How long did it take you to write Sea of Poppies?
About four years.
How much research did you have to undertake for details such as nautical references and the language used?
I love nineteenth-century nautical fiction so many of the details were just buried in my head. As for the rest, it was so deeply pleasureable, I don't know whether I should even call it research. I traveled to Mauritius, to look at the National Archives and some other libraries; I spent some time in Greenwich, England, looking at the magnificent collection of the National Maritime Museum. But the best part of all was learning to sail—that was an experience that surpassed everything I had imagined.
How much of a challenge was it to write the language used by the lascars?
A ship manned by lascars must have been a kind of floating babel. Sailors from all around the Indian Ocean went by the name 'lascar'—East Africans, South Asians, Filipinos, Chinese, Malays. When you look at one of those old crew lists, you can't help wondering how things got done on a ship with such a cosmopolitan crew. It must have been a specially pressing issue on a sailing vessel, for it's impossible to work a sailship without clear commands—that's why there's such an extensive nautical jargon in English. So how did lascars communicate, with their officers (who were usually European) and with each other? These questions puzzled me for a long time and then one day, while looking through a library catalogue, I came upon a nineteenth-century dictionary of the 'Laskari' language. I'd never seen any references to this dictionary anywhere, so it was a really exciting discovery. And the language proved to be a wonderful nautical jargon that mixed bits of Hindi, Urdu, English, Portuguese, Bengali, Arabic, Malay and many other languages. It was fascinating for me personally because it incorporated elements of many of the languages I grew up with.
What made you choose to set this book in the lead-up to the Opium Wars?
Opium was not at the forefront of my mind when I started thinking about this book. I was more interested in travel, migration and the dispersal of Indians across the globe. But this dispersal began in earnest in the 1830s, just before the first Opium War, and the earliest immigrants were from a part of British India (northern Bihar) which became, under the rule of the East India Company, the single most important opium-growing region of the world. There was really no getting away from opium: in this period, India, China and England were joined by a sea of poppies.
Sea of Poppies is the first in an epic trilogy. Did you plan the remaining two books before you began writing? Can you give us any hints as to what to expect from the trilogy?
I have some ideas about where the narrative might lead, but experience has taught me that books have minds of their own. There's no point thinking about where they'll go. One never knows till they're written.
How long do you think it will take to complete the trilogy?
I honestly don't know: the longer the better as far as I'm concerned. There's nothing else I'd rather be doing.
There are lots of different characters in the book; do you view any particular character as central to the story? Which characters did you feel most attached to when you were writing?
Deeti was, for me, the central character in this book: whenever I was at a loss, I always looked to her to help me out, and somehow she always came through. But I also came to love many of the other characters, especially Paulette, Zachary, Baboo Nob Kissin, Neel and Jodu. Mrs. Burnham is not onstage very long, but she quickly became another favourite.
You've lived in quite a few different countries but where do you consider home?
The more I travel, the more it becomes clear to me that I'm never more at home than when I am in India. But as with the characters in my book, travel is one of the realities of my life so, like them, I've had to learn to carry my home in my head.
March 18, 2008