Shashi Tharoor reviews The Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh in The Washington Post:
The year is 1838, and the setting British India, a country immiserated by colonial rule, as fertile agricultural lands are swamped by the flower of the novel’s title, grown to produce opium that the British are exporting to addicts in an increasingly resistant China. Hungry Indian peasants, meanwhile, are being driven off their land, and many are recruited to serve as plantation laborers in far-off British colonies like Mauritius. Meanwhile, the clouds of war are looming, as British opium interests in India press for the use of force to compel the Chinese mandarins to keep open their ports, in the name of free trade. Against this background, Sea of Poppies brings together a colorful array of individuals on a triple-masted schooner named the Ibis. There is the widow of an opium addict, saved from a drugged self-immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre by an outcaste who signs up for a new life as a worker in Mauritius; a free-spirited French orphan and the Muslim boatman with whom she has grown up; the Ibis’s second mate, an American octoroon sailor passing for white; a clerk and mystic possessed by the soul of his female spiritual mentor; a lascar seaman with a piratical past; and a dispossessed Raja who has been stripped of his lands and honor and sentenced to transportation for an innocent act of forgery.
The novel unfolds with the stories of the events that bring these “ship-siblings — jaházbhais and jaházbahens” on board and traces the beginning of their voyage from Calcutta to their unknown destinies across the Black Water. The principal characters’ fates are left unresolved — this is a book that is clearly “to be continued” — but their stories are compelling. Even though the Ibis’s journey is incomplete, it provides enough dramatic tension to keep the reader turning the pages.