Sea of Poppies: A Novel BY Amitav Ghosh. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 528 pages. $26.

The cover of Sea of Poppies: A Novel

The Indian Ocean, with its ancient patterns of trade and empire, has buoyed Amitav Ghosh’s writing for twenty years. The Shadow Lines (1988), his second novel, examines the partition of Bengal, while his anthropological travelogue In an Antique Land (1992) probes age-old ties between India and Egypt. The best-selling novel The Glass Palace (2000) is set between Burma and India circa the Second World War, and The Hungry Tide (2004) explores the mangrove forests and marginal peoples of the Sundarbans tidal plain. His sixth novel, the first in a projected trilogy, traces the global effects of a gargantuan drug-trafficking enterprise. While the slave trade in the Atlantic triangle between England, Africa, and the Americas has long been a rich source of epic fiction, Sea of Poppies casts light on a less well-charted triangular trade.

From the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth, British India led the world as an opium supplier, an export business imposed and monopolized by the East India Company expressly to balance the colonial power’s trade with China. Though Britons thirsted for tea, silk, and porcelain, China’s relative imperviousness to British manufactured goods meant that, without the addictive lure of opium, that demand would have drained the empire’s coffers. The novel unfolds on the eve of the Anglo-Chinese opium wars of 183943 and 1846–60, just as China’s mandarins are cracking down on the illegal import—having failed, as one bellicose British merchant sees it, to “understand the benefits of Free Trade.” As traffickers in Macao are publicly beheaded, and Lord Palmerston threatens to send a fleet to reopen Chinese markets by force, the price of opium plummets, sending a jolt up the supply chain, from British seamen to factory hands and poppy farmers in Bengal and Bihar.

Set in eastern India, by the Ganges river and the Bay of Bengal, the novel suggests a link between this disruptive crop, with its faltering profits, and the dispersal of Indian labor from this region that began in the 1830s. It was, Ghosh writes, “as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart.” Once slavery was outlawed in the British Empire in 1833, the plantocracy demanded indentured labor. A planter, Monsieur d’Epinay, puts it squarely: “Now that we may no longer have slaves in Mauritius, I must have coolies, or I am doomed.” As relative profitability shifts between Calcutta’s twin exports of “thugs and drugs—or opium and coolies,” the self-made Liverpudlian ship owner and planter Benjamin Burnham, an ex–East India Company man, is among the merchants shipping human cargo once more. Calcutta, Ghosh notes, was also the hub for transporting Indian outlaws to a network of island prisons. “When God closes one door he opens another,” Burnham crows. “A hold that was designed to carry slaves will serve just as well to carry coolies and convicts.”

With ebullient energy and ingenious plotting, Ghosh assembles a cast of characters whose destinies converge on a single vessel, the Ibis. A former “blackbirder” slave ship – turned–opium schooner, Burnham’s Ibis is now transporting convicts and indentured laborers, or “quoddies” and “girmitiyas” (from girmit, a corruption of agreement), between Calcutta and the pepper island of Mauritius, before returning to join the punitive adventure to Canton. Captained by white sahibs and crewed by lascars—Chinese, East African, Arab, Malay, Bengali, Goan, Tamil, and Arakanese seamen with “nothing in common, except the Indian Ocean”—it is a floating universe, a microcosm of diaspora. Ghosh draws on nineteenth-century lexica, such as Sir Henry Yule’s Hobson-Jobson and Thomas Roebuck’s English and Hindostanee Naval Dictionary, to create a babel of tongues, from Bengali and Bhojpuri to Laskari and Franglais. The result, though hardly naturalistic, re-creates the disorientation and shock of habituating to new worlds. It is perhaps as alarming and exhilarating as the Western seaman’s culinary switch from the “usual sailor’s menu of lobscouse, dandyfunk and chokedog, to a Laskari fare of karibat and kedgeree.”

The pivotal figure is Deeti, a Bihari poppy farmer and widow of an opium addict, who was impregnated on her wedding night by her “leering, slack-jawed” brother-in-law and rescued from committing suttee on her husband’s funeral pyre. She is on the run with her burly savior and lover, the low-caste ox-cart driver Kalua. Also central is the ship’s second mate, who is passing for white, Zachary Reid, the son of a Maryland freedwoman. His likely soul mate is Paulette, or Putli, the educated daughter of a French republican freethinker and horticulturalist in Calcutta, who was adopted by Burnham after her parents died and was raised by a Bengali wet nurse. The nurse’s son, Jodu, whom Putli regards as a brother, joins the crew after the Ibis mows down his river dinghy. She, meanwhile, tries to escape Burnham’s predilection for being spanked by young girls and seeks passage to her mother’s Mauritian birthplace by disguising herself first as a sari-clad migrant woman, then as a boyish crew hand. In a converging strand, Neel Rattan Halder, a Bengali landowner and profiteer in the opium trade, is framed for forgery and sentenced to be “transported,” after refusing to sell his estates to Burnham.

The improbable plot piles on suspense and swashbuckling alongside the comedy of disguise. Yet this page-turner also bristles with intriguing historical detail. When Deeti visits the refining plant at the Sudder Opium Factory in Ghazipur, east of Benares, where tens of thousands of glossy-black, coconut-size opium balls line warehouse shelves, she is assailed by the “earthy, sickly odour of raw opium-sap” and the hellish specter of “bare-bodied men, sunk waist-deep in tanks of opium, tramping round and round to soften the sludge . . . as slow as ants in honey.”

A vast system of enforced dependency emerges that is not confined to the “afeemkhors,” or addicts, themselves. These range from Deeti’s dead husband, who was reliant on opiates after being wounded as a sepoy in a British regiment, and the Cantonese Ah Fatt, who endures withdrawal in Alipore Jail, to the addled Captain Chillingworth (“I know of no salt who doesn’t sample his cargo from time to time”) and the genteel Mrs. Burnham, with her “nightly dose of laudanum.” As Deeti muses while spiking her malicious mother-in-law’s food, with such a powerful drug, “why should she not be able to seize kingdoms and control multitudes?”

Chatting to Reid about the perils of “miscegenation and mongrelism,” the pilot Doughty runs through a list of pejorative terms for people of mixed race: “Chee-chee? Lip-lap? Mustee? Sinjo? Touch o’tar . . . you take my meaning? . . . We’re very particular about that kind of thing out East. We’ve got our BeeBees to protect, you know. It’s one thing for a man to dip his nib in an inkpot once in a while. But we can’t be having luckerbaugs running loose in the henhouse.” When village law demands that Deeti and Kalua be punished for violating caste barriers, the captain agrees: “There is an unspoken pact between the white man and the natives who sustain his power in Hindoosthan—it is that in matters of marriage and procreation, like must be with like, and each must keep to their own. . . . It is what makes our rule different from that of such degenerate and decayed peoples as the Spanish and Portuguese.” Yet in this, as in other rules of class and caste, race and gender, the ship is also a vessel of transformation and modernity: “That’s the jadoo of the colonies. A boy who’s crawled up through the hawse-holes can become as grand a sahib as any twice-born Company man.” Although Hindus fear that in crossing the oceanic Kala Pani, or Black Water, they will lose status, Paulette reasons, “On a boat of pilgrims, no one can lose caste and everyone is the same.”

Struggling to disguise and reinvent themselves, the characters also question the “illusory differences of this world” and the larger lies told about them. Challenged about his piratical past, the Laskari leader Serang Ali is indignant: “Smuggling opium not blongi crime? Running slave-ship blongi better’n pi-ra-cy?” Or as the liberal Captain Chillingworth, bitterly opposed to the “butchery” of the impending opium war, says: “Men do what their power permits them to do. We are no different from the Pharaohs or the Mongols: the difference is only that when we kill people we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause.”

The sentiment carries an echo of the seafaring polyglot Conrad, while elsewhere the novel shares territory with Timothy Mo, Salman Rushdie, Barry Unsworth, David Dabydeen, and Bharati Mukherjee. Yet Ghosh, who divides his time between Kolkata, Goa, and Brooklyn, has created a rollicking romantic adventure that dramatizes the individual fears and dreams behind mass migration, as well as the human costs of a ruthless—and enduring—quest for markets.

Maya Jaggi writes for the Guardian Review and Sunday Times Culture and contributes to BBC radio and television.