My review of ‘Sea of Poppies’ by Amitav Gosh

When Amitav Ghosh, a renowned Indian novelist, was writing his Ibis trilogy, he would start his day with a pot of green tea whilst listening to a Cantonese tape. This was how far the author was willing to go in preparation for his epic novels. His effort has been handsomely rewarded.
Sea of Poppies, the first of his ambitious trilogy, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and won Vodafone Crossword Book Award for fiction in the same year, the year when the book was first published.
Set in 1838, just before the outbreak of the first Opium War, the novel is centered on the turbulent voyage of Ibis as it sailed down the Hooghly and then into the Indian Ocean, transporting indentured servants from India, known as coolies, to the British plantations in Mauritius. Fate throws a cast as diverse as the British Empire itself onto the schooner and changes their lives forever. As the crew and passengers assemble, we are introduced to a large number of
characters: Deeti, a devout woman from a village on the bank of Ganges; Zachary Reid, an American sailor, the golden boy on deck with a hidden past; Neel, a bankrupt Raja, wrongly sentenced to hard labour; and Paulette, a free-spirited daughter of a French botanist, who passes as a coolie and speaks Bengali like a native. Each brings their own stories, laced with joy and sorrow. There is even a Cantonese opium addict Ah Fatt, who has this incredible ability to catch flies with his bare fingers. I am sure Ghosh’s hours spent listening to Cantonese tapes added the authenticity of Ah Fatt’s pigeon English. The majority on board are the poor Indian farmers from the opium-growing regions who are fleeing poverty, famine, or taking their chance for a better future elsewhere or are obliged by tragic personal circumstance as in the case of Deeti.
When her crippled husband, a worker at the local opium factory, passes away, she is forced to immolate herself, as in the convention. Luckily, a man named Kalua, from an untouchable cast, comes to her rescue. They become lovers and run away together.
There’s plenty of dark content:the backward traditions, desperate struggle of opium addicts, shocking injustice, and the brutality of the imperial rule. Yet there’s also little kindness, human dignity, resilience and hope in the book. What really lightens things up is humour which is dotted throughout the book. At one point, when a banquet is in full swing, the guests suddenly hear some noises outside. Someone explains that the lady-in-waiting is just passing wind!
The vivid description, the beautiful prose and the plot all make this thick novel hard to put down. Ghosh is a master of story telling. Or as the Chinese would describe him as a writer who holds a ‘magic pen under which flowers blossom’. Flowers blossom everywhere among the Sea of Poppies. The description of the pale and thin Raja Neel goes like this: “in his limbs, too, there was a length and leanness that suggested the sinuosity of a shade-seeking plant.”
I’ve read a few of Ghosh’s historical novels, always meticulous researched with lavish attention to details. And I am deeply impressed by his ability to bring history alive by illuminating individuals’ fates. Broad in scope, the cast is usually very large. Yet he always finds a way to knit their stories together.
In Sea of Poppies, apart from the ship, opium is another item that ties all the characters together. One of the several themes being explored in the book is the complex moral question of opium trade. The Opium War was one of the most significant, if humiliating events in modern Chinese history as it considerably weakened the Qing government and reduced China’s isolation in the world. The Chinese readers should be very interested in learning more about the other side of opium trade.
I have to say that it is not the easiest book to read. ( for those reading in English) The language is often intense and there are many Indian terms and pigeon English which I found a little difficult to follow, particularly in the beginning. But this doesn’t pose as a challenge to the Chinese readers. I am very curious how such terms will be translated into Chinese, while retaining their original flavour.
All in all, readers in China are in for a treat. Sea of Poppies will take them on a great trip, but luckily with none of the negative effects of opium.


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