Amitav Ghosh is back in fine form with Sea of Poppies, the first of a trilogy. The novel tells the story of a majestic, beautiful ship named the Ibis, which has been commissioned by the British to carry slaves to the plantations of Mauritius from India. Despite a clunky first line, the book didn't disappoint mainly because of Ghosh's usual impeccable research and interesting stories. I say stories because each character's path that leads him or her to become a passenger on board the Ibis could have been a worthy stand-alone story; Ghosh's sure and deft hand pulls them together to make up an ensemble cast while keeping the ship at the center of the action.
The novel is neatly divided into three parts: Land, River, and Sea; a clever touch, I thought. The cast of characters is diverse, from the dramatically widowed Deeti, the untouchable Kalua, and the disgraced Raja Neel Rattan. The panoramic sketch of 19th-century British India is unfailing in its portrayal of the all-powerful distinctions of class, caste, gender and race. Also stunning is the depth of research Ghosh has put in to powerfully bring alive the ship's own universe- its unique language, the colorful crew and the phsyical beauty and grace of the Ibis itself.
I must confess that the nautical lingo and terms were difficult to read. Also, I wonder, how will foreign readers make sense of the liberal use of Hindi terms? (Evidently, they did just fine, if the Booker Prize nomination is anything to go by.) The parts I found most interesting were the social lives of the privileged, be it the Raja or the gala parties at the Burnham residence. However, it is bound to leave you feeling (if you are Indian, that is) with a sound gratefulness that we made the Brits leave- I am much happier to enjoy Jeeves and Wooster after the sun set on their blessed empire.