"At the heart of this vibrant saga is an immense 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 free-spirited 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 embraces the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the crowded 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"--Summary from publisher's web site.
The story moves ever forward with the destiny of these characters to meet and mingle. In one way or another they all find themselves aboard the Ibis, a schooner that was originally built as a slaver, but now being used in the opium trade. As officers, crew, coolies and prisoners they set out on a voyage that will change all their lives.
Beautifully written, the author uses language as an art to paint a colourful backdrop to this story. He vividly depicts the diverse, rich country of India as well as the stark beauty of an ocean voyage. By the use of various dialects he is able to show the variety of class differences that existed in British Empire. Obviously a tremendous amount of research was done, but the author is able to breathe such life into this story that the reader is hardly aware of the learning aspect. Oh, how I wish all historical fiction was like this! Highly recommended.
Sea of Poppies is a novel about relationships that cross boundaries, such as those of race, caste, class, religion, or crossing the line and "going native". The figurative and literary vehicle that facilitates many of these crossings is the Ibis. People of all persuasions are drawn to journey on the Ibis, and at first they seem as unlikely shipmates as could be. But through the course of the book, the first in a trilogy, relationships develop that transcend the social boundaries, conventions, and even laws that separate them. Individuals themselves also change in ways that cross boundaries: a man thought to be Black in America, becomes a white sahib in India; another person undergoes a spiritual transformation that alters his physical body to resemble that of a woman.
The book is characterized by motion and by change. The first character we are introduced to, Deeti, profoundly alters her caste and tribe, as well as her status as a wife and mother, in her journey to the Ibis. Another, Zachary, is a master at creating relationships regardless of his or others' social and racial status. It's almost as though he doesn't see the boundaries which are so apparent to everyone else. As the characters flow together toward the Ibis and out to sea, those who are incapable of change are left behind in some manner.
All this movement and change is also reflected in the setting. India is under British rule, and their entire economy and way of life has been changed by the British desire to trade in opium. Fields of foodstuffs are forcibly converted to growing opium. Villagers starve, and the lucky ones become dependent on the British either by growing and selling opium for them or by working as near slaves in the opium processing plants. Addiction becomes rampant among the Indian workers. The British even manipulate the caste system for their own ends. Things are changing for the British as well. The demand for opium in China is falling, due to recent opium bans by the Chinese, causing a growing financial crisis for the business owners and for the British crown. Inexorably the British move toward a war with China.
I found this book fascinating on so many levels. The author thoroughly researched the hybrid languages of the time and skillfully allows them to wash over the reader without causing the reader to become bogged down. I listened to a portion of the book on audio and enjoyed hearing the accents and cadences, but preferred reading it so that I could savor and reread, which increased my reading enjoyment. I did not use the chrestomathy, purportedly created by one of the characters, at the end of the book as a glossary, although I did read most of it for its own sake. When I unexpectedly reached the end of the book (the chrestomathy takes up the last forty plus pages), I wanted to immediately begin reading [River of Smoke], the second in the trilogy. I am invested in the characters, intrigued by the story, and left wanting more. Amitav Ghosh is an author whose books are now destined for my must-read list.
So begins the rip-snortin tale of high seas adventure aboard the Ibis in 1838, as told by Amitav Ghosh in Sea of Poppies, a novel that landed on the Booker shortlist in 2008. Many people, including me, believe it should have won the prize that year, that the Booker judges got it wrong (again) and this first book of a planned trilogy should have taken the gold, for what’s not to love here: adventure, drama, mystery, crime, romance, action and violence. What makes this book stand out from other books that might fall into the action/adventure genre is the writing. Ghosh’s writing sets a standard that few authors can hope to match. His prose beautifully sings throughout the narrative and after almost 500 pages he leaves you clambering for more. I’m ready for the next installment of the trilogy. Please he’s had two years. Isn’t it ready yet? I can’t wait!
The deftly drawn characters seem so real that you’ll swear you actually know and have talked to them. Deeti, one of the strongest female characters in recent memory (mine), takes center stage from page one. Abused, abandoned and on her own, she gives up everything in order to survive and, once on the ship, the other women look to her for guidance. Her determination and grit allow her to overcome her dire circumstances. Before the ship sets sail, when she and the others realize what is before them, the author gives us this:
“The knowledge that this was the last they would see of their homeland, created an atmosphere of truculence and uncertainty, in which no provocation seemed too slight for a quarrel. Once fights broke out, they escalated at a pace that was bewildering to everyone, including the participants; in their villages they would have had relatives, friends and neighbors to step between them, but here there were no elders to settle disputes, and no tribes of kinfolk to hold a man back from going for another’s throat.”
On the male side Ghosh has created an upstanding character torn between what he knows is right and trying to fit in among a group of despicable sea faring cutthroats. Zachary is among only three Americans on board and is desperately trying to keep a secret that, if revealed, would cost him his position as first mate.
And then you have the two key players in the narrative, who have neither head nor heart: opium, which plays an important role in the story. It’s the main source of income, in one way or another, for most of those on board and Ghosh adroitly draws a portrait depicting its ability to also destroy lives; and the ship, the Ibis, which is the real star of the show. It’s the entity that draws everyone together, and over the course of the trilogy, I believe, it will be both a curse and a source of comfort. Very highly recommended.
The novel is beautifully imagined and captures the hopelessness of the opium factory workers, the daily lives of the villagers, the violence of ship law, and the diversity of an India in the mid-nineteenth century. Ghosh’s use of language in the novel is brilliant. Filled with strange words, pidgin English, and unusual sentence structure – the book at first seems unwieldy. But Ghosh succeeds where other less talented authors might not. The language, used with appropriate context, becomes almost like a musical score in a movie. Ghosh’s use of language demonstrates the way language can unite or divide people, and confuse or clarify situations. It is a powerful technique that works.
Historically, Sea of Poppies is set just prior to the Opium Wars and revolves around the British involvement in India and their trade practices exporting opium from India to China. Ghosh reveals the damage done by British colonial rule and the devastation wreaked upon the Indian economy, as well as society at large. Although apparently Ghosh’s creative inspiration was the indentured people of India, he says in an interview: “[...] once I started researching into it, it was kind of inescapable – all the roads led back to opium. The indentured emigration [out of India] really started in the 1830s and that was [around the time of] the peak of the opium traffic. That decade culminated in the opium wars against China.”
Ghosh is skilled at creating character…and in Sea of Poppies the characters are memorable and complex.
Although filled with adventure and interesting plot twists, Sea of Poppies is also about what makes us human in the face of crisis. One particularly memorable part of the novel to me was when Neel loses his caste and is convicted of the crime of forgery. Thrown into jail, he is forced to share a cell with an Asian named Ah Fatt who is hopelessly addicted to opium and lies in his own waste. For Neel, a man of stature who is fastidously clean, the situation is almost unbearable. And then he makes a self-discovery about what it means to care for another human being. It was moments like these in the story which elevated it above the typical historical novel.
Some readers have found the ending of Sea of Poppies to be abrupt and unresolved. I would agree. However, this book is the first in a planned trilogy which may explain the ending. At any rate, Sea of Poppies completely enthralled me and I am looking forward to the next two books.
Readers who love world and historical literature, and who enjoy richly textured sagas will love Sea of Poppies.
I was able to keep track of the cast without getting overwhelmed - it was slightly more difficult to understand the local words peppered throughout the dialogue and description. Although there is a glossary in the back of the book, at times I had to ask my (fortunately) Hindi-speaking sisters for an explanation after a line or two threw me. Still, it was infinitely less annoying than say, Wuthering Heights, where certain choppy lines made me want to hurl the novel off a cliff.
Otherwise, it's certainly a page-turner, though without giving anything away, the ending was abrupt. It left me wanting to know how things would turn out for some of the sea travellers. Perhaps the author wanted us to use our imagination along with his hints interspersed throughout the story.
Certainly this is one I'd recommend for anyone interested in historical novels, especially those centered around India in British colonial times.
This book is the beginning of what promises to be a sweeping saga. It follows multiple storylines, introduces a host of characters whose lives will eventually intertwine, and is set against the beautiful backdrop of colonial India. On top of all that, it is beautifully written. Divided into the three parts, the first part of the book concerns itself with setting up the backstories of the main characters. This was the slowest part for me because there is a lot to learn and a lot to remember in order to set the stage for the rest of the book. The second part of the book advances the storylines in preparation for bringing the main characters together in the third and final part of the book - the sea voyage aboard the Ibis:
"It was not that she was especially sleek or rakish in appearance: neither lean, nor flush-decked like the clippers for which Baltimore was famous. She had a short quarter-deck, a risen fo'c's'le, with a fo'c's'le-deck between the bows, and a deckhouse amidships, that served as a galley and cabin for the bos'ns and stewards. With her cluttered main deck and her broad beam, the Ibis was sometimes taken for a schooner-rigged barque by old sailors: whether there was any truth truth to this Zachary did not know, but he never thought of her as anything other than the topsail schooner that she was when he first signed on to her crew. To his eye there was something unusually graceful about the Ibis's yacht-like rigging, with her sails aligned along her length rather than across the line of her hull. He could see why, with her main- and headsails standing fair, she might put someone in mind of a white-winged bird in flight: other tall-masted ships, with their stacked loads of square canvas, seemed almost ungainly in comparison."
This book is well worth the time that it takes to assemble and discern the stories of its main characters. The third part of the book is much too short; the sea voyage was an old fashioned adventure filled with intrigue that passed much too quickly - I wanted more. I only had two gripes with this book, both of which are small and inconsequential in comparison to what the book has to offer its readers. The first is that this book contains a glossary which is more frustrating than illuminating. My advice is simply to ignore the glossary. There are passages in this book where you will feel like you are reading some obscure language that makes no sense, but if you keep reading, you will find that somehow, magically, you can discern the context of the words if not the individual meanings. This is more than sufficient to enjoy the book, as these passages do not make up the majority of the book. My second gripe is that this book cannot stand on its own. I know that it is part of an intended trilogy, and that it is an epic which means that this book is merely the first leg of the journey. However, that being said, I would have liked the ending to have less abruptness. The story felt SO unfinished, as if it had ended mid-sentence. I prefer a book that you feel could stand on its own even if it is part of a series. The beautiful writing and the well developed plot and characters more than make up for this, so by all means, do not hesitate to dive into this story, after all, the second book is already available, and so you can begin immediately, if you choose, on the second leg of the journey.
**Baboo Nob Kissin is one of the more colorful characters in the book, and one of my personal favorites. Here is a quote that tickled me, and that I intend to work into my daily dialogue with the host of teenagers that occupy our house (i.e. my children):
"... and on this point no concession can be made. Unreasonable demands must be strenuously opposed."
But I'm not a particular fan of this book. Although intelligent and well-plotted, I found his fascination with the nautical jargon of the period astonishingly overdone and intrusive. There is no useful glossary to speak of (the "glossary" at the end is not, in fact, a true glossary but another fiction employed by Ghosh to give an insight into one character and the times) and context is not always a reliable guide to meaning. Far too many sentences were simply incomprehensible. While that didn't impede plot development (or, for the most part, character development), it went from a small impediment to an annoying, intrusive element that was present far too often. It is one thing to use such a device to add an element of verisimilitude; it is quite another to use it, as I find Ghosh does, to showcase his learning. It went beyond pedantic.
Still, his research, in general, sat lightly and offered some fascinating insights into a place and a society now largely lost.
This has a very complex plot and with so many characters it is hard to summarize but it was quite an enchanting read and I can see why there has been so much hype on LT about this one and the second in the trilogy [River of Smoke]. I plan on continuing with the trilogy right away. I just hope Ghosh has started writing the third!
What I loved most about this novel is the use of language. The characters speak a wide variety of languages — Hindi, Bengali, French, English, shipboard pidgin, to name a few — and the text is liberally sprinkled with foreign words and phrases. (The careful reader will notice that quotation marks are omitted whenever the characters speak a language other than English, a distinction that is important for the plot.) This may be off-putting at first, but the trick is to relax and let meaning flow from context, rather than trying to understand each word. Gradually, the rhythm of the writing will overcome and enchant you.
Ghosh particularly delights in playing with puns and misunderstandings of spoken language in a way that reminds me of Shakespeare. Some of the funniest scenes in the book occur when the misunderstandings lead characters into suggestive dialogues filled with double entendres. Yes, Sea of Poppies is often funny, but it is also suspenseful, epic and evocative of a time and place that may have never actually existed as depicted here but is nonetheless wonderfully realized.
I’m incapable of summarizing this book. There is too much here. Yes, this is about the horrors of opium and poppy growing in India. Yes this is a book on India – specifically 19th century British dominated India at the brink of the 1st Chinese-English Opium War. It’s also a book about language – specifically the Calcutta/Indian/Indian Ocean warping of the English language. Instead of a glossary, the back of the book has a “Chrestomathy”. This is apparently a list of words which has, in place of the definition, a sort of biography or linguistic history of the word. The credit for this particular list is given to one of the book's characters whom, it’s noted, only entered the words he was interested in. It’s also a book about the wild complexity of cultures and peoples in and around the Indian Ocean and southeast China. It’s also a character driven novel. And, at some point, it becomes something like a suspense novel – perhaps somewhat undermining some of the more serious aspects of the book.
The characters in this book have a cacophony of backgrounds that is simply wild. Almost all have some kind of ethnic oddity, or, lacking that, some kind of distinct personal history oddity. They might be Indian, Bengali, Indian born Englishmen, American freed slaves, half Indian/half some sort of Chinese, or a “lascar” – the random collection of Indian Ocean seamen from who knows where. Or some other ethnicity. Each has their own collection of languages they speak; some, like the lascars, having their own sort of compiled language. Individually they are quite interesting, and memorable - although having all of them in the same place and interacting with each other pushes my suspense of disbelief.
Ghosh is doing a lot of things here. He’s being both serious and having fun. He’s created a memorable group of characters, an odd but profound view of part of the darkest side of the British rule in India, and a pretty wacky story. Personally this left me entertained, but a bit confused as to what his real point was.
Set in 1830s India to start, it's rich with historical background at the level of daily lives. From a raja to workers of the opium fields, from the owner of a shipping fleet to a part-black lascar (sailor), with other oddly assorted lives mixed in to this tower of Babel. Throw in a Chinese prisoner, some pirates, a feared male who transmogrifies in a startling manner, and you have just some of the intriguing characters who you have to take seriously in their various plights. Sea of Poppies is an old time adventure on land and sea that promises to keep you invested in long-term outcomes.
This is the first of a promised trilogy that is destined for the Opium Wars in China. The first volume ends like the Perils of Pauline and I don't know how long I can bear to wait for volume two. I really want to know what's next
Pick it up if you're at serious about broadening your experience and want entrancing writing. I got hooked on Amitav Ghosh through his The Hungry Tide and The Glass Palace. Wonderful, wonderful.
So begins Sea of Poppies, set in 1838 India, prior to the Opium Wars. At present, the opium trade is depleted as a result of resistance from the Chinese government. The “tall-masted ship” will prove to be the Ibis, a former slaving ship come vessel of the opium trade, now in refit to transport indentured labour from Calcutta to Mauritius. The novel is replete with a lengthy host of colorful and varied characters. The main ones include: Deeti, a simple and pious widow of a worker in the opium trade; Zachary Reid, an American sailor born to a slave mother and white father, a mulatto, who will become second in command of the Ibis; Neel Rattan Halder, a wealthy rajah whose estates have fallen desperately into debt, and who will find himself the victim of a corrupt justice system; Benjamin Burnham, owner of The Ibis, a wealthy evangelist opium trader and an influential force in Calcutta; Paulette, a French orphan raised in India, fluent in Bengali and uniquely more comfortable with Indian manners, food, and dress than with Western ones. As the stories merge, all of the characters will find themselves aboard the Ibis – the ship becoming, in essence, a shelter for those who are destitute. But the adventure is nowhere near finished: what “the black water” holds in store for each remains to be seen.
Sea of Poppies is written in three parts: Part I, Land (Calcutta); Part II, River (Ganga); and Part III, Sea (Indian Ocean). Amitav Ghosh is a consummate storyteller. His characters are richly and appreciatively drawn, each with a compelling story of his or her own. And his prose is exceptional: beautifully written, alluring and captivating. The glossary at the back of the book is helpful, though admittedly I often did not want to interrupt my reading, so many passages read as best-educated-guess-in-context. Will definitely read River of Smoke. This one is highly recommended.
“She looked at the seed as if she had never seen one before, and suddenly she knew that it was not the planet above that governed her life: it was this minuscule orb – at once bountiful and all-devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful. This was her Shani, her Saturn.” (415)
To me, the most exciting thing about Sea of Poppies is the use of language. Unlike many books involving "dialect," Ghosh's novel doesn't pit nonstandard against standard English, creating a simple, easily-evaluated contrast (for example, "backwoods" dialect used to betoken a character's lack of education, or "urban" dialect used to signal that a character is hard-boiled). Instead, Ghosh pays close attention to the subtleties of MANY separate lingual groups, and lets them all mingle with one another in a rich mélange of well-realized, consistent but flexible voices. Take this passage, in which we get the seagoing pidgin of Serang Ali (the commander of the native Indian or lascar crew), the Indie-fied Irish brogue of the ship's captain, and the lightly inflected cadence of Ghosh's narrator, which blends subtly into the voices of the different characters:
'No,' Zachary laughed. 'N'how bout you? Serang Ali catchi wife?'
'Serang Ali wife-o hab makee die,' came the answer. 'Go top-side, to hebbin. By'mby, Serang Ali catchi nother piece wife...'
A week later, Serang Ali accosted Zachary again: '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.'
Zachary took himself off to the Captain's stateroom and was told that there was nothing wrong: just a touch of the back-door trots - not the flux, for there was no sign of blood, no spotting in the mustard. 'I know how to take care o' meself: not the first time I've had a run of the squitters and collywobbles.'
I loved reading Serang Ali's dialogue; my mother and her brothers grew up on Oahu, and I grew up hearing Hawaiian pidgin bandied about whenever my uncles were visiting (my mom never picked it up, for some reason). The lascar pidgin bears certain similarities to Hawaiian pidgin, and I wonder how much contact there was between the two regions while both languages were developing. In particular, the use of "plenty" as an intensifier is common to both ("He hab got plenty sick"), and something about "Go top-side, to hebbin" is very familiar. I don't know much at all about Indian and sea-faring languages and pidgins, but I got the impression that Ghosh has a very careful ear and a thorough understanding of how language functions in society, which was a joy to read. For example, certain people in the novel "code switch" - that is, speak differently according to the company in which they find themselves. Zachary, the light-skinned American son of a freed female slave and her former owner, comes to feel at his ease with Serang Ali, and they speak to each other in a way that shows they trust each other - a way that doesn't try to hide their respective backgrounds.
Three days later, exactly as promised, the twisted hills of Mauritius appeared on the jamma bow, with Port Louis nestled in the bay below.
'I'll be dickswiggered!' said Zachary, in grudging admiration. 'Don't that just beat the Dutch? You sure that the right place?'
'What I tell you no? Serang Ali Number One sabbi ship-pijjin.'
Yet in different company, such as the ship's white captain and belligerent lower-class first mate, Zachary speaks in standard English even when the other officers are speaking non-standard English - a subtle acknowledgment of his own inferior social position and/or respect for the other men. In the scene below, Zachary has a different motive for putting a high-class spin on his speech: he's conversing with Paulette Lambert, the daughter of a French botanist, who grew up speaking French and Bhojpuri, and whose English is at least as unorthodox as Zachary's own:
'Is something the matter?' Zachary said, alarmed by her pallor. 'Are you all right, Miss Lambert?'
'An idee came to my mind,' said Paulette, trying to make light of her sudden turn of thought. 'It struck me that I too would love to go to the Mauritius on the Ibis. Just like Jodu, working on a ship.'
Zachary laughed. 'Believe me, Miss Lambert, a schooner's no place for a woman - lady, I mean, begging your pardon. Especially not someone who is accustomed to living like this...' He made a gesture in the direction of the loaded table.
'Is that indeed so, Mr. Reid?' said Paulette, raising her eyebrows. 'So it is not possible, according to you, for a woman to be a marin?'
'Marine?' he said in surprise. 'No, Miss Lambert, there sure aren't any woman marines that I ever heard of.'
The plot of Sea of Poppies mixes a couple of standard plots - the "diverse people thrown together unexpectedly" with the "seagoing adventure" and a hefty pinch of the "political commentary" - but it's the manner of telling that I found particularly unique and engaging in this novel. Much like gender criticism that points out the ways in which every presentation of gender is performative and therefore involves aspects of drag, Ghosh emphasizes to his reader that there is no un-accented language, no manner of speaking that does not make claims, whether true or false, about the speaker. The range of lingual contexts Ghosh evokes here is staggering, and he is able to deal in subtle lingual differences as well as broad ones. In a smoking-room scene involving four white, middle-class Englishmen, for example, he expertly adjusts each man's level of good-old-boy bluster to indicate his position in the pecking order. (This same scene also features brain-boiling pieces of logic such as the British assertion that war with China is morally mandated: "We need only think of the poor Indian peasant - what will become of him if his opium can't be sold in China?") Not only that, but Ghosh has a similar sensitivity about quicksand nature of racial, religious, and sexual dynamics: Zachary's biracial background, for example, is something about which he's constantly on his guard. Much of the time, it's rendered surprisingly irrelevant and he comes off as a bit paranoid, but given the wrong set of circumstances it can erupt into unforeseen danger in a matter of moments.
Sea of Poppies is not a perfect novel - the exposition is sometimes fairly awkward, with one character leading a second into an information-dump about the back-story of a third. And there is a touch of so-called "Rushdie-itis" here and there - every time the narrative featured a flash-forward about different people who would, one day, end up in the character Deeti's shrine, I winced a little bit as I remembered Midnight's Children. Nevertheless, there was so much here that was unique and intriguing that I'm eager to pick up the next two books in this projected trilogy as soon as they become available. The originality of the language, the social insight, and the crafting of compelling characters makes me eager to spend more time in Ghosh's world.
But the plot is predictable; people you think will fall in love, do so. People's who's fall is predicted, duly fall (finding humility in the process). Blaggards get their come uppance. True love overcomes obstacles. To the author's credit the plot rattles along and mostly sweeps you with it. But the author also has an irritating need to tie up all possible loose ends - characters who leave the narrative on p60 duly reappear on p400 - and how likely is it that you will find someone from your home village in central India on a ship from Calcutta to Mauritius for the sake of tying up a loose plot line? I find that sort of thing irritating
So overall entertaining in its way, but literary fiction its not
I enjoyed reading this book. It moves quickly and makes you question the foibles of our humanity without being overly preachy about it. Instead, most of the characters in the book are very human and treated fairly with few two-dimensional always good or evil characters. The only exceptions were a couple of members of the ship crew, who were portrayed as being very evil. The novel would have been even stronger if Ghosh had given more backstory on these characters to show how they became like they were so that they would be more human and believable to the reader. Outside of that weakness, I thought this was an excellent novel, and I look forward to reading the second book in this trilogy.
At first glance, it's the sort of writing that should really appeal to me, because Ghosh's entry into this world and to these characters is all linguistic. Every character has their own ludicrous demotic, with our American second mate exclaiming, ‘Grease-us twice! What the hell you pesticatin me for,’ while Paulette, a young Frenchwoman, speaks in an entertaining but completely implausible Franglais – ‘you are just pleasanting me’, ‘he was quite bouleversed!’ The main narrative voice, meanwhile, is a hallucinogenic Anglo-Indian farrago that has been turned up to eleven, like Hobson-Jobson in an opium dream – the density of the following paragraph is not untypical:
In this floating bazar there was everything a ship or a lascar might need: canvas by the gudge, spare jugboolaks and zambooras, coils of istingis and rup-yan, stacks of seetulpatty mats, tobacco by the batti, rolls of neem-twigs for the teeth, martabans of isabgol for constipation, and jars of columbo-root for dysentery: one ungainly gordower even had a choola going with a halwai frying up fresh jalebis.
I have a high tolerance for (indeed love of) opaque vocabulary, but even I found it wearing here – the effect is too extreme to come across as anything but parodic. Tellingly, Ghosh reserves a special thank-you in his afterword for the ‘dictionarists’ whose work he so assiduously plundered – not just Hobson-Jobson, but also a variety of colonial-era slang-lists and glossaries, like A Laskari Dictionary or Anglo-Indian Vocabulary of Nautical Terms and Phrases in English and Hindustani. It's hard not to wish he'd been a smidgen more sparing in how he used this research.
Though I found it strangely unsatisfying, there is a lot to like here, really – lush, gothic descriptions of an opium factory, a British jail, the hold of a slaving vessel are all well worth the cover price, and the characters are so bizarre that they rarely struggle to hold your interest. I had a lot of fun, but I don't feel in a mad rush to read the rest of the trilogy.
Starting off on a different tack than some of the other reviews of the work--it's almost like I've written a conclusion before I even start reviewing the book. Even so--keeping on a different tack what strikes me somewhat is the characterizations that Mr. Ghosh is able to create here. There are numerous good guys and it's clear that the good guys are all nice people with good intentions. The more interesting characters for me are his bad guys--the underhanded supposedly god fearing plutocrat Benjamin Burnham and the judge he has in his pocket Kendalbushe supposedly spreading christianity, truth and justice but in reality--or the reality of the book--they've become super wealthy by lining their own pockets trough the spreading of their sanctimonious and self serving bs. They are really Dickensian characters. Two other evil doers of note--the brutal Bhyro Singh an Indian Army torturer and the first mate of the Ibis Mr. Crowle. The Crowle character in some respects seems straight out of Dostoyevsky.
As for the story itself it revolves around a sea voyage (in the early part of the 19 th century)from India to Mauritius of various down and outs either fleeing the law and/or poverty. The good people more or less being at the mercy of the bad and mostly through no crime of their own. Ghosh develops a number of these characters independently of each other and then brings them together on the boat. He has an excellent eye for period detail and a cheeky way of delivering dialogue and teasing readers in to looking up terms in the glossary he conveniently provides at the back of the work which at times very mischieviously only reroutes them to other terms.
So on the subject of Ghosh--this book and the other two of his I've read previously I can only conclude that he's a gifted writer and storyteller still working on creating a masterpiece and reaching greatness some day. I don't think this is it but OTOH Sea of Poppies is an entertaining and very often fun way to while away the time.
And wow, what a vivid book. It's almost unbelievable how vibrant it is. When you're reading it, it feels like a Jumanji scene where you open up the book and can immediately hear the sounds of the ship and smell the poppies and spices and everything floods into Technicolor, and then when you close the book it all stops. And then you keep opening and closing it for fun or until someone makes you knock it off.
I had the kind of little kid reading experience that I don't always get as an adult - the goodies are good and the baddies are bad and that's completely satisfying. I am positive that if I ever met the goodies, we'd be BFF and have amazing piratey adventures, and I'd spit on the baddies because they make you go Grrrrr in a mostly fun way. It's still a very thoughtful book, but in an awesome display of res ipsa loquitur, every single insight that emerges does so by way of moving the story forward.
So plot-wise, what is going on? You've got a whole ensemble of characters from different walks of life in early 19th century India - so sailors and lascars and a former Raj who is now imprisoned as a debtor and a French woman born in India and a widow who is on the run from her family for taking up with a man below her caste and a second mate who is a free person of color from America. Oh, and the devout temple-building guy who thinks he is transforming into a dead woman's spirit. And many more. And all of their fortunes come together on the Ibis, a former slaver that is now being used to transport indentured Indian labor to the Mauritius islands and opium to China.
I am assured there will be sequels. They cannot possibly be released quickly enough.
I should note that a lot, a lot of the dialogue is written out in pidgin and one could fight with the glossary or just try to roll with it. I did the latter, and it worked out.
Recommended: Hearty yes, especially to anyone who likes action-adventure intrigue type stuff. Weirdly, as much as I like historical fiction, here the historical setting seems almost incidental. I mean, it's excellently done, but almost so well crafted that you hardly notice it.