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Sea of Poppies

by Amitav Ghosh

With his anarchic use of language, a mixture of English, pidgin, Hindustani and Bhojpuri, Amitav Ghosh paints a wonderful impressionistic picture of India in the 1830s in all its exotic beauty and squalor. Like an Indian Dickens, he draws his cast Ė whopping, vivid, often comical characters Ė from every walk of life; the Ganges is his Thames; and opium is the lodestone that brings them all together.

The book opens slowly as he introduces us to each of the characters and establishes their back-story before they all (each for their own reason, including deportation, spiritual quest, ambition and escape from suttee or abuse) find themselves sailing on the Ibis, an old slaving ship that is taking indentured labourers to Mauritius. From then on the pace picks up and the novel becomes a dark and exciting adventure story.

The opium wars, when Britain tried to force her very profitable Indian opium onto China and its millions of addicts, are part of a long and dirty story of exploitation which Ghosh, without lecturing, illustrates through the various interwoven narratives. The results of this shameful episode of British colonial history, when farmers on the fertile Ganges plain were forced to grow poppies instead of food, are evident not least in the plight of the coolies forced to leave their beloved homeland through hunger and the burden of debt.

Donít embark on SEA OF POPPIES unless youíre in for the long haul: itís a big book (470 pages) and the first of a trilogy. But once youíve got your sea legs on the Ibis youíll want to stay on board until it docks.

John Murray
480pp Hardback

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