Near the beginning of Sea of Poppies, Deeti, the central character, has a vision of the Ibis, the schooner that will eventually carry her away from India. For me, too, the book began in much the same way — except that the vision that was revealed to me was of Deeti herself. I knew from the start that her story would be the main current of this novel; she would be the river that carried the weight of its many tributary streams.
One of the reasons why I was drawn to Deeti’s story is that my own ancestors set off on their travels at about the same time as she did: the difference was that they moved in the opposite direction. The founder of the family is said to have left his village in eastern Bengal in the early part of the 19th century. Moving gradually westwards, he came to a halt in 1856, when he settled in Chhapra, a small town in Bihar — the very place in which Deeti and Kalua come to their fateful decision to sever their links with the past and seek a new life overseas. It was this unnamed ancestor who led me into the story of opium by prompting me to wonder why he had ended up where he did. What led him to settle in this relatively obscure place? What opportunities could he have been seeking? This was then the world’s single most important poppy-growing region and was thus one of the chief sources of the wealth of the British Raj. Such opportunities as existed there must have been connected with opium in some way. Could it be that the star that ruled my family’s destiny — and thus my own — was the same as Deeti’s, that is to say, the seed of the poppy?
My forefathers, like the Victorian Britons who controlled the opium trade in eastern India, were prim, pious and thoroughly genteel. If they were indeed connected with the opium trade, they succeeded in wholly expunging the memory of that involvement. In this they were no different from the vast majority of Indians and Britons: just as very few people in today’s England are aware of the extent of their country’s historical involvement in drug-running, in India too there are very few who know that the drugs that poisoned hundreds of millions of Chinese, over a period of a century and a half, were almost entirely of Indian provenance; that such cities as Calcutta and Bombay were essentially built on opium; and that India was the launching pad for the wars that were waged against China when the rulers of that country attempted to restrict the inflow of the drug. For me too much of this history came as a revelation.
On marine drive
But Sea of Poppies is as much about the sea as it is about poppies. Many years ago, when I was in my 20s and living in Egypt, I ran into a group of Indian sailors in a harbour-front bar in Alexandria. They were as interesting a group of men as I have ever met, and their stories were so compelling that my life seemed wretchedly dull by comparison. At the end of the evening they invited me to visit their ship the next day; they would soon be weighing anchor they said, and if I were of a mind to travel, there might even be a berth for me, as a member of the crew. Next morning I went hurrying down to the port, tremendously excited — but only to discover that their ship had already sailed.
We are all haunted by the roads we do not take: in my case, this missed opportunity served to deepen an old interest in sea stories, particularly of the 19th century variety. In reading ships’ logs, journals and the like, I came to be astonished by the number of Asian sailors who figured on the crew-lists of 19th century sailing vessels. These ‘lascars’ as they were called, came from every part of the Indian Ocean and the more I read about them, the more I was intrigued by their lives. What drew them to the sea? How did they communicate, among themselves and with their officers? One day, in a library I chanced upon an early 19th century dictionary of the ‘Laskari’ language. Leafing through its pages, I began to wonder what it would be like for a new recruit to learn those words, to discover the nautical world — and so was born Jodu, one of the central characters in the novel.
Rhyme of the mariners
It was the Ibis herself who was responsible for the gestation of yet another sailor: Zachary Reid, the young American. It is a matter of historical record that many of the ships that transported Indian migrants and Indian opium were converted American slave-ships. One day, looking through illustrations of old clippers and schooners, I came upon a picture of a bright-eyed, curly-haired young sailor who looked straight into my eyes (as he was soon to do into Deeti’s).
Soon afterwards, retracing Zachary’s steps, I found myself in Mauritius and went to visit to the island’s famous Botanical Gardens. Walking through avenues of ornamental palms, I was reminded of the botanical gardens in my own city, Calcutta: like a floating strand of gossamer, a thread appeared, linking not just the two gardens, but the people who
had breathed life into them. Thus was born Paulette, the orphaned child of a French botanist who is more Indian than European.
Like the Ibis, the vessels that transported Indian migrants and convicts overseas were small, crowded and noisome. The people who made those journeys endured unimaginable privations and suffered the vilest kinds of humiliation and abuse — yet contemporary observers were often amazed by their capacity for song and laughter. It was this gift, above all, that swept me along with Deeti and her fellow travellers: no matter what they were living through, I could always hear their songs and share in their laughter.
Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies will be launched in India on June 16.