At the heart of this epic saga, set just before the Opium Wars, is an old slaving-ship, The Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean, its crew a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a ...
At the heart of this epic saga, set just before the Opium Wars, is an old slaving-ship, The Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean, its crew a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt Raja to a widowed villager, from an evangelical English opium trader to a mulatto American freedman. As their old family ties are washed away they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais or ship-brothers. An unlikely dynasty is born, which will span continents, races and generations. The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the exotic backstreets of China. But it is the panorama of characters, whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself, which makes Sea of Poppies so breathtakingly alive -- a masterpiece from one of the world's finest novelists.
Very broad in scope, Sea of Poppies is nonetheless an enchanting read, one that had me stopping normal routine so as to get back to it every time I had to put it down. Before you read this, however, you should know that it is designed as the first entry of what will eventually be a trilogy based on the ship Ibis and a group of people who, for whatever reason, found themselves aboard her. I say this because without understanding this point, you may feel a bit cheated by the ending of the novel.
This was the first book I've read by Amitav Ghosh, and while he's writing his second book in the trilogy, I'm going to backtrack and read some of his other work. In Sea of Poppies, the story is divided into three sections: Land, River, Sea, moving the story along from the introduction to all of these very colorful characters to their assembly and journey on the Ibis (which used to carry slaves and now transports workers and convicts to Mauritius). The characters range from a young widow whose fate would have been to join her husband in death in sati, or throwing herself into his funeral pyre, which would elevate the status of her husband's family, to a group of lascars who will crew the Ibis, headed by a chief who seems to have his own agenda as regards the second mate, one Zachary Reid, a freedman from Baltimore. There are also a group of people being transported to work in Mauritius, many of whom were caught up in the cycle of being forced to grow poppies for the British opium trade with China. There is also a raja who has been brought down via a cocked-up set of false charges, and a half-Chinese opium addict who is the raja's cell mate in the brig. Others rounding out the list are the daughter of a French botanist who came late to colonial propriety, and one Baboo Nob Kissin, who feels that he has another's soul inside of him. Each one of these people has his or her own story, and these are woven into the fabric of the novel as the tale progresses. Underlying most of their stories is the hard and fast fact of British colonialism in India -- and all of its accompanying hypocrisy and self-imposed superiority.
Sea of Poppies is a wonderful tale on a grand scale and I can recommend it very highly. Don't get frustrated with the ending, though; look at it as the start of an epic adventure.
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