Sea of Poppies is a ripping yarn that races along, sweeping the reader with it. Amitav Ghosh’s historical novel is set in 1838, on the eve of the first Opium War when the British were planning to resist Chinese restrictions on the lucrative opium trade.

Poppy field Creative commons image Credit: Clear Inner Vision under CC-BY-NC-ND licence
Poppy field at sunset [Image: Clear Inner Vision under CC-BY-NC-ND]

A group of disparate characters is assembled on board the Ibis, a former slaving schooner (a so-called "black-birder").

The ship’s mission is to transport indentured Indian workers – girmitiyas – from Calcutta to Mauritius.

The jahaj-bhais (ship-brothers) include:

  • Deeti, a widowed opium grower;
  • her devoted lover-protector, Kalua;
  • the second mate, Zachary Reid, a mulatto freedman from Baltimore;
  • the bankrupt Raja Neel Rattan Halder, who forges a friendship with
  • a Chinese opium addict, Ah Fatt;
  • Paulette Lambert, a Frenchwomen evading her odious British guardian, the influential merchant Benjamin Burnham;
  • Paulette’s foster-brother, Jodu;
  • Serang Ali, leader of the lascars (deckhands); and
  • Burnham’s gomusta, Baboo Nob Kissin, a disciple of Ma Taramony, suffused with her spirit.

It has been suggested that the European characters are stereotypes. Certainly they are bigoted and objectionable, but there is a worrying ring of truth in the depictions.

Ghosh litters his texts with unfamiliar vocabulary: Indian words, Anglo-Indian colloquialisms, slang expressions, nautical terms and traders’ argot. Some may find this distracting, but it’s fun to go with the flow!

Be warned: Sea of Poppies is the first part of a trilogy, so you will not find any neat resolutions at the end of the volume; however, this exciting romp will almost certainly leave you wanting more!