Sea of Poppies: A Novel
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A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2008
A Chicago Tribune Best Book of 2008
A Washington Post Best Book of 2008
An Economist Best Book of 2008
A New York Best Book of 2008
A Christian Science Monitor Best Book of 2008
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2008
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize

At the heart of this vibrant saga is a vast ship, the Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean; its purpose, to fight China’s vicious nineteenth-century Opium Wars. As for the crew, they are a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts.

In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt raja to a widowed tribeswoman, from a mulatto American freedman to a freespirited French orphan. As their old family ties are washed away, they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, or ship-brothers. An unlikely dynasty is born, which will span continents, races, and generations.

The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, the exotic backstreets of Canton. But it is the panorama of characters, whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself, that makes Sea of Poppies so breathtakingly alive—a masterpiece from one of the world’s finest novelists.

Customer Reviews:

  • I admit it; I'm too lazy to continuously look up all these foreign words.
    I see this novel has received stellar reviews, so I am the only one, so far, to disagree. The problem for me was the frequent use of foreign language or jargon that was impossible to follow. Example from Page 45: "This was India, where it didn't serve for a sahib to be taken for a clodpoll of a griffin: if he wasn't fly to what was going on, it'd be all dickey with him, mighty jildee. This was no Baltimore - this was a jungle here, with biscobras in the grass and wanderoos in the trees. If he, Zachary, wasn't to be diddled and taken for a flat, he would have to learn to gubbrow the natives with a word or two of the zubben." Throughout the book there is much use of language that is simply incomprehensible. There is a glossary, but after a while, reading this book became too much like work and too little like pleasure, having to constantly look up meanings. Guess I'm just too lazy, but perhaps there's such a thing as being too authentic. Also, when the story strays into too much detail about sailing and ship jargon, I grew somewhat bored. I never was able to finish but, perhaps, I'll give it another try sometime when the electricity goes out or I'm held captive by a kidnapper with only this book to read. ...more info
  • A treat for language lovers
    This is an inviting and richly detailed tale to immerse yourself in, that takes you to another time and another place, one of the best reasons for leisure reading there is. But there is a bonus prize -- the language and the vocabulary. I can't remember the last time I encountered a word in Englsh that I didn't know, and this book is full of them. (Scrabble players may want to make a list of them as they read.)...more info
  • It Buckled My Swash by Ghosh!
    Great characters and geography made this first book of a trilogy a most enjoyable read. The intermix of cultures, religions and caste was handled smoothly and intelligently. Ghosh certainly did his homework. I won't take space telling you about the story line - Amazon's description will fill that bill.

    I knew only school book history about the opium trade before reading this. His telling of the history of this time period was handled within the story without it seeming to be a lecture. The story line itself will draw you in through an amazing set of characters. (I didn't list them, but it wouldn't surprise me if he used the entire alphabet.) The exotic lascars, opium growers, big-shots, sailors, etc. let the author explore every facet of everyday life.

    The only irritant was the use of undefined vernacular. The meanings became clear (I think and hope) through connotation and repetition, but an actual glossary would have been helpful. Without it, I'm afraid the learning curve will start all over by the time the next installments are published. And I will be anxiously awaiting them. This was one of the more fun books I have read in 2008....more info
  • fasincating and overly researched
    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. ...more info
  • Excellent Historical Epic of 19th Century Asia!
    "Sea of Poppies" is the brilliant first novel of Amitav Ghosh, and is the first in the expected trilogy of "Ibis" novels. Set in the year 1838, when Asia is on the eve of the Opium Wars, the story begins on board the Ibis, which sails from America en route to India.

    The lives of numerous people are affected and forever changed by their journey to India on the Ibis. Zachary Reid has enlisted as a ship's carpenter in order to escape his fate as the son of a now-freed slave girl and her master. Deeti, a recent widow, and her friend Kahlua decide to leave India, become indentured workers, and seek their happiness in the Mauritius. Paulette Lambert is orphaned and is repulsed by the strange behavior of Mr Burnham, the owner of the Ibis, and his family, when she makes her home with them. Neel Rattan, the Raja, is set in his ways and unable to adjust to the changing ways of the colonial world; upon his bankruptcy he is sent to jail, where he meets the half-Chinese Ah Fatt, convicted for robbery. Baboo Nob Kissin, an accountant, is very religious and has an overwhelming desire to establish a shrine. These characters are all on the Ibis in the hopes of escaping their old lives and embarking on an adventurous new beginning.

    This epic historical novel and its cast of colorful and complex characters does a wonderful job of illuminating and bringing to life 19th century society in colonial Asia. A real page-turner and a definite must-read!
    ...more info
  • A sprawling adventure in the Indian subcontinent of the 1800s.
    I rarely give any book 5 stars, but sometimes they are deserved. This book is almost an anthropological thesis that examines the lives of various denizens of the Indian subcontinent in the mid 1800s. For so esoteric a book, however, it is surprisingly readable. I had trouble putting it down. It describes the lives of such diverse characters as a mixed-race American sailor, an impoverished Indian aristocrat, a young, orphaned woman born in India of French parents and a widow from a small Indian village, among others, all connected by the effects of the opium trade of the British East India Company.
    The author revels in the polyglot speech of his protagonists. Some of the jargon seems to be there only to show off the author's erudition. The indirect speech, descriptions and characters' thoughts are mostly in straightforward English so readers should not be unduly intimidated. A glossary would have been helpful, but instead the author thumbs his nose at us with a chrestomathy (go look that up in a dictionary; you will need to get used to doing that if you read this book). The speech is archaic so even readers with some knowledge of contemporary Indian languages and English usage will not easily understand it. This issue was the only thing that made me hesitate before giving the book 5 stars.
    Now for why this is such a great book: At its core, Sea of Poppies is an adventure story in the sprawling style of Dickens or Dumas. Comparisons to Sacred Games (Vikram Chandra) are inevitable. That book deals with contemporary India. Sea of Poppies is a historical novel with a completely different feel. The best part about Ghosh's style, and truly the mark of a great writer, is that he neither editorializes nor puts his own opinions into the mouths of his characters. The book deals with some pretty stark issues like the opium trade, discrimination, colonialism, racism, casteism, etc so the urge to do this must be strong. Ghosh simply `reveals', by painting a vibrant, nuanced picture that lets us come to our own conclusions. In this sense the book is truly magnificent.
    After being introduced to us in their native settings, Ghosh's disparate cast eventually find themselves aboard the schooner Ibis bound from Calcutta to the Mauritius islands. Some are traveling as indentured laborers, some as crew, some as convicts and some in disguise. All have left their past behind in their sometimes involuntary quest for a new life. Conflict breaks out on board ship and the book ends in the middle of the action with some of the voyagers escaping in a boat. A sequel is clearly already in the works. It cannot come too soon....more info
  • had no clue that this is just an installment...
    It's quite interesting ... the historical aspects, the cultural mixing and comparisons, between indian caste system and american cultural standing of a mixed race person in the mid-1800's.

    I only wish there had been some clue before i started it that this is just part one of a triology about the Ibis....more info
  • So Many Vivid Characters
    I really enjoyed this book, and was amazed that the author could create so many vivid characters without losing the reader! Can't wait for the next book, but suspect I'll need to reacquaint myself with the characters before proceeding. ...more info
  • Almost enough to bring me back to literary fiction
    About a decade ago, after years of reading only 'serious' literary fiction, I'd finally had my fill. All those well-reviewed and book-clubbed books began to seem like beautifully written exercises in navel-gazing produced by people who apparently only knew life through having been a child, an adolescent and a participant in the Iowa Writer's Workshop or Stanford. So I decided to explore genre fiction; primarily crime novels and science-fiction/fantasy. Lo and behold, I found a number of wonderful writers: James Lee Burke, China Meiville, Joe Lansdale, Donald Westlake, George Pelecanos, M. John Harrison...you get the idea.

    Then one day, while browsing in a chain retail bookstore, I stumbled across 'Sea Of Poppies' and decided to give it a go, even though it seemed to be pretty 'serious' literature. I'm so glad I picked it up. It is one of the finest novels I've ever read and a great, rich stew of language. The really lovely thing about it is that the extraordinary language doesn't get in the way of the story. Neither does the extensive research that must gone into the preparation for writing the book. So I've now dropped my prejudice against literary fiction (without, mind you, re-prejudicing myself against the genre writers). I'm now reading Mr. Ghosh's first novel, 'Circle Of Reason,' and I'm loving that one as well. I have come to value great storytelling over great writing and it is rare that I find both qualities in the same book. 'Sea Of Poppies' has both...in spades. I hope Mr. Ghosh does not make us wait too long for the next installment in this superb and stunningly-written story....more info
  • Superb narration
    This is a beautifully written, compelling novel which would have kept me riveted in print as well. But the audio version is exceptional thanks to the skilled narration of Phil Gigante. All accents, both genders, and foreign dialogue are perfectly rendered. Bravo!...more info
  • a magnificent historical epic
    When the former slaving ship, the Ibis, sails off from America to India, Zachary Reid enlists as a ship's carpenter to escape his American fate as a son of a freed slave girl and her master. Little does he know, how much his life will actually be transformed by this decision...

    The year is 1838, and Asia is on the eve of the Opium Wars. The fates of several people become intertwined, as they make their way onto the Ibis. Deeti is a peasant who grows crops of opium, and a wife of the opium factory worker, addicted to the drug. When her husband dies, grey-eyed Deeti has to escape the attention of her vicious brother-in-law. Her only idea is the sati - but unexpectedly, she is snatched from the funeral pyre and becomes an outcast together with her savior, Kalua, the village strongman from the caste of untouchables. They decide to become indentured workers ("coolies") and seek their happiness in the Mauritius. Paulette Lambert, the daughter of a French botanist, is orphaned and cannot bear the strange behavior of Mr Burnham (who happens to be the owner of Ibis), and his family, when he takes her under his protective roof. Neel Rattan, the Raja, finds himself unable to adjust to the changing ways of the colonial world, and, bankrupt, is send to exile. In jail, he meets the half-Chinese Ah Fatt, convicted for robbery. Baboo Nob Kissin (the funniest and probably the most tragic of the main characters), the company's accountant, filled with religious spirit, is overcome by the need of establishing a shrine. All of these original, hilarious characters come to see the overseas trip as an escape. And so their journey is the new beginning.

    Amitav Ghosh wrote a great, magnificent, epic novel, a beautiful, complex story revolving around central characters, original and colorful, a great choice of the representatives of the nineteenth-century society in colonial Asia. There are also many great secondary characters (the ship's first mate, Jack Crowle; Jodu, the peasant turned lascar; Serang Ali - the lascar's boss with the gloomy past; the flirtatious girl Munia; and many others), who add a lot of flavor.

    The historical details are thoroughly researched - for me, coming from Europe and ignorant of the most part of Asian history, it was a great lesson. The global problems tackled by the author, colonial politics, wars, caste and race, remain significant even today. The geography and landscape descriptions, from India, Calcutta, Mauritius (real and imaginary) to the Sundarbans , one of Ghosh's favorite locations, are also alluring.
    The incredibly rich language adds the whole other dimension to the novel. I have to admit that at the beginning the linguistic peculiarities characteristic for each character made the novel difficult to read and I needed to adjust for a while. The sea pidgin, Bengali, Hindi and other dialects of India incorporated into English, with some French added on top of all that, create a unique mix of idiolects. There is a lovely bonus at the end in a form of meticulously done appendix containing Neel's dictionary of sea pidgin, called Chrestomathy.

    Fate also plays an essential part in this novel - there are characters, like Deeti, who has a vision of the Ibis, or Baboo Nob Kissin, obsessively devoted to Krishna and his female guru so that he sees signs and omens everywhere, who follow their fate, and there are those who try to run away or do not believe in it... It is intriguing to observe how the fate is present in everyone's story.

    I loved the flow of this novel and was completely immersed in the plot, so that I laughed laud at Baboo Nob Kissin and could not repress melancholy and anger when I read some passages. If I could compare it to any other book, it would probably be Barth's "The Sot-Weed Factor" - a picaresque novel of the sea and sailors, which, although set in a very different point in time and space, came to my mind when I was reading "Sea of Poppies".

    The open ending left me a little disappointed, because I yearned to know more about the fates of the characters I got to know so well. Therefore, I was very happy to learn that "Sea of Poppies" is the first novel of the planned "Ibis" trilogy. I will await the second one impatiently, hoping that the author can keep up with the first one and will not disappoint the readers!...more info
  • Fascinating view of India and the East India Company
    Grand in scale and marvellous in its writing this is a book that draws you in and leaves you wanting more. It is to be the first in a trilogy and I cannot wait for the next volume!

    The story begins with that of Deeti, a grey eyed young village woman whose fields are devoted to the growing of poppies, whose opium addicted husband works in the Opium factories on the bank of the Ganges. Opium is central to her village and is the primary export to China by the East India company. But trouble is brewing since the Chinese have begun to fight against the legality of opium and are resisting its import into their country.

    The blurb on the book is a bit misleading - the opium wars may be the final destination of the Ibis but in this volume it is on its voyage before the wars and is taking a group of Indian indentured workers to the Mauritius Islands.

    Among its crew is Zachary Reid, Second mate of the Ibis - an octroon who is passing himself off as a white man - and Serang Ali - head of the Lascar sailors, who takes an interest in furthering Zachary's career for his own reasons. In the hold are the 'passengers'. Deeti and her low caste husband who are escaping incognito to a different life, Paulette - a frenchwoman who has concealed herself as an indian, Neel - a highly educated and high caste Zamindar who is bankrupt and a convicted criminal and has been exiled to Mauritius and his friend from prison Ah Fatt who is of Parsi and Chinese ancestry.

    There is a plethora of characters in this book and, while intially it may seem overwhelming, each character is well drawn and pulls the reader into his or her life. The strands of each story progress side by side and mesh seamlessly by the end.

    Ghosh has no fondness for the English or for the racism and caste discrimination that Whites and Indians practice on each other. The portrait he draws of the massive opium producing machinery of the East India company is fascinating and one I have never read of in such detail before.

    My one criticism of this book is the transliteration of the slang used by the British throughout the book. Serang Ali's 'language' is even harder to decipher. I speak three Indian languages and yet often had to work hard to figure out what exactly the dialogue meant! Sometimes the words are translated and sometimes we are left to figure them out for ourselves. On the one hand the colorful language adds a lot to the book and when you understand most of it it is a marvelous bit of craft and revives the Anglo Indian voice. On the other hand, it seems that a reader without a knowledge of Hindi would have a hard time making sense of the majority of the speech.

    All in all, an excellent book which may be a bit of a challenge to read but is totally worth it.
    ...more info
  • Readable, but barely...
    Somewhat interesting story buried within quite a bit of irrelevant detail making for a tedious, often mind numbing read. ...more info
  • Five Stars if Part I; Three if a Stand-Alone
    It's good to hear (though it's unconfirmed,) that "Sea of Poppies," is part one of a projected trilogy, because although it's a beautifully styled (I'd say extravagantly written,) completely engaging, well researched work of historical fiction, it closes without a satisfactory end. Three stars as a stand-alone, (despite its many merits, and because of the ending;) five stars if it is, indeed, installment one.

    Beautifully styled - extravagantly written. I've not read other works by Amitav Ghosh, so I'm not familiar with his stylistic strategies, but "The Sea of Poppies," is written with the love of language I've come to expect from Indian novelists. Mr. Ghosh has captured both the English and the "Hing-lish," of the Victorian Age, and enriched it with a delightful and descriptive patois and pidgin. I don't know how much Mr. Ghosh has invented whole cloth, and how much is a result of research, but it's hugely entertaining, and perhaps near genius. Yes, it does leave you slightly at sea in terms of full understanding, but I find that to be part of the charm. (I've nodded my head in befuddlement in many countries.) It reminds me of the language recorded in the Booker Prize winning, Sacred Hunger" by Barry Unsworth, another beautifully written novel about fretful times.

    Well researched. Even as a student of India, the scenes and details of "The Sea of Poppies," were new to me. Village life, city life; the tics, prejudices, and beliefs of the hoi polloi as well as the ruling classes; the facts and lore of the opium trade, the merchant life, and life at sea are all well limned and thoroughly convincing - and enchanting, though not in the whimsical sense that word is usually employed to describe. The description of a walk through an opium refining plant is worth the price of admission. Mr Ghosh engages all the readers' senses in his detailed portrayals of character as well as location. You can smell the ship, "Ibis," not pleasant, but...

    Totally engaging. I can't say as I experienced a dull moment. It's a romance, an adventure, a history all combined with a colorful cast of characters and exotic settings....more info
  • Farrago of Sound
    A Farrago of Sound

    "Chrestomathy: A collection of selected passages from an author or authors, esp. one compiled to assist in learning a language"--Shorter Oxford English Dictionary


    "Words!" At the end of his tour de force, polyglot, Booker-nominated Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh exclaims in a chrestomathy that serves as a hallucinated glossary, "Words, no less than people, are endowed with lives and destinies of their own." The vessel that carries Ghosh's words and people is the Ibis, a 19th-century, tall-masted, slave-transporting, opium-exporting ship that takes the reader from the ports of Baltimore to the Bay of Bengal, from the zamindars of Calcutta to the mandarins of Canton, and from the certainty of village Gazipur to the unknowable Black Waters around Mauritius. After climbing aboard this schooner of a book, few passengers will mistakenly believe that globalization began with the internet flattening the world, or that diasporas began with passports and green-cards. Sea of Poppies is about journeys that transform individuals and the societies that they migrate to and from.


    To be sure, a map is needed (and provided) to help the reader situate the narrative from land to river to sea. And although Ghosh's deft contextualization of speech obviates the need for a glossary, it is provided as an "after-words" to help English speakers make sense of the mish-mash of languages that are to be found in the gentle poppy fields of Gazipur, the insulated royal estates of Calcutta, and the rough waters of the Indian Ocean. But because of the multiplicity of fascinating characters, it is helpful to maintain a "family tree" of sorts to make sense of the subtle interrelationships.


    A more pedestrian title for Ghosh's collection of interwoven personal histories would be "A Sea of Stories." Like the sea itself, this wide-ranging novel does not have a center. It is thrilling to move from one passage to another, to float above the surface of a character, only to be taken on a deep dive illuminating multiple dimensions in the darkness, to learn that all lives matter and have meaning, not just the life of an omniscient narrator. Although the absence of a singular focal point may be off-putting to some, it will be welcome by those who believe in transformation's art of possibility. The theme of change is pervasive, as is the belief that even in the most constrained circumstances, each person can choose to change in a way that is consistent with his or her identity.


    While Sea of Poppies opens and closes with Deeti, a Bihari villager whose "colourless" grey eyes "made her seem at once blind and all-seeing," the novel is not held together by any single protagonist. In bringing alive the numerous characters who populate his sea-going craft, Ghosh performs multilingual magic. He gives each of these men and women voice through a "farrago of sound."


    If you are willing to embrace a medley of languages that you don't always understand, you will be rewarded by a novel that transports you to distant wor(l)ds. Patiently, like Zachary Reid, a pip of an American boy who has left behind the land and language of his freed-slave mother to become the second mate of the Ibis, you'll learn the languages of Serang Ali, Deeti, Kalua, Paulette Lambert, Jodu, Raja Neel Ratan Halder, Ah Fatt, Baboo Nobokrishna Panda, James Doughty, and Benjamin Burnham--all of whom, in chrestomathic fashion, serve as authors of their own stories.


    After leaving Baltimore aboard the Ibis, "Zachary had learned to "say `resum' instead of `rations', and he had to wrap his tongue around words like `dal', `masala' and `achar.' He had to get used to `malum' instead of mate, `serang' for bosun, `tindal' for bosun's mate, and `seacunny' for helmsman; he had to memorize a new shipboard vocabulary, which sounded a bit like English and yet not: the rigging became the `ringeen' ... and the cry of the middle-morning watch went from "all's well' to `alzbel.'"


    In his pidgin English, Serang Ali, the sing-song leader of the Ibis' lascar seamen, changes Zachary's name to Zikri, and keeps a paternal eye on the boy who will rise to lead the Ibis: "Malum Zikri! Captin-bugger blongi poo-shoo-foo. He hab got plenty sick! Need one piece dokto. No can chow-chow tiffin. Allo tim do chhee-chhee, pee-pee. Plenty smelly in Captin cabin."


    Having become "girmitiyas" after having signed "girmits" which were legal agreements indenturing them to servitude in Mauritius, Deeti and Kalua escape an India that could not tolerate their mixed-caste elopement. Like all the non-English speech in the novel, theirs is either italicized and/or without quotation marks. Their poetry of love needs no translation (line breaks added): "Afterwards, when she lay / enveloped in his arms, / He said, in his rough, hoarse voice: / Ka sochawa? / What're you thinking? / Thinking how you saved me today; / Sochat ki tu bachawela. / It was myself I saved today, / He said in a whisper. / Because if you had died, / I couldn't have lived; / Jinda na rah sakela..."


    Along with Deeti and Kalua, Zachary and Paulette bring a gentle romance to what otherwise could have become a harrowing maritime tale replete with opiated colonial and caste rage. With a hint of the French patois that her father had willed to her before orphaning her in Calcutta, Paulette flirts with Zachary, "But Mr. Reid ... my little finger has told me that you have been sortieing a great deal of late."


    Paulette and Jodu's sibling relationship, which began with the two of them sharing Jodu's mother's breast milk, parallels that of the Jahazbhais and Jahazbahen, ship-siblings who share the same milky journey but different destinations: "As for Jodu, his eyes went from Paulette's face to Zachary's and he knew at once ... that something of significance had passed between them. Having lost everything he owned, he had no qualms in using their new-found friendship to his advantage. O ke bol to re, he said in Bengali to Paulette: Tell him to find me a place on this ship's lashkar."


    Ghosh's range of characters and settings is tremendous. The scenes move easily from the turbulent river life of Jodu, who has nowhere to live, to the regally humiliated life of a Raja, who seemingly has everything only to lose it all. The erudite Raja Neel Ratan Halder, who has been stripped of his lands and sent off on the Ibis as a convict, is reliably capable of summoning irony regardless of his station: "My present zemindary consists of no more than a toilet bucket and a set of rusty chains."


    Sharing the Raja's chains, but not his erudition is Ah Fatt; this fellow convict was born of a Chinese mother and a Parsi father in Canton, where the British imported much of the opium grown in India. Ah Fatt's body language is that of an afeemkhor, an opium addict: "His paroxysms of shivering, for instance, would begin with a mild, almost imperceptible trembling, like that of a man in a room that is just a little too cold for comfort. But these gentle shivers would mount in intensity till they became so violent as to tip him off his charpoy, depositing his convulsing body on the ground."


    Ghosh is nonjudgmental about his characters' transformative paths. Whereas Ah Fatt's path includes opium, Baboo Nobokrishna Panda's bhakti path is that of a Krishna devotee. He is certain that Zachary, who is registered on the ship as black, must be Krishna, the blue-hued dark lord. His own name having been changed dismissively to Baboo Nob Kissin by the British masters, Panda is keen to be Radha to his real master, "only searching to see if kunth is blue."


    In humorous transitions, the novel moves from the sublime to the sewer. In its coarse, seafaring way, James Doughty's Hinglish had not only piloted its way up the Ganga, but as is evident at a meal hosted by Raja Neel Ratan, it had also navigated its way through Calcutta's less godly districts. Doughty refers to the Raja's mistress, who he has had a liaison with, as one of many "Damned badzat pootlies." After being disgraced by the mistress, he shouts, "You think I don't samjo your bloody bucking? There's not a word of your black babble I don't understand."


    And there is Benjamin Burnham, a living embodiment of the British East India Company, whose character reminds us that all great literary works have contemporary relevance. In condescending to Zachary and the Raja, Burnham uses the Orwellian doublethink of imperialism: "The war, when it comes, will not be for opium. It will be for a principle: for freedom--for the freedom of trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people." To transform Mr. Burnham into President Bush, simply substitute "oil" for "opium," "freedom of elections" for "freedom of trade," and "Iraqi" for "Chinese." Burnham's words not only echo present political realities, but also foreshadow subsequent novels in the Ibis trilogy.


    Although Ghosh plies the Queen's English in a way that would make the Oxford English Dictionary proud, it is his use of the language in dictionaries ranging from Hobson-Jobson to A Laskari Dictionary, as well as his anthropological appreciation of subaltern lives, that gives the voiceless voice and infuses the novel with detailed observations of the human condition. In writing about migration in an astonishingly novel way, Ghosh brings newness to the world. Like the Ibis, which "was not a ship like any other," Sea of Poppies is not a novel like any other. "In her inward reality she was a vehicle of transformation, traveling through the mists of illusion towards the elusive, ever-receding landfall that was Truth." And like the search for truth, this novel does not truly end. Often at the close of a satisfactory story, the reader is content to feel that "alzbel that ends well," but with Sea of Poppies, one looks forward to Amitav Ghosh continuing the journey of the Ibis.


    Originally published in India Currents

    ...more info
  • Sea of Poppies
    This transaction was excellent, as was the book content itself. The book arrived in a timely manner and was in perfect condition. Thank you for a wonderful read!...more info
  • Beautifully written
    This is a beautifully written tale--several separate tales in fact that converge. All of the main stories are intriguing, the characters well fleshed-out, and written so that a sharp bright mental image of the action is created.

    My only gripe would be the same as others'--that the slang at times becomes so thick it's difficult to muddle through. In particular Mr Doughty speaks almost totally in pidgin, and it's cumbersome to refer to the glossary at the back. ...more info
  • From the Flames
    Amitav Ghosh's novel "Sea of Poppies" is an impressive work. After getting used to the cosmopolitan use of terms from many languages, the tale gripped me and carried me along with it. Zachary Reid's character fascinates us, as he combines heroic elements of equality, fairness & self-confidence. A light-skinned mixed-race man from Baltimore, he sets sail on the Ibis and becomes a survivor on the ship's long journey. His romantic attraction to Paulette Lambert also makes us root for both of them, although their love never comes to fruition as the tale races to conclude. Paulette was raised by her father who catalogued plants from his mortgaged estate in India. Unusual for her day, she is educated in a diversity of languages and has a modern streak of independence. She was raised with her servant's son Jodu, whom she now regards as a brother.

    Numerous other characters are gripping within this period piece set during the 1800s during the Chinese & British opium war. Deeti is one of the female characters whose difficult life with her addicted husband is detailed. Upon his death, the gigantic man Kalua who she has treated kindly rescues her from the flames of a funeral pyre. This starts a subsistence journey as they flee the clutches of her angry in-laws who wish to put her to death. As the book continues, Deeti becomes the recognized leader of the women aboard the Ibis, while Kalua must endure the racially motivated wrath of the ship.

    Add in Neel, the raja of Raskhali, whose estates are confiscated on trumped up charges by the greedy landowner Mr. Burnham. He winds up imprisoned on the Ibis with Ah Fatt, a Chinese opium addict whose language comes sporadically. Ghosh tells this episodic tale with intelligence and frequently sends your eyes racing over the action parts of the book that spring almost from nowhere. While this 400+ page book is a bit long, it was a delight right down to the finish. Enjoy!
    ...more info
  • TEDIOUS
    As the title suggests, I found this book tedious. Too much information about characters, which became boring, the language left me floundering. I had not much idea of what was being said at times, especially the language used by the crew (1st mate, Captain ) of the Ibis, found myself skipping these, probably important rambings.
    To sum up, Long, overworded, boring mostly and quite tedious....more info
  • Sex, Drugs and Swearing
    The tile of this review may sound like an invitation, but is actually an indictment. I have a great regard for Sh. Amitav Ghosh's powers of observation and his subtle approach to his subject, and was therefore surprised to see extensive use of explicit swear-words, mostly in Hindustani (a mix of Hindi, Arabic and Persian). This can be sometimes a strain, as it is unpleasant and often difficult to understand. Mixing colloquial Hindustani with English makes it even worse. Nevertheless, Sh. Ghosh has done a lot of research on this, and there are quite a few nuggets here for those interested in language and etymology.

    The plot of the book (part of a trilogy) revolves around a woman displaced by British colonisation of India. Mr. Ghosh adds several characters, from different social and economic backgrounds, develops them, and then brings them together on a voyage to Mauritius through a set of coincidences, mostly unfortunate. The backdrop is the forced cultivation of opium (poppy) in India, and the economic deprivation that it caused. The British East India Company apparently earned huge profits from the trade, and eventually went to war with China for the right to sell opium there. To visualise the irony, imagine Afghanistan invading USA to ensure that its traders are able to sell cocaine (a modern derivative of opium) there. And through this story, Mr. Ghosh brings to the surface an important point: the root cause of West's distress with drugs lies in its own past excesses in the East.

    The five central characters so far are a high-caste but impoverished, yet charismatic widow, a low caste fugitive with enormous physical and moral strength, a young, unconventional French woman, an American of mixed parentage, and an Indian rajah who has fallen on hard times. Each of the three Indians is going through a social and economic ordeal, which helps bring out the best in him/her. The French woman and the American provide a kind of contrast with the British, who are mostly presented as rapacious and warped in various ways.

    While there is very little explicit sex in the book, it always hangs around in the air, and is mostly of the 'forbidden' variety, in the sense that it goes against social norms of the time or of present times. This adds to the difficulties of each of the characters at various times. Curiously, it also appears that people often had a more relaxed attitude about sex and 'depravity' in private.

    As can be expected with Mr. Ghosh, the book is not fast-paced, and it is mostly difficult to figure out how the story will turn. Yet Mr. Ghosh manages to keep the reader engaged, by tying him/her up with the fate of protagonists. And as always, the historical insights are injected so smoothly in the plot that one does not even notice when one's view of history has changed!

    The edition I read was published by Penguin India, had a decent hardcover binding, and good printing. The typeface was large and comfortable to read even for those over forty. However, the paper was a little coarse and tended to absorb ink. The book is a little on the thicker side and therefore somewhat of a lug on journeys.

    A very good book - I would have given five stars, but for the extensive swearing which I found quite jarring.

    I await the sequel eagerly.
    ...more info
  • Literature at its Very Best
    Somehow when I was in college I missed the fact that the British at one time were drug manufactures and drug pushers. In fact they were drug lords before there even was a Columbia. They forced Indians to grow poppies all along the Ganges, forced them to cultivate them and turn them into opium, which they forced upon the Chinese and when the emperor tried to outlaw it, they went to war to preserve free trade, which actually meant to preserve their right to keep selling opium to the emperor's subjects, no matter his opinion on the subject.

    This book deals with poppy growing and the opium trade and it doesn't paint the British in a very good light, but then perhaps they didn't deserve to be portrayed as saints, because they surly were sinners of the first order.

    A group of people, outcasts, outlaws or just plain down casts, are thrown aboard the Ibis, a ship that at one time carried slaves, but since that has been outlawed now carries indentured servants and opium. Their voyage is the real story, although the conversion of poppies to opium is quite a story in itself.

    Mr. Ghosh has put together a cast of characters you won't soon forget, though reading the book is sometimes a bit hard going as Mr. Ghosh, it seems, has gone to great pains to paint his character's speech with words from that time in history. Usually I could figure out what was going on, for example in the line, "There's a paltan of mems who'd give their last anna to be in your jooties," you can mentally translate to "There's a lot of people who'd give their last cent to be in your shoes," but it's not all that easy. Sometimes I'd have to read on without understanding exactly what I was reading.

    But despite the fact that I had a hard time with some of the language, I didn't have a hard time sympathizing with the characters aboard the Ibis. Their lives and their plight both warmed me and chilled me at the same time. Though this was at times a difficult book for me to read, I am eagerly awaiting the next volume in this trilogy, which I know, based on this book, will have me primed for the last. This is a book for the ages, literature at its very best....more info
  • A Failure of Nerve
    You have to admire Amitav Ghosh's ambition. In "Sea of Poppies" Ghosh sets out to write a sweeping epic that spans great distances of history, geography and culture. In sheer ambition, Ghosh reminds me of the great Nineteenth Century historical fiction writers, Sienkiewicz, Tolstoy and Dumas. These giants of literature were not afraid to produce epic novels with huge casts of characters caught up in the tides of momentous historical events. What they understood is that if you are going to tell an epic story, you need the space to let the story properly unfold.

    In "Sea of Poppies" Ghosh attempted to write a Nineteenth Century novel geared to the limited attention spans of his Twenty First Century audience. I found the pacing of the novel to be rushed. The conclusion of the novel was especially dissapointing. I wish Ghosh would have added an additional fifty pages to the novel so he could have properly ended the first section of his proposed trilogy. The lesson from this book is that if you are going to be ambitious enough to write a sweeping historical epic, you have to have the nerve to carry the plan out. Your audience's limited attention span, be damned. Write a great novel and they will come....more info
  • Swashbuckling that I couldn't stick with
    I knew when it arrived, I knew it would be a commitment. It isn't that I have a terribly short attention span but I don't enjoy excessive details when an author paints a picture and this one, although entertaining, was too much for me. If you like an adventure wrapped in history and enjoy swimming deeply in it - this is for you. If you like to briefly enjoy, you might want to find a different novel. ...more info
  • 3.5 Stars
    There are not too many books I've read three-fourths of, then choose not to finish. This was one of those volumes. The entire book's charm--if you like it--is the ubiquitous use of onomatopoeia. There are so many "words" that aren't really quite that, that the reader's appreciation rises or falls on this singular feature. I had never before encountered a book that employed this device to such an extent.

    For me, it distracted from the story itself. Character development was adequate, though the practice of jumping from chapter segments to other characters and their respective story lines, sometimes made the overall fabric of the work strain a bit. Add to this the extensive use of almost-words, the the effect became, for me, enough of a distraction that I lost interest in finishing the book....more info
  • Sea of Poppies - by Amitav Ghosh
    This colorful adventure centered on a voyage across the Indian Ocean during the 19th century opium wars with China. Several of the crew had tainted pasts to say the least, adding to the tension aboard the ship. The plot starts slow, picks up in the middle, and the last chapter has you riveted, but then the book comes to an abrupt end. I felt it was over just as it was getting interesting. Overall, this book is a good read if you want to have a glimpse at the culture of India. ...more info
  • Part 1 of an Epic Saga
    Sea of Poppies is the first in a trilogy centering on the opium trade and its consequences. Set throughout India and the Orient in the early 1800's, Sea of Poppies tells the story of a unique cast of characters thrown together by fate (and opium). As their individual fates set them on a crash course with the grand ship, Ibis, the reader is swept along for the ride.

    What I liked most about Sea of Poppies were the vivid, rich characters. Out of the many, many characters a few were especially intriguing. Deeti, the maternal figure and wife to a Ghazipur Opium Factory worker who makes it clear to Deeti that opium will always be his first love. Zachary Reid, born to a freed slave and her white master in America, has risen from ship's carpenter to second mate. And Paulette Lambert, an independent head-strong orphan who is not content with the typical role assigned to women at the time. The descriptions in this book are lovely. The author, Amitav Ghosh, is clearly very knowledgeable about the subject he has written.

    I do have to say that, like another reviewer mentioned, I struggled to keep up with the frequent intersperses of foreign language. The text has plenty of words in the language of the time and culture. I gather it was a form of Hindusthani. At times I had no idea what was being said and it was frustrating. I also found it to be somewhat challenging to keep up with the numerous characters. There were at least ten `main' characters, some of which had similar names and stories. As a result, I felt like I had to keep a notebook with name to keep every character straight.

    Once the novel picked up speed, I couldn't put it down! I raced toward the end, rooting for the characters that I felt connected to. I enjoyed the ending very much, despite the fact it is a `to be continued' one. I will definitely be purchasing the second book in the trilogy once it is released.
    ...more info
  • A whole lot of toil for a little bit of fiction
    This story- mildly interesting, I'll admit - is a lot of trouble to read. Not because any of the characters are complex,they aren't. It's the dense, strangely earnest, staccato writing style that really interferes with the process of reading. The book is populated by characters with little to say, and who sound dull witted rather than placid when they speak. "Nob Kissim",who seems to be every reviewer's favorite character, was completely implausible and annoying to me.
    In a "ship story" there always comes a point when the little group is adrift and true character is revealed..in this book, by then I didn't care!!...more info
  • One of his best
    Amitav Ghosh's books create an ambience that doesn't belong to this era.

    This books deals with the genesis of the opium trade, the way it grew and how it helped the East India Company use the riches generated by it to control not just India but also others. Ghosh's ability to create a highly detailed picture of those times at various societal levels and their interactions (with all their polictical intrigues and social interactions) points to well done, in-depth research on the subject. His maturity as a writer is evident since the book never becomes judgmental.

    The book involves the reader at various levels - as an engaging story and as a historical novel.

    I wouldn't like to reveal much of the story and rob you of your enjoyment but this is one book which is sure to leave you with a sense of fulfilment. It is like a rich, royal literary feast.

    ...more info
  • Sea of Poppies - Audio book... Excellent!!!!
    The Author, Amitav Ghosh and the Reader, Phil Gigantehave combined talents to create an amazing read (well, ok, an amazing listen!). I didn't know what to expect, but was drawn in immediately, and was kept on the hook 'till the very end. Thank goodness it's the first of a trilogy! I highly recommend!

    WARNING to Anglophiles! This book may wane a bit of your affection for the Brits as you discover, as I did, what a hideous business opium production and distribution really was. My romance of the East Indian Company may be forever gone......more info
  • Beautifully written however difficult subplots
    This is the first novel I have read from Amitav Ghosh. His writing style is so poetic it is difficult to not appreciate the gift some people are blessed with. Each movement, thought, is beautifully choreographed. From this view I personally obtain a good, general perspective of the overall plot.

    The "big" picture, however, begins to falter when trying to interpret all of the subplots. It became apparant that all of the characters would wind up on the Ibis, a ship, used to transport opium, slaves, convicts, and indentured servents across the seas. However, the unfamiliar terminology for this time period made it difficult to follow the direction the author was trying to take me. After awhile, I began to forget the plight of individual characters, or perhaps I never really understood the direction in the first place.

    Readers of historical fiction surrounding early 19th century India and the drug trade may really enjoy this book. If you are someone who is looking for a fast flowing easy read, this is probably not for you.

    ...more info
  • Epic tragicomedy about globalization, at a personal level
    Other reviews can give you a good idea of the book's plot, and the wonderful quality of the writing. I was especially struck that nearly every character misunderstands someone else's language, motivations or both -- you can almost pick any two of the main characters at random, and find some example of a miscommunication between them. Don't worry, the same Anglo-Indian or lascar (Asian sailor) slang that puzzles you is puzzling some character in the book. Even the communication between the American hero and the young French woman who seems to be his romantic interest is a comedy of errors. Having spent a big chunk of my life in a multicultural environment at work and at home, it was easy to identify with what they were going through. If you haven't yet had that experience in real life, the novel provides is a very colorful illustration of it.

    As others have noted, if you weren't familiar already with the British opium trade, this book will open your eyes (or at least start to; opium's impact on the Chinese population is touched on only briefly in this part of the story). I'm not sure that, as one reviewer suggests, opium is intended to be a metaphor for oil today, but the opium story *is* a good example of how free trade and globalization dogma affect people. Ghosh's Ph.D. in social anthropology no doubt helps him with this aspect of the plot structure.

    At the time of the novel, as now, many people in English-speaking countries believed in the idea that each country had a "comparative advantage" in selling something, and that more trade was better. Ghosh briefly alludes to this theory, put forward by economist David Ricardo, through the mouth of one of his characters. The British wanted to buy Chinese tea, silk and porcelain -- China's comparative advantage. Problem was, China wasn't interested in buying anything from the British. They refused to trade unless the British paid in silver. The British regarded this as a block on free trade. Since opium could grow well in British India, the British hit on the idea that the Chinese should buy Indian opium, paid for with trade in Chinese goods. The fact that opium is addictive made this arrangement all the more brilliant, from the British point of view. Ultimately (and after the action in this novel), the British would attack China with military force, to "enforce" the principle of free trade.

    Ghosh shows that being an opium trader (or one's wife) didn't prevent you from being pompous, self-righteous and moralizing. He also vividly describes how this trade created hardship for local farmers in India -- the British required that growing opium be given higher priority than growing food crops. Something like that happens in modern globalization, too. A poor country borrows money from the World Bank or IMF. The loans are in dollars or euro, but almost inevitably the country lacks the foreign currency it needs to make payments on the loan. So the IMF requires the country to prioritize growing crops for export, rather than for feeding its own people, since export sales generate foreign currency. (BTW, that same 19th Century comparative advantage theory is still taught today in Econ 101, too, though the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics was awarded for work that showed it's not so accurate.) Ghosh's novel is an easy but affecting lesson in the modern global economy, and an important one for its portrayal of globalization's impact on individual lives.

    The opium scenes and some others are harrowing. But Ghosh leaves hints here and there that some of the most sympathetic characters do find their way to happy endings. After I finished the book, I had to take a break of a couple of days before I could start another book of fiction. The characters were so vivid, I found myself thinking about them during the day, and then realizing with disappointment that the book was over. It's the vivid plot and great characterizations, more than any economics lesson, that make this book so much fun. Like everyone else, I eagerly await the next installment....more info
  • Opium Wars and the Tea Trade
    Simply a masterpiece. A must read for anyone interested in the Opium Wars and the British Tea Trade in India.

    Can't wait for the next installment....more info
  • Wanted to like this book
    I really wanted to like this book, given its reception by both literary critics and fans. Instead, I found it alternately silly and turgid, and part-way through the storyline still didn't catch my interest. It makes me wonder what's wrong with me, that I didn't fall under its spell as everyone else did....more info