Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Rating - Read

For anyone who has not read Amitav Ghosh, I can confidently say ‘stop reading. Log onto a book site and order him. Resume reading’. Ghosh must be among the best writers when it comes to weaving tales backed by really strong research. Everything sounds authentic and you sink into the stories he paints for you, pulled in by the wonderfully vivid descriptions. Everytime I read Ghosh, I am transported to his scenes and often find myself startled to emerge into the here and now.

Sea of Poppies is no less. The tale is set in British India around the time opium was being grown in large belts of Bihar around the Ganges. Deeti is a high caste opium farmer, watching the days go by with her opium-addicted husband unable to provide enough to even repair the roof of their house. Zachary Reid, a free American born of a black mother and a white father finds himself raising from carpenter to second mate in a ship. Paulette, daughter of a French botanist, becomes an orphan and is taken in by a kind British burra sahib, Mr Burnham. Her Indian nanny’s son and her childhood friend, Joru is aiming to become a sailor. Burnham establishes his strong-hold on the opium and coolie business, assisted ably by his Indian advisor. Raja Ratan Halder, a zemindar comfortably ensconced in age-old traditions is beginning to realize the might of the British raj. In the midst of all this is the Ibis, having finished her time as a slave galley and now being outfitted to carry coolies to Mauritius.

Each of these threads slowly begins to come together to form the first part of the trilogy. The book jumps from one thread to the next but at no point do you feel that any thread is less interesting than the others. You greedily consume the story of Deeti but as easily move to find out what is happening with Raja Ratan Halder.

Someone had mentioned that the language of this book is tough to comprehend, and unquestioningly I had also ignored this book for a while. What a fool I was.

The book’s strongest point lies in its language. The English characters speak a version of English that generously borrows from the Hindustani language they would have dealt with at that point in time. Sample this - ‘there is a roti in your choola’, a Hindi transfiguration of the English expression ‘bun in your oven’ to suggest a character could be expecting. Even though a lot of these words would have been utterly bonafide English usage back then, knowing Hindi made the reading a lot easier. The Indian characters speak in Bhojpuri or Bengali but we get the translation of this. The lascars, the most interesting bunch of all, speak in a sea-language that draws from a whole range of languages and is utterly charming.

The characterization feels real and is an eye-opener on how people were back then. What happened when someone tried to interact with someone from another caste, how the burra-sahibs viewed Indians, how the English-speaking Indians viewed themselves and maintained their ‘caste’ while kow-towing to the British, how the British viewed themselves in relation to the opium trade. More importantly, none of the characters succumb to a caricature of how they should be. Each character is his or her own while maintaining the broader background from which he or she comes. The interactions between each of the characters also maitains this broader background.

The book sets the mood for the next book in the series, River of Smoke (which I now can’t wait to get my hands on).

If are an Amitav Ghosh fan, then you must have already read this. If not, now is a good time to start.

p.s. Thanks to Z for reminding me of this book’s existence and lending it to me.


Mum's delight said...

Have you started reading books on your Ipad finally? Maybe you can download the next book in the series on that.

Archana said...

Picked up this book on your reco. Must say I totally enjoyed it! Even the occasional pigdin language wasn't much of a deterrent - I thought it flowed perfectly with the narrative.

Anita said...

Mum's delight - I have quitely put away the IPad somewhere. I think I better start dusting it and get it out

Archana - Glad to see that!

Nafisa said...

Aha! So you have 'Z's' copy of Sea of Poppies. Return it quick! I'm in line to read it.

Anita said...

Nafisa - Z told me about this impressive piece of detective work you did! I read the book long ago but have not gotten around to returning it. Will definitely do so now.