November 18th, 2008 5:33 pm | by JOHN MINERVINI News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

TOME RAIDER: Sea of Poppies


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    Six-word Summary: Monkey-Rope for the New Millennium

    "Really, universally, relations stop nowhere ... the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so." - Henry James

Although he might have finessed the wording a bit (especially the phrase “happily appear to do so”), Henry James really hit the nail on the head with this statement, excerpted from his introduction to Roderick Hudson. It's an elegant way of saying that a writer must confine himself to a limited and precisely-considered number of characters if his tale is to gather meaning.

Amitav Ghosh would probably endorse the above quotation, but at first glance you'd never believe it. Whereas James always drew his circles small, favoring psychologically nuanced tales featuring small casts of highly similar characters, Ghosh's new novel, Sea of Poppies (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 512 pages, $26.00), reaches across continents and races, religions and socioeconomic strata to tell a story that is nothing short of epic. And just as there is genius in James's microscope, so there is genius in Ghosh's telescope.

To come up with his 19th-century saga, Ghosh circumscribes various passengers and crew aboard the Ibis, a fictional two-masted schooner from Baltimore, on its voyage from Calcutta to Mauritius. Owned by the firm of opium trader Benjamin Burnham, the Ibis is crewed by a team of lascars, swarthy sailors who hail from countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The ship's officers are British and American, and its human cargo—indentured laborers called girmityas—are Indian, from deep in that country's poppy-growing interior.

To whet your appetite for the novel, here is a brief at the lives of just a few of Ghosh's principals:
    Paulette is an orphaned French girl who disguises herself as a girmitya in order to escape a fetishistic benefactor. Jodu is a Muslim who was raised as Paulette's brother; although he speaks limited English, he has always wanted to be a sailor. Deeti is a Hindu widow who is saved from her husband's funeral pyre by a brawny ox-cart driver, Kalua. Together, she and Kalua pose as a married couple and sign on as girmityas in order to escape Deeti's vengeful relatives. Zachary is a black man from Baltimore who passes as white in order to become the Ibis's second mate. Neel is a former zemindar (landowning aristocrat) who is stripped of his title and shipped off to Mauritius as a prison laborer for unpaid debts.

Fully two thirds of the book is taken up boarding the ship, following each character from his or her home in the hinterlands onto the decks of the Ibis. Add in a few colorful, multinational stowaways, and you've got a narrative that is truly, almost frighteningly complex. At times, it seems as though the circumference of Ghosh's tale is as wide as the earth itself.

The reason Sea of Poppies is so important at this moment in history is that its themes resonate so closely with current affairs. Just as Ghosh's Britons are on the verge of a venal, paternalistic conflict with China (the Opium Wars), so the United States is currently mired in a venal, paternalistic conflict in Iraq. Just as Ghosh's Hindus and Muslims struggle with issues of religious tolerance, so the same conflict continues to rage today on the Asian subcontinent. The advantage of framing those and other contemporary themes in a historical novel is clear. Whereas writing about controversial issues in current affairs is often clouded by inopportune emotional knee-jerks, setting those same themes in 1838 allows Ghosh to render them with clarity and circumspection.

Further, compressing all those eminently modern conflicts down to the size of a single sailing ship renders a convincing microcosm of the diversity of challenges faced by global citizens in the new millennium: racism, classism, sexism, religious intolerance, poverty, xenophobia, imperialism, human trafficking and genocide. In other words, Ghosh tells a big story because that's exactly what the world needs right now. On our increasingly postnational planet, small circles are fast becoming irrelevant.

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Author Amitav Ghosh appears with host Bharka Dutt on NDTV's Between the Lines
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