You might glibly describe Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, already long-listed for the Booker Prize, as Moby Dick with a little Treasure Island thrown in. A motley crew of ship hands, migrants, and officers sets course for Mauritius in an American slave ship refashioned to transport labor, opium, and eventually soldiers for China’s Opium Wars. Ghosh, who splits his time between India and Brooklyn, rose to worldwide recognition with The Glass Palace, an equally epic novel about Indians in Burma, and he’s long been preoccupied, like V. S. Naipaul, with Indian migration. “Much of the nautical world in the nineteenth century consisted of Asians,” he says, “yet Asians never figure in the historical record.” His own entry into the ledger is peppered with an indecipherable Esperanto invented by sailors from Portugal, Bengal, Shanghai, etc.
There’s a glossary of sorts, and Ghosh makes no apologies for his pidgin-riddled sentences. “When Melville says ‘the mizzenmast,’ who today knows what that is? The idea that language is a warm bath into which you slip in a comfortable way, to me it’s a very deceptive idea.”
Sea of Poppies is the first novel in a planned trilogy, and Ghosh, at 51, says he’d happily end his career with the books. “The really exciting thing is it doesn’t commit me to anything. I have some distant idea, but I’m very far from knowing what actually happens. It’s like being on a very dark stretch of water late at night, and you can see lights in the distance, but you don’t quite know what’s in between, and how to get there.”