Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh-India(Bengal)

037417422901_sx140_sclzzzzzzz_Sea of Poppies

by Amitav Ghosh

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

New York, NY 2008

Sea of Poppies is the first book in a proposed trilogy.  It is epic in scope, densely packed and wonderfully written.  The over arching theme is migration, the voyage of Indian people to Mauritius, an island far off the eastern coast of Madagascar, as indentured servants.  The forces that propel their lives- the British occupation, the opium trade, the caste system- are portrayed in depth.  This is a sprawling adventure, wild and at times utterly hilarious.  It is not an easy read.

Sea of Poppies is a historical novel and Ghosh deftly crams in as much information as possible with out sinking the story under its own weight. At the center of the novel is a ship, the Ibis, formally a slaver,  too slow to outrun the navy vessels patrolling  the West African coast. As with other slow ships her owner has decided  to turn her to a different trade, opium.  We are introduced to each main character and they all, somehow,  eventually end up on the Ibis.

First, we meet Deeti, the wife of a factory worker living  near Benares.   Deeti, like all her neighbors, grows poppies.  The fortune seekers of the East India Company are determined to sell opium to China, even at the risk of war.

” The war, when it comes, will not be for opium.  It will be for principle: for freedom-for the freedom of trade and the freedom of the Chinese people.  Free  trade is a right conferred on Man by God, and its principles  apply as much to opium as to any other article of trade.  More so perhaps, since in its absence many millions of natives would be denied the lasting advantage of British influence.” Page 106.

The British have forced Indian farmers, small and large, to forgo their sustenance crops and grow poppies.  They have  turned the banks of the Ganges and her tributaries into monoculture fields to fuel their opium factories.  Following the Ganges to Calcutta we meet many other characters,   Raja Neel Battan,  a bankrupt landowner forced to give up his land in a “forgery” trial.   Paulette , a young women orphaned and left with family of the new owner of the Ibis, Benjamin Brightwell Burnham and Paulette’s  Bengali foster-brother, Jodu.  On board the Ibis  Zachery Reid,  a mixed-race freeman from Baltimore has become second mate  and the wild head of a lascar crew, Serang Ali, is engaged by the captain.

All of these characters come alive with their own voices and manners. Then, there is India, herself, the land,the food, the clothing, religious celebrations, traditions, music,  and always there are the people.

“Slowly, as the women’s voices grew in strength and confidence, the men forgot their quarrels: at home too, during village weddings it was always the women who sang when the bride was torn from her parent’s embrace – it was as if they were acknowledging through their silence, that they, as men, had no words to describe the pain of  a child who is exiled from home.” Page 366.

Ghosh plays with language, to the extent of including a nautical glossary or Chrestomathy created by one of the main characters.  Initially I thought I would have difficulty with the mixture of English, Bengali, Indian dialects  and  nautical pidgin but the language becomes a driving force of  the book, much like the Ganges or the politics that drives the opium trade.  The language becomes the wind in the sails of the great ship.  I love the ship and the characters, even the nasty ones.  I found this book a thrilling, intensely packed ride and the cliff hanger ending leaves me hoping the second in the series will be published soon.

I found it interesting, after doing a bit of digging, to find out that the Ibis is a symbol, in Egyptian mythology, of the Logos, of magic, writing and science.  In hurricane, and I suppose, monsoon country it is a symbol of survival.  The last to take shelter before the storm hits and the first to emerge after the storm has passed.  Brilliant.

Other reviews:


Kiss A Cloud


Filed under Orbis Terrarum 2009, Review

19 responses to “Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh-India(Bengal)

  1. Glad to see you loved it, too, Gavin! :D I’m linking to your post as well. Interesting bit about the symbol of the ibis. Did you think the novel was slow-moving at all? That’s the usual complaint, but I didn’t mind it. Like you said, it’s thrilling.. the end, especially.. ooh I can’t wait for the next installment!

  2. I’ve found that I am drawn to books set in India. I really enjoyed your review of this book and will probably end up reading it sometime this year.

  3. Vasilly

    I have this already on my TBR list. Great review, Gavin!

  4. I’ve run across references to this one several times now; it sounds like another one (!!!) to go onto my list of things I really ought to read. Thanks for the review.

  5. Thank you for the great review, Gavin. I am eager to read this one. It sounds fascinating.

  6. Ooh, I love Indian literature, and this sounds like a great option. Thanks for the lovely review!

  7. First Claire, now you…I will definitely have to read this. Loved your review.

  8. Claire – I really did love it and did not find it slow at all, at times I felt like I was sailing on words. I keep checking for news about the second book.

    Staci – I am also drawn to books from that part of the world. I think it has something to do with the beutiful use of the English language.

    Vasilly – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    Hedgie – I know what you mean about those “books you really ought to read.” I was fond of Ghosh already and really looked forward to this one.

    LF – Thnks for your comment. I found this book fascinating on many levels.

    Emily – I also love Indian literature. What have you read? Maybe I’ve missed something good.

    Nymeth – Thanks! The ball’s in your court, or maybe not if I count the Spufford book. I have dreams of all my TBR piles falling over and burying me, my sweetie and my dog!

  9. “The language becomes the wind in the sails of the great ship.” That’s a great line, Gavin, especially in the context of this particular review!

  10. Sounds interesting, I will definitely have to pick it up!

  11. Richard – Thank you for your kind comment.

    Lahni – I really enjoyed Sea of Poppies, hope you do too.

  12. Tea

    I have just read your review of “Sea of Poppies.” I’m definitely putting it on my wish list. What a great review!

  13. ruinedbyreading

    I’ve been waiting to read Sea of Poppies for awhile now. I’m glad it’s getting good reviews.

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