Sea of Poppies shines a light on the opium trade between Britain, India and China in the 19th century. This is a strange book for its examination of this insidious mercantile endeavour is done in not just the Queen’s English, but a jumbled pidgin of English, Hindi, Persian and a little French. You really need a dictionary to fully grasp the beauty of this book. Once you get past that, Amitav Ghosh‘s linguistic and literary prowess are self evident. We have the British, the dominant naval power of the day, who requisition a former American slaving ship to send opium from the jewel in their crown to the next big target for conquest. Of course, the captain of the former slaver is an American, white by appearance but black by birth who must keep his real origins obscured for his very life’s sake. You have the Indian rajahs, who give away their sovereignty bit by bit to the British, who kowtow to local customs only when it suits them in their pursuit of ultimate power.
The rajahs rule over an ancient realm, one where religious divisions of caste and colour are very real indeed. But let us not digress about the organized form of apartheid known as Hinduism. Suffice it to say that the Brits are masters of divide et impera and this is the source of the Rajah’s undoing. He is clapped in irons and sent across the seven seas to Mauritius, aboard a boat full of other people who have nothing left to lose in India. Ghosh is adept at imbuing the characters with qualities that make you want to root for them. Diverse characters come together from different parts of the world and have their lives inextricably intertwined aboard the Ibis, where a drama of Conradian proportions takes place and then stops too soon. The dialogue slips in and out of languages you’d understand, followed by the tongues of the Lascars, which you’d be hard pressed to understand, given the vast morphological twists that have taken place.
All in all, a great tale, immeasurably aided by the linguistic beauty of the characters’ tongues. Pick this one up for a book with a style you will not oft see.