Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Book Review: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh's latest offering has made it to the Booker Prize short list. It’s a big book, slightly bigger than his recent books, the Hungry Tide and the Glass Palace, and is the first of a trilogy of books revolving around the Opium Wars.
The Opium Wars took place between Great Britain and China in the mid 19th century when Britain insisted on the right to export opium to China. Like the Glass Palace, it is a roving tale and its scope ranges from the opium fields of the upper Ganges to an opium factory to the South China Sea to an ex-slave ship, the Ibis, which sails from Calcutta with its hold-full of indentured labourers for the sugar plantations of Mareech (Mauritius).

Taking a cue from the likes of Vikram Chandra, Ghosh has littered his book with words from Bhojjpuri, Anglo-Indian slang and seamen's jargon without bothering to add a glossary. One gets to hear words such as Shaitan, Hurremzad, Kismet, Jadoo, BeeBee, Dufter, Afeemkhor, Cubber (Khabbar) quite often. A native of the sub-continent would understand these without much difficulty, but I am not sure how easily a non-native would. I read a review in the Guardian where the reviewer says he doesn't know where the ship is headed to, though Ghosh tells us on many occasions, right from the beginning, that the Ibis is headed to Mareech (Mauritius).

Once in a while, the vernacular is accompanied with the translation in English. When a Bhojpuri speaker says 'malik, paroséka gaōse áwat bani,' it is accompanied by 'From a nearby village.' I guess Ghosh doesn't expect many of his readers to know Bhojpuri. In any event, the net effect wasn't too bad, at least for me. One does get a feel of places and people better with all this vernacular and slang.

Ghosh's story involves many a 'white' character and whenever one writes about people other than one’s own, there’s a good possibility that someone will cry ‘Stereotype’. There's Zachary Reid, a mullato (who looks almost Kosher White) from Baltimore, Benjamin Barham, an unscrupulous British merchant and many others. I thought Ghosh has done a decent job in portraying these characters, but I read a few reviews which suggested otherwise.

There are a few things about this book that I did not like. At the beginning of the book, Deeti, a poor opium farmer's wife has a vision of the Ibis that would later take her to Mareech. I find that too farfetched for a book of this nature. Towards the end, one of the indentured men is being flogged on the Ibis and this victim (a low caste ex-wrestler of colossal strength) manages to snatch the whip and hit his assailant with a blow that rips off his head. Who does Ghosh think he is? Forget Hollywood, even a Bollywood stunt director would blush with embarrassment if asked to manufacture such a scene.

For me, the drawback in this book was that it had too much crammed into it. At many places in this book I got the feeling of being rushed along much faster than I wanted to be. If Ghosh had to do justice to all that he had covered in this book, he would have required twice as much space, but he might have produced something similar to A Suitable Boy which I think is the best ever book written by an Indian. But no, Ghosh doesn't have the time. He has collected a fair amount of research material which can’t be wasted and has to be crammed into the Sea of Poppies. Despite all this, Sea of Poppies is a good book. A very good book. But it falls short of being superb or brilliant.

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