Sea of Poppies is the first in an expected trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. Set in the late 1830's, in the time leading up to the Opium Wars, this highly researched novel centers around a former slaveship, the Ibis, (retro-fitted into a vessel used for the transport of indentured servants and opium) and a divergent cast of characters whose individual fates weave them together, bound for the Mauritius Islands, across the "Black Water" (the Indian Ocean). Ghosh introduces us to a world populated by lascars, gomustas, rajas, girmitiyas, English traders, displaced American sailors - and more. He develops the storyline of each principal character with detail and precision, and yet the prose is never heavy handed or plodding. One caution, however. I was a bit apprehensive when I realized that the book is liberally sprinkled with vernacular. An example:
He breathed a sigh of relief when Serang Ali turned away from him to report to the mate: 'Launder say father-blongi-she go hebbin. That bugger do too muchi tree-pijjin. Allo time pickin plant. Inside pocket hab no cash. After he go hebbin cow-chilo catchi number-twofather, Mr. Burnham...."
Nevertheless, I found myself getting so accustomed to the unique "voice" of this book that I eventually had very little need to reference the glossary at the back. (The Ibis Chrestomathy written by one of the main characters, the former Raja of Rashkali.)
The time period in which Ghosh plots his story is no less intriguing than the characters. It was a time when the East India Company shipped tons of opium into China, enriching the former and leaving the latter with a population of drug addicts. China, on the other hand, was an important supplier of spices and tea for consumption in England. Therefore, when China attempted to stem the flow of the drug into its country by cutting off all trade with England, war was inevitable. (The two had other grievances as well, but the stunting of opium trade is the most colorful, and certainly makes for a better story than treaty disagreements.)
As rich and intricate as a good curry, this novel is an absolute delight. When I last left the Ibis, we were off course and caught in a storm at sea. Oh, how I long to hoist sail on the second volume!