Summer is the time when I go on reading jags, sucking in mainly historical fiction involving India that I don’t dare tackle during the year lest I lose control of my daily obligations. It’s so pleasant to spend long days stretched out on the wicker sofa on my screened porch, drinking iced chai and imagining myself elsewhere and elsewhen.
Amitav Ghosh was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 for the first book of the trilogy, Sea of Poppies. Ghosh’s 2000 blockbuster The Glass Palace had not been on my radar because it is set in Burma, a country and region that does not interest me; however, I have fallen so in love with Ghosh’s approach and style that I will also suck in Palace before the summer is out.
SoP is set in 1838 and is, as you might expect, about seafaring and opium and the wide variety of people involved in one or the other (and sometimes both) just before the First Opium War (1839-42). The range of action is the well-traveled route between China, India and Mauritius, which at the time was a relatively new territory gained by the British from the French as a result of the Napoleonic wars and mostly consisted of sugar cane plantations worked by convicts and indentured servants from India. However, the strength of the book is not its history (although it is impeccably researched and evocatively presented), but the characters who bring it to life. Make no mistake: despite what seems like soap-opera plot twists this is not a potboiler—it is Literature.
We meet Deeti, an illiterate sharecropper in the poppy fields of Bihar; Zachary Reid, a mixed-race American ship’s carpenter promoted by necessity to second mate of an incomparable long-journey vessel, the Ibis; Neel Rattan Halder of Raskali, a Calcutta raja/zamindar made wealthy by acting as a middleman in the opium trade; Paulette Lambert, a French orphan raised in Calcutta by her botanist father; Jodu, her childhood brother-friend; Ah Fatt, half-Indian, half-Chinese and condemned to death; and my favorite character, Serang Ali, a crafty lascar (Indian sailor) who is the benevolent puppetmaster to all the other characters. The importance—and, according to the evil British characters, the necessity—of the opium trade with China is what binds these characters together, and as their individual stories come together we get a holistic view of history that nobody learns in school. An un-put-downable narrative ends with a cliffhanger of an action sequence; I recommend that you waste as little time between Sea of Poppies and the next installment, River of Smoke (2011), as possible; this is only so that you can successfully stay in the idiom and milieu of the period and not because the action is continuous in any way.
In reading SoP I got an entirely new perspective on the region. The first thing that comes out is that the early 19th century merchant culture was remarkably ethnically mixed and polyglot. People in SoP converse in a mashup of Indian languages with French, English, Chinese and Portuguese thrown in the mix, and everything from food to clothing to ship parts has at least four different names, all used interchangeably depending on who is speaking. Ghosh even includes a glossary to help us figure it all out, and simply reading it from A to Z is worth an hour of your time. Second, social position is everything to everyone in all cultures, always has been and always will be. Ghosh is excellent at teasing out the nuances of who can talk to whom in what tone of voice in a way that goes beyond mere caste indications, and brings in details of everyone’s backstories to precisely place each character in their proper relationship to one another as a way to explain why things happen the way they do. Finally, why India meant so much to the British finally dawned on me: probably because it’s an episode most historians of the 1970s and 1980s wished to skip over, it was never much talked about that opium truly financed the entire British Empire—India was turned into its (pardon the pun) cash cow.
This theme was brought out even further in River of Smoke, which annoyingly ignores 90% of the characters so brilliantly drawn in SoP in favor of new characters who are, sadly, more one-dimensional for all that they are largely historically documented. The action shifts to China, to the environs of Canton (including Hong Kong and Macau), from where the opium is smuggled into China and sold at exorbitant prices. (oh, yeah, opium is illegal in China, as it is in the British empire as well) Only two main characters from SoP reappear in RoS—Paulette and Neel, whose stories don’t overlap—but we meet an engaging new main character in Seth Bahram Modi, a wealthy Parsi trader from Bombay and Ah Fatt’s secret father. Neel becomes his munshi (secretary) and through the pair we see the horrid (and rather dull) politicking among the British, who have been stopped from transporting their opium by the Chinese and are wracked with worry about the end of their world. Good and evil are more carefully delineated in RoS but they are the inverse of traditional history: the British and other Europeans are evil, Bahram is good, and Paulette’s sassy gay half-British artist friend Robin Chinnery is the only one who has any respect for the Chinese who, by the way, OWN THE FREAKING CONTINENT. (sorry)
RoS is a story of men—it has to be, because China has prohibited any non-Chinese woman from setting foot on the mainland and keeps the fanqui (foreigners) penned up in a small ghetto in Canton, where they squabble and pose endlessly to the point where I hated them all and begged for their come-uppance. Paulette, after showing herself to be a satisfyingly sparky heroine in SoP, is distressingly given very little to do in RoS and the female voice in this volume belongs to Chinnery’s stereotypically breathless manner. A good half of the story’s unspooling is provided in the form of exhaustive letters from him to Paulette, which contrivance quickly grows annoying. The only three-dimensional man in RoS is Bahram: he is a man of strong Zoroastrian faith, looking for clear definitions of good and evil to guide him and not finding them; torn between his duty to his Bombay wife—knowing that all he is he owes to her family—and the freedom of living among men on the other side of the world; loving his half-Chinese son but ashamed to publicly claim him, to tell him or even find him; a shrewd businessman nevertheless socially beholden to the British, who are unaware of how much they owe to him and others like him, and scrambling for the smallest indication of their respect despite his immense wealth and indispensability. Bahram is a metaphor for India itself.
I didn’t find RoS nearly as fascinating as SoP, but as a bridge volume to what I hope will reunite SoP’s characters and tell us how they manage in Mauritius (another locale that was never on my radar but is now fascinating me), it is still engaging. The British get theirs (temporarily), at the beginning and end we get a peek into some of the original characters’ futures, and we continue to gain a much more nuanced understanding of global trade and its effect on ordinary people. And once the trilogy is finished and if someone decides to approach filming it…hoo boy, with the right team it would be the accomplishment of a lifetime.