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#BookReview: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

I have been courting the idea of reading Amitav Ghosh since long. So when I saw the books in A’s book shelf, the decision was made. I started with the Sea of Poppies which is the first book in the Ibis Trilogy.

It corresponds to the WriteTribe reading prompt: Man Booker prize long- list (any year). You can check out the reading challenges I have signed on this year – Here

Title: Sea of Poppies

Genre: Fiction

Author: Amitav Ghosh


Light eyed Deeti lives in a small hamlet of Ghazipur and tends to her field of poppies diligently. She is woken up by a dream of an ocean faring ship. Deeti has never seen such a ship and wonders what it means. Her dreams find space in her shrine where she draws what she sees in her visions.

She is married to Hukum Singh who works in an opium factory and lives only for his addiction till one day it consumes him completely. She is mother to a small girl called Kabootri whom she sends away to her brother’s house.

Circumstances force Deeti to run away with a Chamar called Kalua who saves her life and then marries her. They Land up on a ship called Ibis ( same as the one she sees in a dream) to be shipped across the dark waters to Mareech or Mauritius as plantation workers by the British.

“No matter how hard the times at home may have been, in the ashes of every past there were a few cinders of memory that glowed with warmth—…”
― Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies

The human cargo of Ibis turns out to be one motley crew, assembled by fate. There is a Maharaja who has recently lost everything and is being exiled for 7 years imprisonment. He is sharing his cell with a half Chinese and half Parsi man who is also exiled for his crimes.

An American called Zachary who finds himself as Second mate on the ship due to a very unusual chain of events. He is wary of the first officer of the ship who resents him a lot.

The munshi of the British company that owns the ship who is seemingly undergoing a spiritual and physical change. He forms a fondness for the Raja whom he ultimately plans to set free. He is convinced that Zachary is an avatar of Lord Krishna.

A French lady who speaks Hindustani, Bengali, English ans French and considers a Muslim boy her brother. She boards the ship in a disguise till she reveals herself to Zachary one night.

Jodu the young Muslim boat worker who joins the crew to escape his otherwise ill-fated life, He falls for Munia, a young girl on board the ship who is set to be sold off as a worker at Mauritius.

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Each character seems to be entwining in the other and another layer of the tale is revealed. Their life cross over several times and in different guises, leading to connections being formed.

The voyage of the ship is not unmarked with death and other violent incidents as there are patrolmen to maintain law and order on the ship.

Deeti finds herself in the position of being the “bhauji” of all concerned in the lot of the workers. She is looked upon for solving disputes and is sought out for advice by all. Till one day the Subedar takes offense and decides to teach her a lesson.

Kalua tries to save her and is beaten up in the process. While he is being lashed for his crime, he manages to break free and kill the Subedar. Now he faces death by hanging.

Jodu is caught with Munia and beaten black and blue till he can’t move at all.

Fate steps in to help these two escape along with a few others from the ship who are fed up of the life under the British.

The book ends on this note and I need to read the next one to figure out what happens next.

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Lasting impression on me:

Through British politics, trade policies with the Chinese and subjugation of Indian people  the writer has woven a rich tapestry of greed, money and ego that compels one to keep turning the pages. All of this is set against a backdrop of cultivating poppies to produce opium and its ill effects on the Indian people.

Amitav Ghosh’s language mastery is superb as is his research of the era in which this story is set. From the politics to social norms to the language- everything is pitch perfect.

He has used a rich mix of Hindi, English and Chinese languages as used by the sailors, coolies and labourers in that era. There is a lot of pidgin English too which, I will admit, takes a little used to and made reading slightly tedious for me initially.

The women are portrayed as silent spectators whose life gets arranged by the men of their families. There is a lot of propriety being observed among all the classes and masses of people. Caste system is regarded highly by the Indians. The British have their own system of ensuring proper Christian behaviour within their society.

Even aboard the ship, a social hierarchy is formed between the various groups and then within the groups too.

Above it all is the writing which has rich imagery and enticing descriptions that makes one pause to wonder if its poetry one is reading. Sample this:

“It was a single poppy seed…she rolled it between her fingers and raised her eyes past the straining sails, to the star-filled vault above. On any other night she would have scanned the sky for the planet she had always thought to be the arbiter of her fate.”
― Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies

My rating:

I vacillated between a 4 and a 5; settled it at 4/5 as the language of the book is very tough in places to read. Some of the conversations and scenes are also heavy and made little sense to me. I am sure there are lots of people who would disagree with this rating. My rating is based on how the book made me feel and what enjoyment I derived from reading it.

I had reviewed a historical fiction Pachinko a while back which is based on the lives of Korean immigrants in Japan.

You can check out my bookshelves on Goodreads

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27th May 2019 – BOOK SALE ALERT

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9 thoughts on “#BookReview: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

  1. Wow, this book does sound interesting, adding it to my TBR for later. Because I am currently staying away from heavier reads, and this seems to be one.

    Though thanks for such a detailed review, Shalini. I wasn’t sure of what to expect with this book, but your review gives me a good idea.

    1. Hi Shan – yeah this is a pretty huge and heavy read. I was on a holiday with loads of spare time, so could zip through it easily. The writing is a huge plus and I would say save it for a leisure trip or something like that 🙂

  2. I didn’t realise this was a two-part book. I think the only Amitav Ghosh I’ve read is The Glass Palace and it was okay. Not mind blowing by any means and I guess I haven’t gone back to his books due to that.

    1. This is actually a three part series Sanch – River of Smoke and Flood of fire are the other two in this series. I am waiting to get them by hook or crook as am not buying books (again) this year – sigh!!!!!

  3. Now that you’ve charted our the cast of characters and given a brief outline of the book , I will try reading it again.i must admit I gave it up because I was terribly confused ….

    1. Thats great to hear. Yes there is a heavy duty list of characters and the stories skip between all of them – I hope you do read it again and like it this time.

  4. I had to read your review of this book. A decade ago it was too heavy for me to continue reading and finishing it. I could not sail alongwith the book soon after the ship sailed for Mauritius. Given your good word about this book, maybe I should pick it up once again and begin from the beginning. I still have a copy of Sea of Poppies stored away in India. I will retrieve it upon return.

    1. Yes it is and Universe answered my prayers for the next two books which are coming with a friend in July most probs – Yay!! I dont have to break my pact yet!! 🙂

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