Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sea of Poppies - Amitav Ghosh

I started on 'Sea of Poppies' because I bought Amitav Ghosh's second book of the trilogy, 'The River of Smoke' first, a signed copy at his Hyderabad book launch, and then thought I'd rather go by in order. The size of both books is daunting and as Ghosh says, he likes to write like that, large landscapes, and does a wonderful job as well. He is one of the finest Indian writers and one that I admire greatly for his craftsmanship.

'Sea of Poppies' is set sometime in the days of the British Raj, in the pre Opium war era, in Calcutta and around, and is the story of a slave ship 'Ibis' that has been bought by a British businessman from America to Calcutta to transport coolies from India to Mauritius to work on plantations. The story is the many people who come together on board the Ibis - Zachary, the first mate who is of white-black origin, his crew of lascars headed by Serang Ali, Deeti, the high caste woman from a village in Bihar whose husband, an opium addict working in an opium factory dies and is escapes when forced to commit sati, Kalua, her low caste saviour and second husband, Burnham, the owner of the ship and the foster father of Paulette who is the love interest of Zachary, Jodu the fiesty half brother of Paulette, Neel Halder, the Raja of Rashkali, who is sent to jail and banished for 7 years to Maritius for forgery and Baboo Nob Kissin, the gomusta of the Burnham empire. For many different reasons all these people and more come out of their backstories and step on the Ibis as it heads to Mauritius. There are many secrets, hidden motives, fights and romances as the book ends mid sea.

Amitav Ghosh writes impeccably, his language is beautiful and his research astounding (the ships, the times, the cultures, the opium factories, the tides, all in great detail) . He is a craftsman who knows his work well, an expert, and he goes about chiseling every character, every voice distinctly. I was amazed at the distinct voice that he gave each character, from Mr. Doughty to Serang Ali, Neel to Elokeshi, Deeti to Baboo Nob Kissin, Zachary to Crowle, Paulette to Jodu. Its simply superb as he speaks through these characters, never once stepping out of the character. And there are so many characters! His research as always is solid and highly detailed, and the book could very well be a document that could be studied by academics.

The negatives (and a big one for me) was that the story did not fly for me until the last hundred pages when the action hots up considerably. I plodded through the first 400 pages and felt cheated at the end when the red hot action is cut off half way through, after such a long wait. I also felt that certain characters have had a long presence in the first part of the book, Serang Ali and Doughty, to name two, and they fade away completely in the second. I found the Raja of Rashkali's fate rather hard to believe, that he is so easily chained, imprisoned and packed off to Mauritius and I found Baboo Nob Kissin's character not very believable. Where the Zacharys, Crowles, Serang Alis, Doughtys and Deetis come alive as if they were true life characters, some characters like the above mentioned have chinks and for some, their motives are not clear. My problem with Amitav Ghosh, in 'Hungry Tide' and 'The Sea Of Poppies' specially, has been that the characters don't seem to feel. They are there, perfectly chiseled and everything in its place, except that they are like robots. Something plasticky about them.

The action on the deck in the last few pages is fast and furious, almost like a film, and the novel suddenly turns into a rapid page turner and you want to know what happened next (even if certain parts look contrived and not so credible again, the killings specially) but it moves so well that it does not matter. Coming right after two other tomes that I read recently, 'Roots' and 'The Grapes of Wrath' Ghosh's 'Sea of Poppies' plodded about, did not get me involved with the characters enough for me to worry about their fate and left me feeling disappointed on the whole in that context, even more so, as I have such high expectations from Ghosh. Some missing dimension. Perhaps 'The River of Smoke' will address my concerns.

1 comment:

Rajendra said...

I never did get through it. My patience ran out. I agree on his craft though.