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'Sea of Poppies': An Epic Tale Of Opium And Empire

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

A colorful, enticing, yet dangerous image is evoked by the title of Amitav Ghosh's entrancing new novel, Sea of Poppies. That sea is mirrored by another: the Bay of Bengal, where the opium trade flourished in the early 19th century. Both seas provide backdrop and engine for Ghosh's tale, the first volume in a projected trilogy.

Sea of Poppies begins with the conversion of a former slave ship, the Ibis, into a transport vessel. The ship will henceforth carry opium bound for China and indentured servants to colonies like the British West Indies.

As the Ibis is outfitted, readers are led through the splendidly exciting cosmos of 1838 Calcutta. The bustling port city is the site of forbidden romance, disguise, deceit, courtroom dramas and ritual suttees (the practice of burning recent widows).

The ship's crew and passengers — opium factory workers, American sailors, French runaways, lascars, coolies, convicts, rajas and sahibs — reflect Calcutta's cosmopolitan racial and socioeconomic swirl. Theirs is a polyglot world, ringing with pidgin, Chinglish, Hinglish and the inimitable slang of seafarers. While the glories of their meticulously recreated lexicon may occasionally stump readers, the author has helpfully included a witty glossary (supposedly compiled by one character).

Ghosh, a former newspaper reporter who holds a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford University, is bent on bringing the voices of India's historical underclass to life. So he immerses readers in such doings as the workings of an opium factory and in the savage underpinnings of colonial economic engines like the East India Company.

In 2008, Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, England's most prestigious literary award. The book has been glowingly reviewed as "breathtaking" (The Independent), "utterly involving" (London Times) and boasting both "a plot of Dickensian intricacy" (The New York Times) and "characters of force and imagination" (The Guardian).

Ghosh is one of India's best-known writers. In this country, he's contributed to such magazines as The New Yorker and The New Republic. He's most famous for his equally epic novel, The Glass Palace, about Indians in Burma.

This reading of Sea of Poppies took place in November 2008 at Politics and Prose, bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.