Sea of Poppies: A Review

Sea-of-Poppies-BOOKS__.jpg Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies is a remarkable novel, complex and challenging enough to test even the most experienced reader and historian, but relatable and powerful enough to touch someone who solely appreciates a great story. Dickensian in its scope and power, the story follows riveting characters from all origins as they navigate the complex contours of 1830’s opium-ridden India, a land where the weight of history lies heavily, yet identities are transformed overnight.

Warning: Some plot details are included! If you are going to read the book (which you should), read the rest of the review afterwardsThe heroine we are first introduced to is Deeti, the hardened wife of an opium worker and loving mother of a young daughter, who is completely ordinary in every way, except for her ability to see “visions.” With this character development, it might seem as though the book is taking a typical turn into the exotic world of rural India, with its spirits and spooky romance, but this is far from the case. Deeti’s journey is the most real experience that can be written about, a journey where she leaves home, finds love, becomes a leader, fights evil, and as a village woman, rises to the most extraordinary heights in a novel that also includes a dashing and good-hearted American sailor, a caring oxcart rider, various sketchy seamen, a dorky young French orphan, a Chinese opium addict, and an Indian raja.

The list of characters might make it seem as though the author is trying too hard to include everyone, as many good authors (think Herman Wouk in the Winds of War) are sometimes guilty of doing, but the author leaves you with the (correct) impression that the nature of 19th century India was a land of many identities and origins, of complex personalities and changing ideas that added layers and dimensions to identities. Ah Fatt might be a disheveled Chinese opium addict, but he is also the son of a great businessman from Bombay. The power of Ghosh’s storytelling is evident in the development of Fatt’s friendship with the Raja of Rashkali, who both are able to make a genuine friendship and find themselves only once they are both convicts.

All of these characters’ lives intertwine on the Ibis, a ship carrying wretchedly treated migrant laborers and convicts to Mauritius. The sea is really where Ghosh is at his best – his knowledge of the Indian seas and seamen at the time, the life and language of the “lascars,” the motley and diverse sailing crews of 19th century Asia, and the journey down India to the “Black Waters,” all show a staggering depth of historical research and a unique skill of subtly and unobtrusively using this research in fiction. Ghosh is the rare writer to write about colonial India without resorting to easily typecast roles or storylines; he understands that colonial India was not a clear spectrum of “good and evil,” but rather of complex allegiances and personalities, unseen evil and hidden heroes.

Whether when a marriage takes place in the “dabusa,” the cramped ship hold, the deep insecurities of a cruel sailor are revealed, or a humiliated husband vows to return to his wife and son, Ghosh writes with such a stunning clarity and understanding of the human spirit that the reader relishes every moment of the book, reveling in the peaks, valleys, and sheer power of the human experience. Just as there is a little of Sydney Carton and Madame Defarge in all of us, readers will discover that there is a little Deeti and Zachary Reid, a little Paulette and Munia, a little Jodu and Serang Ali, in every one of them.

This book is certainly one of the best written on colonial India, fiction or nonfiction, but perhaps the greatest imprint of this novel transcends its setting. Near the end of the novel, there is a moment in which an issue of race and identity comes to the forefront. Ghosh writes

“That the essence of this transformation should inhere in a single word – all of this spoke more to the delirium of the world than to the perversity of those who had to make their way in it.”

And perhaps it is our delirium that would make us identify this as a great “Indian” novel, for it is clear that a story this extraordinary could happen anywhere.

16 thoughts on “Sea of Poppies: A Review

  1. Good Book. Master storyteller. Ended abruptly.

    The ending did it’s job. I can’t wait for the next book in the series, trying to be patient.

  2. Ah Fatt might be a disheveled Chinese opium addict, but he is also the son of a great businessman from Bombay.

    Ah Fatt is a play on the Hindustani-Urdu word aafat, which means ‘a big problem’ i.e., ‘Accident, Adverse, Affliction, Cahoot, Evil, Epidemic, Disaster, Hardship, Misfortune, Mishap, Oppression, Vexation

    What I really enjoyed in the book is the dialogue. By the 1830s, the British in India had been speaking a mixture of English and lower-Ganges delta Bengali-influenced Hindustani for several decades, and there are lots of puns that appear ‘inadvertently’ in the dialogue, the way Ghosh weaves it. He did a lot of research for the book, and has shown how so many of the words that we take for granted in English today had their origin in the 1760-1830 period, among other things.

    The novel is a vehicle for what Ghosh hopes will be a completely new way of understanding the origin and dispersal of the Indian diaspora around the world today and the role of the British empire in that process. I look forward to the rest of the trilogy.

  3. I can’t wait for the next book in the series, trying to be patient.

    Which book starts the series ? Do I have to read the others to read this one ?

  4. zee, I read in a Ghosh interview that he plans to spend the rest of his writing career working on this trilogy. I’d hate to wish that the rest of his career be short but I’d really like to see how this story continues to unfold. I’m almost wishing I had waited to read it as a completed trilogy. But that’s me.

    As a side note, I’d rather reviewers drop that “Dickensian” comparison and just call it epic. It’s better off compared to The Kalevala.

  5. thanks for this – I agreed with much of what you said. I also enjoyed the rant on Ruchira’s site about the “glossary” appendix:) here’s my review of it:

    I found “Sea of Poppies” fascinating and overly researched at the same time. Set mostly in 19th century British Raj India, it weaves together the stories of a village poppy grower, a black American seaman, a Raja, a French immigrant, and a poor wannabe sailor. I love the way Mr. Ghosh structures the book, how the stories come together, although I found the level of detail given to the shipping industry of that time a bit overwhelming.

    On the other hand, the cobbled together waterways and landlocked languages was every bit as ubiquitous and I found that totally compelling. In the same way that almost every other word in “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is in another language, and if you don’t know Spanish (hell, Dominican slang), you have to piece together the story from context and etymology, “Sea of Poppies” is peppered with what appears to be multiple dialects and languages, including Hindi, Bangla, Bhojpuri, Tamil, English, Portuguese, Dutch, and god knows what else. Knowing Bangla definitely helped me enjoy the book more because I could often see how collaged the ongoing conversation was.

    It was also illuminating how the poppy industry functioned in Indian village life before the English and Chinese, and then after. And the slave trade from India to Mauritius and other lands east was also eye opening and heart breaking.

    To think that the book starts off describing the slave holds of ships and the miserable lives of those indentured, and one gradually comes to see that it might be a preferable option, is testament to Mr. Ghosh’s empathic story telling skills. While the language of the book is not its forte, nor some of the characterisation which is sometimes heavy handed and foil-oriented, it doesn’t hold back the story too much, once it gets going (200 pages in). I could have done with a little less length (and shipping talk), but I did read the second half in one eager sitting.

    I would recommend this to anyone interested in ships, the British Rule in India, sailor languages, and the opium trade.

  6. Actually, I thought one of the most endearing parts of the book was all the details. I absolutely loved being transported back into a 19th century sailor’s life. And Ghosh’s descriptive powers are nothing short of spell-binding. He literally takes you there. I had no problems with the book’s length. And I didn’t find it slow-paced either. Absolutely loved it.

  7. Information is very interesting informative. I am a history professor and very much interested to find out how indentured slave trade and immigration are connected with opium trade. Dr. Kumkum Singh, USA