Book Reviews

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh – big, bold and baggy

Sea of Poppies proved to be more challenging than The Glass Palace, the only one of Amitav Ghosh’s novels I’ve read to date.

Set in early 19th century India, Amitav Ghosh offers a sweeping tale of colonialism and class divisions played out against a backdrop of the lucrative opium trade. It’s history on a grand scale seen through the lens of passengers and crew members of a ship as it sails across the Indian Ocean.

The ship is the Ibis, a former slave vessel refitted to transport indentured labourers from Calcutta to the sugar plantations of Mauritius. It’s only in the final 120 pages that the ship actually sets out on its voyage. Until then we get 400 or so pages devoted to the people on board, learning their histories and how they end up on the ship.

Who Are All These People??

The large cast of characters was my first challenge with this book. There were far too many individuals to remember fully so I gave up on that score and just tried to focus on the main players.

They include Zachary Reid, the son of an American house slave who can pass for “white” because of his demeanour and clothing. His skill in adapting to the different temperaments and hierarchies on the ship and his friendship with one of the Indian sailors (called lascars) help him work his way up the ranks.

Also on board is a raja (a local prince) sentenced to transportation to a penal colony on Mauritius when he fell foul of some underhand financial deals. He spends the entire voyage in a dark cell below decks with only a filthy, uncommunicative Chinese man for company.

Among the female passengers is Paulette, the orphaned daughter of a French botanist working in India, offered a home with the head of a trading company. Accustomed to a relaxed life with her father where she could make friends with Indian families, she finds the confinements of her new life impossible to bear. So she escapes, and gets onto the Ibis in the disguise of a female labourer.

Finally, there is the main female character, Deeti, a woman with an astonishing history. Married to an opium addicted farmer, impregnated when drugged by his brother on her wedding night and “persuaded” to die on her husband’s funeral pyre. She’s rescued in the nick of time by an untouchable famed for his prodigious strength, with whom she elopes. Phew…

Sea of Poppies weaves together the stories of all these people, showing the intricacies of the rules that govern their lives both on land and at sea. They come from such different backgrounds both geographically, ethnically and culturally that they struggle at times to understand each other.

Which brings me to challenge number 2.

Lost in Translation

I’ve read many books which use a vocabulary outside my experience. Encountering words that describe unfamiliar food or idioms from the country in which the book is set is part of the joy of reading books by authors from around the world. Ghosh takes this to a whole new level, mixing sea-faring jargon and sailor’s slang with rural dialects and hybrid Chinglish or Hinglish expressions.

It’s not surprising the crew and passengers found this baffling, I had the same reaction many times during the course of this book. What are we to make of this passage for example:

Wasn’t a man in town who could put on a burra-khana like he did. Sheeshmull blazing with shammers and candles. Paltans of bearers and khidmutgars. Demijohns of French loll-shruband carboys of iced simkin. And the karibat! In the old days the Rascally bobachee-connah was the best in the city. No fear of pishpash and cobbily-mash at the Rascally table. The dumbpokes and pillaus were good enough but we old hands, we’d wait for the curry of cockup and the chitchky of pollock-sang. Oh he set a rankin table I can tell you – and mind you, supper was just the start; the real tumasher came later, in the nautch-connah.Now there was another chuck=muck sight for you!

I resorted to looking up the unfamiliar phrases and words in an online dictionary initially but that soon became tedious. It also spoiled the rhythm of the prose.

So I just went with the flow, accepting that I didn’t need to understand every detail. In these few sentences for example, it’s enough to know that he’s talking about some part of the rigging high above the deck.

Jodu yearned to leap up into the ringeen, to be with the trikat-wale, chatting in the crosstrees – not for nothing did lascars call that lofty chair a ‘kursi’ for that was where they went when they chose to lounge at east, cooled by the breeze.

In fact even when I didn’t understand a specific word it was possible to work out its meaning from the context.

A quartermaster lured the boy into the ship’s store with a mind to trying a bit of udlee-budlee. But chota as he was, young Benjamin didn’t lack for bawhawdery – set upon the old launderbuzz with a belaying-pin and beat him with such a will that his life-line was all but unrove.

It was hard work at times and took a fair bit of concentration but overall I enjoyed the novelty and the playfullness of the language.

An Eye For Detail

Ghosh does tend to load up his narrative with meticulously chosen details of his settings. Sea of Poppies moves from poppy fields and opium factories in Bengal to a poor village on the Ganges; from a princely yacht and palace to the bustling decks of a sailing ship. At times we wallow in the details when I would happily have settled for less. I really didn’t need to know quite as much about the furniture in a European home or the subtle differences between each grade of military and civilian personnel.

But then we encounter sections of such breathtaking power and impact that I forgave Ghosh for all his minutiae. A case in point comes when Deeti is called to the opium factory where her husband has collapsed. She’s confronted by an enormous hellish operation of “bare-bodied men, sunk waist-deep in tanks of opium, tramping round and round to soften the sludge . . .” to stock warehouses already laden with tens of thousands of glossy-black, coconut-size opium balls.

The factory is one part of a gargantuan trading enterprise managed by the British colonial rulers in which the little people like Deeti are pawns. Instead of planting wheat, villagers like her have been forced to use their land to grow poppies to feed the opium trade with China. The crop upon which the smallholders’ livelihoods depend — is so unpredictable that they never know until the petals have fallen, whether the harvest will be good. By then it’s too late to grow anything else.

Sea of Poppies is at its best when it shines a light on the manipulative behaviour of the British and the grasping trading companies that transport the opium to China. The narrative continues in two further books —  River of Smoke and Flood of Fire  — all of which are set in the build up to the First Opium War between Britain and China and feature many of the same characters encountered in Sea of Poppies

I enjoyed it despite the two hurdles I mentioned earlier. But I don’t think my interest will be sustained through another 1,100 pages.

Sea of Poppies was the third pick from my TBR jar this year. I actually read it in April but it’s taken me this long to finish the review.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

30 thoughts on “Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh – big, bold and baggy

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  • I’ve had all three of the “Ibis” books sitting . . . and sitting … and sitting on my shelves gathering dust for quite some time. I knew the books were going to be a difficult read and your review certainly reinforces this! Still, the story sounds gripping and I’ve had other books were I just went with the flow, not trying to decipher every word/image (it’s the only way I made it through Patrick O’Brien’s highly enjoyable Aubrey/Maturin novels). Thanks for a great review (and for bring these books to mind again)!

    • Oh I can relate to that having tried but failed to read one of the Aubrey books some years ago.

  • This is one I haven’t got to yet though I enjoyed the Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide (both with some reservations. This one’s been intimidating me because of being a trilogy, and I see now that the complications are even more. From the quotes you’ve shared, I can decipher a few words, but interesting to note the colonial style spellings of dumbpoke (dumpukht), or Nautch-conna (natch-gana) and others.

    • I enjoyed Glass Palace up to a point – the final section seemed to fizzle out to me.

      • I would agree. The other that I read The Hungry Tide was also a similar experience–not the last section specifically but there were some aspects that didn’t click; plus both books had those difficult bits with animals suffering which are personally hard reading for me. HIs fable The Living Mountain though I liked very much

        • I enjoyed The Glass Palace which was set in Malaysia – much easier to follow

  • This is why I tend to avoid doorstopper novels which often have me itching to cut pages, or rather wishing the editor had. Glad to hear that the enjoyment outweighed the hard work.

    • There are many historical fiction novels where I have that itch to get out the editor’s blue pencil. I feel like shouting at the author “I know you’ve done your research but I don’t need to be told every detail”

  • An interesting review, but I can’t see myself picking this one up.

    • It’s been hanging around on my shelves for a very, very long time – I kept picking it up, and putting it down after reading the first few pages

  • I’m intrigued by the story but thanks to you I know I should track down the French translation. (which means that the translator deserves a prize for deciphering it and finding an equivalent in French!!)

    • Gosh I don’t envy any translator having that assignment. It seems nigh on impossible to translate or even transcreate some of that language

  • I really give you credit for finishing the book. I could not read beyond a point and had to abandon it. Ghosh’s best books to me are The Shadow Lines and The Calcutta Chromosome.

    • I haven’t heard of those titles but if they are his best in your eyes, then I shall have to take a look because you have made me curious

  • I *loved* this book. (And the rest of the trilogy).
    Like you, I just went with the flow. As you say, you can work out that they’re talking about food or clothes or rigging or whatever, and I think what the style conveys so well is that people from all different cultures were thrown together and just had to make as much sense as they could of the languages that they heard. For people like us who’ve never really had to struggle to understand what’s being said to us, it’s a challenge but a worthwhile experience that I think builds empathy for those who’re willing to take it on.

    • Very fair comment about the language of these quotes.

      I reminded me the first times I read books in English. You need to settle for understanding the global meaning and it gets better with time.

      • That’s probably the case when you read anything not in your mother tongue until you become very comfortable with it. Even then I suspect there are some idioms that still don’t “translate”

    • That’s a really interesting interpretation Lisa. Communication is quite a big theme in the book, sometimes shown through language and sometimes through sharing of knowledge about customs.

      • Yes, there’s a lot to the book, I’m sure I didn’t figure out all of it!

        • I know I didn’t touch the surface with all the themes and ideas. I imagine that the trilogy has been the subject of much analysis by doctoral students.

        • Good luck to ’em. I just read my books and enjoy them, or not…

        • Think of all those academics who’d be out of work if we all just read and enjoyed/didn’t enjoy rather than analyse LOL

  • Hmm. There’s a lot to take in here. Much as I love a colourful vocabulary,this sounds a step too far. What with that and the length, I don’t think this is for me … at the moment. Never say never.

    • I can understand that, it’s not the most accessible of narratives


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