This is also the time in Hong Kong when the good folks at The Hong Kong International Literary Festival start to announce their list of participants and events for the festival which runs from 8-18 March 2011. This year's exciting run up includes one writer I admire tremendously, Amitav Ghosh. I enjoy his books - The Glass Palace and In An Antique Land being two of my favourite reads.
His last book, Sea of Poppies, is the first in a planned trilogy of historical fiction. I reviewed it for the South China Morning Post on the book's release in 2008 and was so taken in by it that I bet the Booker on it. I lost, but what the heck! the book is still a fascinating read. Read the review below, then go read the book!
Sea of Poppies
by Amitav Ghosh
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
It is 1838, the Gangetic plain of North India is flooded with a sea of poppies, the Chinese emperor has passed a decree banning opium, and the British East India Company is conspiring the first Opium war. Amitava Ghosh trained as an anthropologist, began his career as a reporter, and made his mark as a writer of historical sagas. In his eighth novel, Sea of Poppies, he has artfully fused all those skills to produce a tour de force – the first in a planned trilogy – that serves to provide the backdrop for the Anglo-Chinese opium wars.
The English rulers of India have managed, through coercion of farmers and incentivization of local traders, to convert the Indian plains to expansive fields of poppy. The opium is then sent to Canton where it is traded for Chinese silk and ceramic. The trade has led to the destruction of rural economy in India, and growth of opium-addicts in China – events casually dismissed by the English. In the words of Benjamin Burnham, an English trader, “Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ. If it is God’s will that opium be used as an instrument to open China to his teachings, then so be it. For myself, I confess I can see no reason why any Englishman should abet the Manchu tyrant in depriving the people of China of this miraculous substance”.
The devastation wrought by Imperial Britain is highlighted through the plight of Deeti, a villager whose husband, employed by the opium factory, is an afeemkhor, an opium addict. When he dies, Deeti is to be burnt alive on his funeral pyre as Sati. However, Kalua, a low-caste village simpleton, whose colossal frame has been used to wrestle bulls by the landlords for their amusement, rescues her. To escape being hunted down, the caste-crossed lovers sign on as girmitiyas, indentured labourers who are to be transported to Mauritius.
Next, the imperial tentacles ensnare Raja Neel Rattan Halder, a landed Bengali aristocrat whose father had helped Burnham set up his trading empire. The Raja – through financial naivete and an indulgent lifestyle – has fallen on tough times. Sensing a breach, the wily Burnham accuses the Raja of forgery and has him prosecuted. Neel is sentenced to Kaala Pani, the dreaded Black Waters, a journey across which will take him to the penal colony of Mauritius.
Benjamin Burnham, a pillar of the English society, has – in a show of Christian piety – given shelter to the orphaned Paulette Lambert. Paulette was brought up by an Indian wet nurse and her French botanist father, lost in the botanical wonders of lush Calcutta and dismissive of religion, had let Paulette grow up unencumbered by prevailing Victorian mores. However, Paulette is alarmed when Mr. Burnham’s fetish for educating her on Christian scriptures turns fetishist as he insists on being whacked on the backside by a broom. Paulette flees to the ship where her wet-nurse’s son Jodu is a lascar, a crewman.
Thus the principal characters of the story converge on the Ibis, an erstwhile slaving schooner owned by Burnham. It is preparing for voyage to Mauritius under an English captain Chillingworth and an American second mate, Zachary Reid. The ragtag team of girmitiyas, prisoners, lascars – crewmen hailing from regions as diverse as India, Malay, Arabia, China – consigned to the same fate, become jahajbhais, ship brothers.
Two themes dominate the narrative: the economic ruin in the wake of colonization, and the porousness of boundaries in a globalizing world. Paulette dons a sari to take refuge amongst the labourers; Zachary, a mulatto, is happy to pass himself off as a yankee gentleman; the Bengali aristocrat spouts English poetry; Captain Chillingworth, in the manner of a “Johnny Chinaman”, is a closet opium addict. Even the spoken language mutates and melds to yield something new: an Anglo-Indian Hobson Jobson laced with Lashkari, the language of the seafaring lascars, and Bhojpuri of the Gangetic plain.
And it is here that the narrative might trip a casual reader. Sample this: “Instead of the tottee-connah off you’d go to a little hidden cumra, there to puckrow your dashy”. The intrepid, buffeted by the story, will march on and discover a Dickensian world of mutiny and murder, riot and romance as the ship lurches through stormy waters on its perilous voyage.
The novel is an encyclopaedic window into Indian life in the early 19th century, its food, clothes, customs, rituals, dialects, crops, trades. Ghosh has said that Melville’s Moby Dick has been a big influence on initiating in him the idea that the novel is not a small thing: ‘To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea’.
Fittingly, this fascinating novel is longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. This reviewer wouldn’t be surprised if it wins – that is, if the judges manage to look beyond the perennial-Booker favourite Salman Rushdie, in the reckoning this year as well.