee'. The Raja has more familiarity with 'the waves of Windermere and the cobblestones of Canterbury' than with his own economic position. He has been lured into the opium business by the hope of huge profits and when there's a downturn in the trade a crackdown by the impertinent Chinese , he becomes insolvent.

Even so, he imagines he can ride out the crisis until he's accused of forgery and transported for hard labour. There's humour in the book, though Amitav Ghosh isn't naturally a comic writer.

True, comedy can sometimes be achieved by sheer willpower on special occasions by Naipaul for Biswas, say, or Thomas Mann for Felix Krull.

It's just that comic scenes in Sea of Poppies tend to coincide with tricky patches of plotting. Comedy and tragedy have different standards of plausibility, just as civil and criminal cases have different standards of proof.

With tragedy, we expect a strict causal chain to be established between someone's character and fate, while with comedy, the balance of probabilities is more than enough, a disparity Ghosh is understandably keen to exploit. The most impressive passages in the book are the closest to tragedy, though it becomes clear that a new life can open up on the far side of disgrace. Raja Halder, who has always imagined that he only followed caste rules out of social politeness, must eat food for the first time in his life that has been prepared by unknown hands and override a wave of disgust that he had never anticipated.

The Raja's face is tattooed with his crime, the name of the prison and the date. The tattooist takes pity on him and pushes a little ball of opium between his lips to relieve the pain. The drug that has destroyed his life at last gains admittance to his body and to his picture of reality. Later, the tattooist whispers that he has watered down the ink, out of family loyalty. The marks will fade after a few months. This is an exquisite image of the fancied permanence of the marks the British made on India, but it has another aspect.

What is 'written on your forehead' in traditional Indian terms is your fate, but here fate washes off over time. In a teasing reversal of cultural stereotypes, it is the British who are the fatalists, trying to condemn others to their own fixity, and it's their colonial victims who make their own destinies.

Topics Fiction The Observer. Amitav Ghosh reviews. Reuse this content. Most popular.


Sea of Poppies

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And they called it poppy love

This terrific novel, the first volume in a projected trilogy, unfolds in north India and the Bay of Bengal in on the eve of the British attack on the Chinese ports known as the first opium war. In Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh assembles from different corners of the world sailors, marines and passengers for the Ibis, a slaving schooner now converted to the transport of coolies and opium. In bringing his troupe of characters to Calcutta and into the open water, Ghosh provides the reader with all manner of stories, and equips himself with the personnel to man and navigate an old-fashioned literary three-decker. He begins in the villages of eastern Bihar with Deeti, soon to be widowed; her addicted husband, who works at the British opium factory at Ghazipur; and Kalua, a low-caste carter of colossal strength and resource. Moving downstream, we meet a bankrupt landowner, Raja Neel Rattan; an American sailor, Zachary; Paulette, a young Frenchwoman, and her Bengali foster-brother Jodu; Benjamin Burnham, an unscrupulous British merchant, and his Bengali agent, Baboo Nob Kissin; and every style of nautch girl, sepoy and lascar. On their way to the "black sea", these characters are exposed to a suttee or widow-burning, a shipboard mutiny, a court case, jails, kidnappings, rapes, floggings, a dinner party and every refinement of sex. The story proceeds at pace without too much by way of coincidence, dreams or - the bane of this sort of book - the supernatural.

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