Sati. Check. Inter-caste love affair. Check. A clownish Hindu who thinks a Black shipmate is an avatar of Lord Krishna. Check. Amitav Ghosh’s book, which is set in during the period when opium was cultivated in India and exported to China, has all the typical Booker Prize ingredients (The book was a finalist).
In Operation Red Lotus, Parag Tope writes that the East India Company was a state sanctioned monopoly for drug trafficking during this period; the manufacture of the drug was controlled by the company either directly or indirectly. In 1837, following the First Opium War, the trade ran into some hiccups causing the British traders to come up with a new strategy. During that time the following conversation happens between them:
This elicited an instantaneous response from Mr. Burnham, who placed his wineglass forcefully on the table. `Evidently you have mistaken my meaning, Raja Neel Rattan,’ he said ‘The war, when it comes, will not be for opium. It will be for a principle: for freedom – for the freedom of trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people. Free Trade is a right conferred on Man by God, and More so perhaps, since in its absence many millions of natives would be denied the lasting advantages of British influence.’
As the war was being planned,Benjamin Burnham, the owner of Ibis, a slave carrying ship from United States had no other option, but to divert to transport coolies to Mauritius. It is into this ship that an assortment of characters step in. They include the recently widowed Deeti and her Ox cart driving husband, Zachary Reidm a freed slave , Neel Rattan Halder, a Raja whose land was seized and turned into a convict by the British, Paulette Lambert, a French orphan and an assortment of characters.
A large porition of the book is plain narrative where the characters and their back story are established. Very soon it lapses into a Films Division style documentary on life during that period. But that period is described meticulously and the amount of research that has gone into the habits, costumes and food is really impressive. I recently started reading Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth and found much more vivid historical detail in Ghosh’s work. The book drags in the middle and there is a rush of action towards the end.