A week with Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

The title of this post doesn’t have Book Review in the beginning for a simple reason. Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh doesn’t need a review. It can only be marveled at and simply devoured into. Based on opium war and set in the era when Britishers were making a strong hold in India, Sea of Poppies is by far the masterpiece of Indian fiction for me. For all the books that I have read so far, nothing can come close to this beautiful book, Sea of Poppies.

The first volume of a trilogy, Sea of Poppies unfolds in North India and Bay of Bengal in 1838. The plot revolves around Ibis, a slave carrier ship which has been recently converted into a carrier of coolies and opium. Ibis will serve as a common destination for all the main characters of the Sea of Poppies in coming pages.

Amitav Ghosh begins the narration of Sea of Poppies in the Eastern Village of Bihar. Deeti, with her daughter Kabutri witnesses arrival of Ibis one day while swimming in the river. The image of Ibis leaves such an impact on Deeti that she runs back home and draws a picture of Ibis to keep in her temple. Over the time, other main characters start pouring in. Kalua, Deeti’s husband’s cart driver who is a low caste and has his own tragic story. Jodu, who lost his mother recently and now must find Putli aka Paulette, for whom his mother worked as a wet nurse before Paulette’s father died and she was taken up by another family.

There’s Raja Neel Ratan, Raja of Raskhali who is running out of his wealth and must depend on Mr.Burnham, an unscrupulous British merchant, who has also adopted Paulette into his family. Last but not the least, we have our American sailor Zachary, who is the center point of this novel. Down the line, all these characters will start depending or running away from each other. And the circumstances only make Sea of Poppies absolutely brilliant!

On the way to their destiny on Ibis, these characters come across Sati (widow burning after husband’s death), a ship mutiny, court case, jails, kidnappings, rapes, flogging and dinner parties that lead to open rivalry. The story proceeds with such delicious twists and turns that it keeps you hooked till the end. When you reach the last page sailing along with Ibis, it ends with Ibis storm-tossed, off Sumatra. Whether all the characters survive or not and reach Mauritius safely, I won’t know till I pick up the second volume. But as long as all volumes turn up as brilliant as Sea of Poppies, I am happy to sail in Amitav Ghosh’s brilliant creativity.

But these twists and turns is just half the story of Sea of Poppies. The other half is about Opium war and how Britishers were slowly and gradually gaining control of sea trade and other important businesses of India. Opium was being planted as a cash crop, as we have read in our history books. But I only got to know the after effects of it after reading Deeti’s husband story in the Sea of Poppies. I wish my history book was written by Amitav Ghosh only. I would have scored better and gained knowledge in a much better way.

Another amazing thing about the book is research and creativity behind it. There was not even a single moment in this book which made me pick up my laptop to check facts, and that’s very rare. Amitav Ghosh’s technique is to supply the story with maximum information, as much as the story can afford and support to make it real for readers. For example, The Ghazipur factory in which Deeti’s husband worked and eventually got addicted to Opium from there, is actually a real one. The process of making opium from poppy flowers, sap and trash are processed in front of Deeti’s terrified eyes which were searching for her half-dead husband in the opium factory.

There’s a deep mixture of language also in Sea of Poppies which is fascinating to read. From French-English for Paulette to Sea Language of Zachary, Bihari for Deeti and proper English for Mr. Burnham. Very intelligently, Amitav Ghosh has mixed these languages up so that it doesn’t terrify or confuse the reader.

Honestly, I am running out of words now. All I can say is that like me, if you haven’t read Sea of Poppies, then you are missing out on a masterpiece! So make sure you grab your copy.


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