Thursday, 9 February 2012
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
This is how the novel opens. That ship, the Ibis, is part of Deeti's destiny, and the destiny of a lot of other people too.
The story is set in nineteenth century India, against the backdrop of the Raj and the opium trade. Deeti's livelihood depends on the trade, but her husband is a useless addict, and she is trapped in the marriage. The Ibis is an old slaving ship which has been refitted to transport opium. An inexperienced crew member, Zachary Reid, finds himself rapidly promoted up the ranks to second mate, as death and disease take the senior officers. The ship is owned by Burnham Bros., a shipping and trading company. Benjamin Burnham is a tough ambitious businessman who is pushing to increase his share of the opium trade. A victim of this push is Neel, the Raja of Raskhali. The Raja's family have invested money with Burnham Bros for years, and have received handsome profits. But Neel has got into debt with Ben Burnham and will suffer the consequences.
This is a very atmospheric story. Water is very symbolic in it, the sea that brings the Ibis, the Ganges which provides a route of escape for Deeti. Neel lives on a luxurious houseboat, he has let himself drift for years, believing his way of life is unchangeable. But the tides of change are rolling in and he is in danger of being swept away.
I thought this was a fascinating book. Some of it was difficult to understand, I struggled with the dialect at times. But this just added to the feeling of being in another world. River of Smoke is the sequel to this book and I am looking forward to reading it.