Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

sea_of_poppies2Nobody was more excited than yours truly when Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies was set to release in 2008. My journey to finishing the book was diametrically opposite in enthusiasm. I kept picking up and abandoning the book around the same chapter. A year or so later, I finally finished reading the book and I loved it. But the process of reading it was so tumultuous, I just never reviewed the book.

Earlier this week, I surprised myself by picking up and re-reading the book – this time, without giving up on it. It’s not easy for me to re-read books. The temptation of newer, unread, unknown stories waiting to be devoured is just too much. I was to pick up a Murakami book from the library yesterday, with a 100-odd pages left of Poppies, but I postponed the trip and finished the book instead. Good going, me!!

I am so glad I gave Sea of Poppies another chance. It is a book well-deserving of a second reading. I had forgotten so much from my first reading six years ago, and all the parts I remembered did nothing short of bringing a smile to my face. I still loved the characters I loved back then, but the depth and expansiveness of the narrative kept the second reading rewarding.

Sea of Poppies is the first book in Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy about the trade of opium from India to China. The ship Ibis’s first voyage in the book does not, however, carry opium, but slaves who are to be transported to Mauritius. Ghosh spends the first two-thirds of the book bringing his principle characters together, dropping hints along the way to show who we should pay more attention to. The first, and seemingly most important one, is Deeti, a simple villager woman who is forced to flee her village after her husband’s death and finds herself on the Ibis with an unexpected companion. Deeti, by far, is set up as the one who will keep the diverse group of characters together. And what a diverse group it is – Kalua, a low-caste cart-driver; Neel Ratan, a once-wealth Raja; Zachary Reid, a lowly carpenter who rises to the position of second mate, and a man who is passing as white; Ah Fatt, a half-Parsi opium addict; Paulette, an orphaned French daughter of a botanist raised by an Indian woman; Jodu, her childhood companion and so-called brother. And many more. Even Ghosh’s minor characters, like Serang Ali, have a lot to offer.

The breadth of Ghosh’s story is so wide that it can take a minute or two for you to catch up. But once you do, the story flows easily and naturally. Like many of his other works, Poppies is historical and the sheer amount of study Ghosh has put into the novel is staggering and awe-inspiring. The author uses a variety of accents and speaking styles for his mixed-bag of characters and it may do you some good to read some of these lines out loud (especially those of Mr. Doughty) if you speak Hindi and English. There is much to absorb and enjoy in this book, and while the climax may be a tad bit expected, it does not stop you from feeling that exhilaration and thrill that a good cliff-hanger gives.

You’ve probably read Sea of Poppies by now. Any chance, like me, you’d read it again?

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One Response to Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

  1. Yet to read it.
    Indian English writers have been put on hold for quite some time.
    Ibis trilogy has always seemed daunting to me, the historical background and Amitav’s fascination with it makes the novel seem formidable.
    The trilogy is complete now. Have you read the other two?
    What’s your impression of the whole series?

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