Monday, July 24, 2017
Sea of Poppies
- Deeti, describing a poppy seed
I have had Amitav Ghosh' Sea of Poppies on my radar since it was published. It's the first book in a trilogy centered on a ship, the Ibis. In the first book, the Ibis is transitioning from its previous life as a slave transporting vessel to one that transports coolies and opium. It begins its journey on the Ganges River in India, and then sets out on an ocean voyage with an amazingly rich cast of characters on board.
I loved this book. I am in absolute awe at the breadth and depth that is encompassed within its pages, and I am so excited to read the next two books in the series to see just how much more Ghosh has to share with me. There are some authors who truly astonish me with just how much they can pack into their pages - character development, plot advancement, social commentary, historical accuracy. It's books like this one that make reading a continued delight.
Sea of Poppies is set just at the start of the first Opium War. We don't learn much about the Opium Wars in the west (or at least not in the United States), so it was fascinating to learn more about a period that had such a massive impact on the world (and was a cause of World War I). The British Empire reeeeeeeally wanted China to open up to global trade, but the Chinese did not want to. This angered the British, and thus, Opium Wars. China was forced to cede Hong Kong and open up ports to global trade, and the British got to sell their stuff to more people. They also got access to indentured laborers (coolies) from Asia and South Asia since slavery was no longer an option for them.
Thus, Sea of Poppies is set just as globalization and imperialism really get their groove on, and the scope of this book is absolutely immense because of that. There are Indian farmers who are forced to grow poppies instead of food, and fall into debt. There is a mixed race American man trying to make his way in the world. There are pirates and merchant marines. There's an Indian raja who is humiliated by debt to the English, stripped of his title and wealth, and forced to go abroad as an indentured servant. There are, of course, the English, raking in great wealth and secure in their vision of bringing civilization to India and China. And there's more. The characters in this book are fantastic.
And those characters speak in a gloriously rich variety of languages. Honestly, this is where Ghosh's comedic genius really sparkles. Obviously, a book centered on a former slave ship that now transports opium can have many dark and depressing moments. But the way Ghosh uses language and shows how so many disparate languages can be combined and influence each other is so great. It took me a little while to understand some of the English spellings and mispronunciations of the Hindi words, but once I did, I usually smiled or laughed to myself. They were nice little Easter eggs for people who have some understanding of Indian language. I myself do not know Hindi, but am familiar enough with common words and names to have caught on. It was so well-done, and the book includes a glossary at the back for many of the words, too.
And with all of THAT happening, Ghosh doesn't ever lose sight of telling a fantastic story. Here is a very compelling tale about the wide-ranging impact of colonialism and imperialism, related through extremely personal stories. I loved that we get to know not only about how the Indian ruling class lost so much of its power and prestige to the British, but also get to learn about the farmers who suffered and the enterprising middle-class professionals who cashed out. I was thoroughly engrossed in learning more about how Hinduism was practiced in the 19th century, the obsessions with caste and purity and superstition, and how differently it is practiced today. Ghosh uses India as the setting, but the cast is from everywhere, all doing their best to make their way in a world. Most of the characters are pushing against rules and norms that have dictated their whole lives, whether due to race or caste or income or sex. And yet, they all come together on a ship and those rules are tested. You can see just how huge the social shifts in the 19th century were, all over the world, from societies of rigid class structures based on birth to more malleable ones based on wealth and influence. I loved that, and I loved this book. So excited to read the rest of this series!