WHAT is it about novels set in India and their ability to completely transport a reader? Lately I've been reading Amitav Ghosh's "Sea of Poppies", trading New York's mercurial weather for the lush, squalid banks of the Ganges. Set in the 1820s, the novel (an Economist book of the year in 2008) catalogues the adventures of the crew of the Ibis, a slave ship turned able vessel in the opium wars. Ghosh's book has a grand Dickensian feel, encompassing men and women from different walks of life, speaking in different accents and dialects. The places are carefully drawn in dusty Indian technicolour, the characters are so lovingly rendered that when you re-encounter them it feels as though you are meeting old friends.
"Sea of Poppies" is an adventure story, but it is also a book about opium, as the title implies. Though there are references to the seedy dockside haunts in London and Canton that confirm standard perceptions of opium use in the 19th-century, Ghosh also sketches the farming, production and trade of the drug. The images of poverty, violence, corruption and addiction are startling, and also woefully familiar.
One of the most haunting scenes in "Sea of Poppies" takes place inside an opium factory. Deeti, an opium grower and the wife of an addict, has come to the factory for the first time to collect her ailing husband. There she is affronted first by the smell, "hot and fetid, like that of a closed kitchen". The smell was not of spices and oil, but of liquid opium mixed with the "dull stench of sweat" and then the sight of "dark legless torsos", who turn out to be "bare-bodied men, sunk waist-deep in tanks of opium, tramping round and round...as slow as ants in honey, trampling, treading."
Ghosh's description of this scene is arresting: you smell what Deeti smells, your eyes adjust as hers do, you see what she sees. The scene feels close to Dante's inspired version of hell (the men's eyes glow red in the dark), shadowed further by the sins of colonialism. The men, coloured dark as pitch, are urged on by white overseers "armed with fearsome instruments."
This is a big and transporting novel, historical but modern, political but also that rare thing: a good yarn.
Picture Credit: korosirego (via Flickr)