From NPR (here):
…. Sea of Poppies begins with the conversion of a former slave ship, the Ibis, into a transport vessel. The ship will henceforth carry opium bound for China and indentured servants to colonies like the British West Indies.
As the Ibis is outfitted, readers are led through the splendidly exciting cosmos of 1838 Calcutta. The bustling port city is the site of forbidden romance, disguise, deceit, courtroom dramas and ritual suttees (the practice of burning recent widows).
The ship's crew and passengers — opium factory workers, American sailors, French runaways, lascars, coolies, convicts, rajas and sahibs — reflect Calcutta's cosmopolitan racial and socioeconomic swirl. Theirs is a polyglot world, ringing with pidgin, Chinglish, Hinglish and the inimitable slang of seafarers. While the glories of their meticulously recreated lexicon may occasionally stump readers, the author has helpfully included a witty glossary (supposedly compiled by one character)
From the NY Times review (here):
…. The first in a projected trilogy, “Sea of Poppies” is big and baggy, a self-styled epic with colossal themes and almost a dozen major characters, including the son of an American slave (who is passing as white), the orphaned daughter of a French botanist (who is passing as a coolie) and an Anglophile raja (who has been wrongly sentenced to a penal colony on Mauritius). But a majority onboard are Indian peasants from the opium-producing countryside, forced by famine or scandal to seek a new life elsewhere. Devoted to reinvention, Ghosh’s plot focuses on one of these villagers: Deeti, a widow who assumes another name and the (lower) caste of a new love as they escape together on the Ibis…..