Stars: 4.5 / 5
Sea of Poppies is the first book in the Ibis Trilogy by Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh and published in October of 2008. The plot is set in India, especially in the Bengal area, prior to the First Opium War that occurred between 1839-42 (More about the war here). And naturally it would also revolve around the Opium Industry flourished then between England and China by way of India.
I came across Amitav Ghosh's all three books in this series in a library sale a few months ago. The colors of the book covers attracted me first before the author or the plot. Knowing it was an Indian author I grabbed them cause I so rarely read Indian authors. And now my review of the first book in the series. Hope you all will enjoy it as much as I have.
Zachary Reid had been a mere novice aboard Ibis - once a "black birder" slave ship but now use for Opium trade owned by Benjamin Brightwell Burnham - when he had started his voyage in Baltimore, America. And now as a second-mate, he had managed to hire a motley of crew called the lascars. But with China objecting to the Opium trade, Mr. Burnham resorts to use his ship Ibis for its old purpose - transporting of slaves, instead this time around transporting on indentured Indians to Mauritius. Unexpectedly along with the motley of his crew, Zachary Reid gets a string of people aboard the ship - some indentured and some free - who turn the fate of everyone in ways unimaginable.
Among those who join Zachary on the Ibis are - Serang Ali who led the lascar company that boarded Ibis, Aditi "Deeti" and her second husband Kalua escaping Deeti's family betrayal as well as caste; Azad Naskar "Jodu" an orphan from the village of Ghazipur with an ambition to work on an ocean-going ship; Miss Paullette "Putli" Lambert the daughter Pierre Lambert a French assistant curator to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Calcutta; Raja Neel Rattan Halder the bankrupt and betrayed Zamindar of Raskhali enroute to the jail in Mauritius, Framjee Pestonjee Moddie "Ah Fatt" who had been jailed for robbery and Baboo Nob Kissin Pander gomusta for Mr. Burnham but with his own burning agenda to be on the Ibis.
Thus proceeds the plot with it being split into three parts - Part I "Land" gives us glimpses into the lives of the key characters that would be aboard The Ibis eventually; Part II "River" takes us through the paths of each of these characters eventually leading them to The Ibis; Part III "Sea" showcases the journey of Ibis across the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean and what they face through their voyage. I loved the way that Ghosh goes deeper into each of the characters setting the base before he joins all the pieces together. But with so many personal and social prejudices, difference in their statures, political differences and their own secrets to keep, it is interesting to see how they will survive this long journey through the tumultuous Black Water.
The other aspect of the book that grips you is the language. Granted that first time around it is a bit confusing to read through certain passages. But again the language Ghosh uses resonates to the 1830s period with very old English mixed in along with a lot of Hindi, Urdu and Bengali words that are Anglicized - which I am sure we still use and more have been created since. For instance "Serang Ali wife-o hab makee die. Go topside, to hebbin. By’mby, Serang Ali catchi nother piece wife." that the Lascars talk. Or this "Mama! She forgot to bundo her jumma! And oh dekko mama" - the easy manner in which the local Hindi and Bengali words get mixed into English and French language spoken by the foreigners. However he did not miss in bringing in the actual Bengali language -only he italicized these. For instance "to make everyone laugh in their sorrow - dukhwa me sabke hasaweli". It took a while for me to get to the motions of the language, but once I picked it, it was easier to read and understand what Ghosh meant.
The era that the book was set it also saw the spurge of inventions all around the world. So also did they see in India. Ghosh gives the reader a glimpse into it - a contraption that resembles modern day shower except the water is poured down the holed-bucket by servants; Thermantidote (an ancestor to air conditioning only being operated manually by servants with water being poured onto a winnowing machine fitted with fragrant khus-khus. I remember we having such khus-khus filled hanging carpets that we used to wet them periodically to keep the rooms cooler in my grandmother's home.). Not only does Ghosh educate the reader on the budding inventions, but also the budding biological system of naming the plants. Interesting to read how Bougainvillea got its name.
It is amazing how a small country such as Britain could take over so many big countries and make them her colonies. Ghosh gives a clear picture of their “Divide and Rule” policy being put into practice in the book. The continued hatred toward Hindus and Muslims by the Whites is shown very subtly. He also exposes the Indian Indentureship bordering on Slavery. Ghosh also cleverly spins the deceit bestowed upon by the Britishers on the Indians, the exploitation of the simple people to utmost extent, the practice of Sati the women take up to avoid being raped or taken as mistresses by both White and Indian men alike, the deceit that Indian people put on their own folk for their short-term benefit inadvertently giving a piece of this land and power to the Britishers, the partiality and hypocrisy of British-Raj in India with rules that didn’t apply to the Britishers but applies to Indians, the reasons for the Indo-China war in 1839, the impacts of forced trade of Opium, cruelty that both Indian and British superiors show on the indentured and convicts on Ibis and much more from that era including the blind beliefs and superstitions.
Ghosh mixes the actual events with fiction spinning a very fine tale for the reader to be transported into the early 1800s, practically making the reader live the life of each and every character. A tinge of romance, a hint of violence, a dash of morality, a splash of injustice, a morsel of inequality and finally with a scoopful of deep-rooted goods and evils perfectly melded together. Thoroughly enjoyed it and can't wait to read the next one in the series. You want to be transported to life in India in the early 1800s, this is the perfect book for it.
1) This book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 - a literary prize awarded for the best original fiction every year. After reading the book I can guess why it was shortlisted. Pity it did not win though. But it did win other awards the same year - 2008 Vodafone Crossword Book Award for Fiction, 2008 British Book Design and Production Award, Indiaplaza Golden Quill Award for best novel and Indiaplaza Golden Quill Popular Vote Award in 2009 and finally the prestigious Tagore Literature Award, awarded by Sahitya Akademi in 2012.
2) Deeti muses about her six-year old daughter Kabutri getting married off in three or four years. That would make her nine or ten years, a very young age to get married. But in the 1830s that was an appropriate age for marriage. Almost two centuries later, although there is still some practice of child marriage, we have come so far that sometimes people aren't getting married until their 30s.
3) Lascars were a group of men who were Chinese, East Africans, Arabs, Malays, Bengalis, Goans, Tamils and Arakanese. They had a unique language that was a blend of all their languages and so were their food habits and customs.
4) Ghosh talks about the sportsmanship of Kite Flying being not just about flying kites but much more - mastering the flying of kite with the mood and shade of the wind and clouds. I always had thought of Kite Flying in India to be more of a strategy as opposed to it being an entertainment in America. The author also aligns with my thoughts.
5) Deeti has a somewhat ability of Sight and the visions she saw she often drew it on Mango leaves with red sindoor giving image to her vision. These she put on the walls of her puja room along with her other tokens from her family and ancestors. She had put in images of the ship Ibis, of Zachary Reid, of Raja Neel Rattan Halder, of Azad Naskar "Jodu", of Paulette "Pugly" Lambert, of Baboo Nob Kissin Pander even before she met them aboard Ibis.
6) The author talks about people being signed up to be worked as slaves in Mauritius. More than slaves Indians were shipped as indentured servants – more like criminals and jailed people were signed up for it. This is new to me. I didn’t know that part of the history where Indians were also taken as slaves. But I guess it's hard not to believe as slavery was such a concept all over the world then.
7) Ghosh also brings into light the plight of women in some of the northern states of India where they are married to one man in the home but are bedded by all men in the home. Reasons could be many - the husband is impotent but the family hides it and wants the girl to still give an heir; lack of number of girls in the community for the men to get married; sometimes pure barbaric practice. Although it is not that often seen now, it still exists in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
8) Check the history on how Bougainvillea came upon its name here. It's exactly what Ghosh uses in his plot.
10) Some of the words and things from 1830s English are so unique: Although there is an appendix with a laundry list of all the words that Ghosh used, that are unique in the usage, language or meaning. It is titled "The Ibis Chrestomathy" which is also published online here. Below are what that are not covered in that appendix.