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A Multilingual Voyage, Buoyed By A 'Sea Of Poppies'

Imagine if Charles Dickens had signed on for a voyage with the Pequod, and you get some idea of what Amitav Ghosh's sprawling new historical novel Sea of Poppies has in store. Ghosh conjures up a former slave ship called the Ibis, which is sailing to the island of Mauritius in 1838 and is somehow involved with the British war to open up China to the opium trade.

The ship is packed with a multitude of characters both high and low, including a mixed-race novice sailor from Baltimore, a Rajah in debt to a British businessman, a Chinese criminal, a French stowaway, Malay crewman, farmers, soldiers and a mob of indentured Indian peasants (including a woman named Deeti and her giant of a paramour Kalua, both important to the plot).

Ghosh tells the story of how all these characters end up on this voyage in an appealing, somewhat modified, lingo of the period — when British English mingled with Indian Englishes and dallied with dozens of other dialects. The tale itself is infused with ship's lore, pirate talk, Lascar pidgin and all the other verbal music of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

Beneath it all, like the endless rolling sea, Ghosh's own beautifully made sentences and paragraphs buoy up ship, plot, characters and the setting itself, with a natural ease and beauty. His craft is particularly evident in this passage when the ship — most of whose indentured passengers have never seen the ocean — anchors for one last night in Indian waters,

... the last place from which the migrants would be able to view their native shore: this was Saugor Roads, a much-trafficked anchorage in the lee of Ganga-Sagar, the island that stands between the sea and the holy river... the very name Ganga-Sagar, joining, as it did, river and sea, clear and dark, known and hidden, served to remind the migrants of the yawning chasm ahead; it was if they were sitting balanced on the edge of a precipice, and the island were an outstretched limb of sacred Jambudvipa, their homeland, reaching out to keep them from tumbling into the void.

Reading Sea of Poppies over a number of days, I came to understand that all good books are doing just that — reaching out, helping to keep us from tumbling into the void.

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Alan Cheuse
Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.