Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sea of Poppies
a novel

“The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny, for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in Northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast? Her village was so far inland that the sea seemed as distant as the netherworld: it was the chasm of darkness where the holy Ganga disappeared into the Kala-Pani, ‘the Black Water.’”
(Sea of Poppies, p 3)

Amitav Ghosh is a story-teller of the highest order and, in his novel Sea of Poppies, he weaves several tales together bound by the limits of time, language, class, poppies and, above all else, the sea. It is the sea that permeates the stories of various men and women and that provides the thread that ties this book together. He deftly opens the book with three paragraphs that limn three basic motifs for the novel: the sea, poppies, and the village; a village that is the starting point for Deeti, the first of many people whose stories will emerge throughout the novel. Deeti's village exists in a metaphorical "sea of poppies" which will result in her flight to the sea:

"the plants had been left to wither in the fields, so that the countryside was blanketed with the parched remnants." (p 188)

On the sea we meet Zachary Reid whose story is uplifting, but more importantly we are introduced to his ship, the Ibis, which becomes an important character in the author's sea of stories.

. . . for he had only to look at the spindrift that was flying off the schooner's bows to know that the Ibis was not a ship like any other; in her inward reality she was a vehicle of transformation, traveling through the mists of illusion towards the elusive, ever-receding landfall that was Truth.
(p 411)

The novelist is notable for his use of language. Not since Rushdie have I encountered the brilliance and bounty penned by an author. That bounty is magnified by the appendage of a forty-three page section entitled "The Ibis Chrestomathy" which, as a chrestomathy or selection of literary passages, serves as more than a glossary and can be read in its own right.

Words! Neel was of the view that words, no less than people, are endowed with lives and destinies of their own. (The Ibis Chrestomathy, p 501)

Ultimately, the author's ability to recreate a particular time and place and the way he intertwined the characters' stories were the best aspects of this novel. In spite of moments were I, if only fleetingly, felt that some of the individual events were contrived the overarching themes, motifs, and design of the novel moved it beyond these moments and made it a great read.

The Sea of Poppies: a novel by Amitav Ghosh. Picador Editions, New York. 2009 (2008)

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