Open this magnificent book by Amitav Ghosh and out rushes a majestic, multilingual cataract of words, phrases, slang, and argot; a pulsing kaleidoscope of exotic sights and scents; along with a vibrant, multiethnic array of exquisite characters who enliven the pages of this marvelously compelling yarn.
Consider this image of the monkeys who inhabit the area around the Sudder Opium Factory, 50 miles east of Benares (sometimes called Varanasi), in northern India: "Unlike others of their kind they never chattered or fought or stole from passers-by; when they came down from the trees it was to lap the open sewers that drained the factory's effluents; after having sated their cravings, they would climb back into the branches to resume their stupefied scrutiny of the Ganga and its currents."
The reader is transported to the 1830's, the time of the British Empire and the lucrative opium trade with China. The opium poppy has become a ubiquitous cash crop in India. Its cultivation has precipitated economic disruption, destitution, and dislocation for multitudes of inhabitants of rural communities. "Many of these people had been driven from their villages by the flood of flowers that had washed over the countryside: lands that had once provided sustenance were now swamped by the rising tide of poppies; food was so hard to come by that people were glad to lick the leaves in which offerings were made at temples or sip the starchy water from a pot in which rice had been boiled."
Increasing amounts of opium imported to China and the pervasive addiction that results cause mounting problems. Although efforts by the Chinese imperial government to halt the flow of the drug prove feckless -- one estimate puts the number of hardcore addicts at 12 million by the mid 1830's -- it does not stop officials from trying repeatedly to stanch the nefarious trade.
Such efforts do not sit well with the ruthless English merchant Benjamin Brightwell Burnham, an archvillain of Ghosh's novel. He has purchased an American ship, the Ibis, a former slaver which will promptly be transporting coolies to Mauritius and, later, opium to China. The coolies are a desperate and impoverished lot fated to indentured servitude: slaves in all but name.
Discussing Britain's opium trade with China, Burnham tells the Raja Neel Rattan Halder: "It is the unanimous opinion of all of us who do business there that the mandarins cannot be allowed to have their way. To end the trade would be ruinous -- for firms like mine, but also for you, and indeed for all of India...If not for opium, the drain of silver from Britain and her colonies would be too great to sustain."
With his coffers full and power assured, brute inequities that sustain Burnham's status enhance his arrogant facility for rationalizing cruelty. He tells the bright and likeable American Zachary Reid -- the second mate on Burnham's newly acquired ship -- that the institution of slavery is actually a step in "the march of human freedom." After Reid expresses his befuddlement at such strange reasoning, Burnham offers his rejoinder: "Freedom, yes, exactly...Isn't that what the mastery of the white man means for the lesser races? As I see it, Reid, the Africa trade was the greatest exercise in freedom since God led the children of Israel out of Egypt. Consider, Reid, the situation of a so-called slave in the Carolinas -- is he not more free than his brethren in Africa, groaning under the rule of some dark tyrant?" Burnham is unaware that the handsome, light-skinned Reid is the son of a freedwoman and her former white master.
With its salmagundi of castes, religions, and religious sects replete with multifarious languages and dialects, Indian society is a labyrinth of strict mores and customs. Throughout the story, the ingenuous American Reid brings a refreshing counterpoint to this baffling collage of intricate cultural rules and regulations. He is easy going and predisposed to treat everyone with proper kindness and respect. He is a natural democrat unimpressed with rigorous restrictions and codes. As second mate of the Ibis he adheres to the hierarchy of nautical command, but is never inclined to abuse his rank. His mixed racial background makes him especially sympathetic to those who endure the indignities of racism and classism.
Many of Ghosh's characters are pushing up against social, ethnic, racial, class, and sexual confinements -- and addiction. Resistance and rebellion -- subtle and explicit -- are vibrant themes that ignite defiance, passion, and transformation. And amidst the gloom of poverty and caste and class rigidity, there is much humor and hope. Sea of Poppies -- the first of a projected trilogy -- is a superb celebration of humanity and of the vigor, mutability, and creativity of language. It is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit. A grand read indeed.