“Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure of blood….”
— Thomas de Quincey
In 1839 the Chinese government, alarmed by the increasing number of opium addicts, installed commissioner Lin Zexu to solve the problem. He excluded the British from the ports and destroyed about 20,000 chests of opium, worth millions even with the monetary value of those days. The British, needless to say, were less than amused and used their fleet and its considerable firepower to strongarm the Chinese government into a treaty, the Treaty of Nanking, that would eventually lead to the colony of Hong Kong, along with several open trade seaports. The treaty is known to the Chinese as the Unfair Treaty.
In Amitav Ghosh’s impressive Ibis trilogy, we see how the production and distribution of opium is brought about through the eyes of several characters, either upper- or lower class, British, American, Indian, Chinese, or anything in between. It’s an impressive work of fiction, all the more because it is meticulously researched: while most of the main characters are fictitious, the events certainly aren’t.
The narrative starts – and ends – with the story of Deeti, a farm girl from Ghazipur who is married to an opium addict. When her husband dies, her family wants her to commit settee – a ceremony wherein the widow immolates herself, semi-voluntarily, on her husband’s funeral pyre. Deeti chooses not to and instead elopes with a lower-caste unspeakable, a lumbering giant of a man named Kalua. Together they escape to the ship Ibis, which is set to bring convicts to a labour colony in Mauritius. On the ship, they meet others. There is Neel, a former Rajah with a somewhat too casual attitude to business whose debts have sent him there; Paulette, the orphaned daughter of a French botanist who grew up in India and doesn’t want to be trapped in a loveless marriage to an ancient judge; Zachary, an ambitous sailor from America hindered by his mulatto status; and Benjamin Burnham, the ship’s owner and opium trader who sees no harm in evangelising the addicts on the one hand and selling them opium on the other. There are many, many others; some menacing, some funny, some pathetic. Sea of Poppies describes how the characters meet and how they bond on the ship – and escape. River of Smoke, the second part, mostly takes place in an opium traders’ colony on the China mainland; Flood of Fire takes us back to Calcutta and then to China.
There are so many characters that it’s hard to keep track sometimes; these are big books – about 700 pages each – and their enormous scope means you’re bound to lose track sometimes. It doesn’t matter because there is so much to enjoy. There is heartbreak in the story of Deeti, who symbolises the rigidity of the Indian Caste system, but also satisfaction as we watch Neel crawl up from rock bottom as a lazy, self-absorbed Rajah convicted of embezzlement only to discover his talents as a translator and diplomat in China. My favourite, though, remains Zachary, who, at first, comes across somewhat like a Booker Prize edition of your stereotypical Disney prince – likeable, attractive, courteous, but also naive and very American – and ends up… Well, I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s an interesting development, philosophically speaking, and one that renders the character much more interesting.
Though there is plenty of time for drama and historical exposition, the books, at times are hilarious. Paulette, for instance, is somewhat wild to Victorian standards and sees no harm climbing trees and speaking Bengal to the servants and wearing dresses that – horror of horrors – show her ankles. There is Baboo Nob Kissin Pander, an Indian aide to Burnham, who thinks Zachary is some sort of minor deity who has come to bring either destruction or salvation to mankind, and he does everything in his power to aid Zachary, who has no idea what’s going on but isn’t above using it to his advantage. Zachary himself makes the somewhat unfortunate acquaintance of Mrs Burnham, who catches Zachary polishing a pin while he’s at work and, though this is not a euphemism, she misunderstands and sees it as her personal mission to stop his – in her eyes – destructive onanism. Zachary’s understandable mortification that his boss’s wife is now devoting a significant part of her day to his genitals makes for a delightful read; Victorian prudishness ensures a lot of euphemisms and metaphors are used (“until this time he had been under the impression that the clap was the revenge of the pox-parlour and could not be caught without actually thrusting your cargo through a hatch, no matter whether fore or aft; that merely wincing up your undertackle with your own maulers could produce the same result had never entered his mind.”) Equally entertaining is the pillow talk that occurs when they inevitably do end up in bed together (they keep referring to each other as ‘Mr Reid’ and ‘Mrs Burnham’; she teaches him the value of oral sex and condoms).
Most impressive, however, remains the historical detail imbedded in these books. Everything is historically accurate, from the details of the caste system to the fabrics of the clothes worn by various ranks. Neel, for one, actually existed, and it’s from his correspondence and diaries that Ghosh took the idea to write the novel. Great stretches of dialogue are written in English-Chinese or English-Indian Pidgin, both by the lower-class lascars that Zachary works with and by upper-class colonials such as Paulette and Mrs Burnham. It doesn’t make for the easiest read but it’s fascinating to see how the languages mix and how people found ways to communicate with each other. At other times, it’s the descriptions that make you feel as if you were actually there to witness it, from Deeti’s tour through an opium factory where mindless workers, high on the fumes of their product, lay about dying and not caring, to the strictly hierarchical and segregated life in an army camp or on a ship.
At the end of the book, Ghosh writes that the story might feel unfinished but that there is so much material that he has decided not to continue the story at this point. It’s a shame, really, because the conclusion feels like a hasty one. Maybe I’ve been invested in these characters for too long, but I wouldn’t have minded another edition. Then again, loose ends and random coincidences are neatly tied up and the book’s last act, though it almost reads as a rough draft rather than an actual conclusion, it is a satisfying one.
As for the rest of the books: from the Ibis to Hong Kong there is heartbreak, romance, bloodshed, war, peace, politics, culture, sex, love, and death. What more could you possibly want?