In Sea of Poppies (2008), readers first meet Deeti, who lives on the outskirts of Ghazipur, fifty miles east of Benares. She keeps house and assists with the poppy crop, while her husband works in Ghazipur’s opium factory.
“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?
The ship which appears in her vision is the Ibis, on which Zachary Reid is travelling, his first sea voyage, to India in 1838. Zachary was eager to try sailing, having worked for eight years in the Baltimore shipyards, and the Ibis has a new English owner, who is eager to refurbish the old slave transport vessel for use in the opium trade. (Slavery has been abolished and the Ibis is not a fast enough runner to escape the boats which patrol to enforce the legislation.)
Zachary has remarkable opportunities in this new owner’s rush to assemble a skeleton crew. Shorthanded and troubled, the crew flounders and Zachary moves quickly through the ranks, even more easily when the ship reaches its destination where it is forgotten that Zachary was registered ‘black’ on the manifest, for here he possesses a skin colour light enough to command some authority.
This is the kind of story which truly unfolds. It feels simultaneously old-fashioned (in sentence structure and time period) but contemporary (in its use of humour and scenic displays).
Not only do readers experience life on-board but we have glimpses, also, of life in prison, on a colonial estate, on the waterfront, and in an opium factory.
Although Deeti and Zachary play significant roles throughout the novel, other characters move into the heart of the narrative as well. Including the man who will eventually construct the glossary which is included as the back of the novel.
How fitting, for language plays a crucial role in drawing readers into Sea of Poppies. The glossary is ostensibly assembled from scraps of paper accumulated over a man’s lifelong curiosity about words.
The glossary is not necessary for readers to enjoy the story, but it does offer another opportunity for insight, not only into this man’s character but also in terms of the novel’s preoccupations. In the most obvious sense, in a quest for understanding (between individuals, between cultures):
“To set sail is to find oneself foundering not just in a new element, but also in an unknown ocean of words. When one listens to the speech of sailors, no matter whether they be speaking English or Hind. one is always at sea: not for nothing is the English argot of sail known as a ‘sea-language’, for it has long slipped its moorings from the English one learns in books.”
The definitions frequently include explanations of caste and social status, both on- and off-ship. Sometimes the definition is more about the character than the word’s etymology. For instance, the definition of ‘sahib’, which also reveals the novel’s preoccupation with class and status:
Sahib – This word was a source of bafflement to Neel: ‘How did it happen that the Arabic for ‘friend’ became, in Hind. and English, a word meaning ‘master’? The question was answered by a grandson who had visited the Society Union; on the margins of Neel’s note he scribbled: ‘Sahib’ was to the Raj what ‘comrade’ is to Communists – a mask for mastery.