In the 1800s the British colonists replaced food crops in Western India with poppy fields, paying exploitive prices to the rural poor who farmed and processed them in ghastly factories. The colonists then exported the opium to China to support the habits of addicts there. Several Englishmen became extremely wealthy as did the British Empire, until one day the Chinese authorities woke up to the devastation inflicted on their population by this malaise and issued an ordinance for the enforcement of a strict ban on the import. Ironically, the ripple effect of this action was penury for the rural folk of Western India who had lived off the poppy trade. Several then choose to indenture themselves as coolies to serve the colonists’ interests in other parts of the world and set sail to islands around the world where the British needed plantation workers.
It is against this backdrop that some desperately poor people venture out on their journey in the high seas, this time to Mauritius. On this slave ship, the Ibis, accompanying other desperate souls like them and a crew of social misfits, are the protagonists who include a bankrupt Raja, an opium addict and an abandoned spouse. A few perish from the heat in their overcrowded quarters, located in the underbelly of the ship. However, most find cause f
or celebration with courtship and marriage, singing songs and revelling in their newfound friendships clearly frustrating the colonists’ efforts to quell their spirit.
This is a tale of epic proportions not because of the grandeur with which it recreates another era and captures the social, economic and political mood of that time, but because of its nuanced depiction of the minutia of everyday life, be it a farmer’s, a local Raja’s or a British Memsaheb’s. So we vicariously experience lavish dinner parties and the varied hue of accents and dialects used by the book’s many colourful characters, which include the ship’s crew members, and a self-proclaimed avatar of Lord Krishna. The Indian reader will be bemused and angered by the colonists Hinglish, mostly pejoratives, used to put in place their army of servants and subordinates.
Even though Sea of Poppies is a sad tale of brutal oppression it is not a depressing read. It is tragic and funny, brimming with hope under impossible conditions and replete with heroic and subversive acts by ordinary women and men. In some ways good triumphs over evil at the end of this first book of a trilogy. Except for the nautical language which is challenging at times, this book is eminently readable and demonstrates Ghosh’s preeminence as a writer and researcher par excellence.