This book is the first of a trilogy (the “Ibis” trilogy, apparently) by Amitav Ghosh and was a Booker nominee.
I had read Ghosh’s The Glass Palace and was deeply impressed with his writing style and his imagery.
Perhaps it is a good thing that I had no prior inkling what “Sea of Poppies” was about. It heightened the enjoyment for me as the story unfolded itself as I read it.
Once again, I could not but marvel at Ghosh’s inimitable penchant for words, stringing them together into sentences of Dickensian lengths. Here is one example that I particularly liked:
“The long-planned for rituals of departure were forgotten in the confusion, but strangely, this great outburst of activity became itself a kind of worship, not so much intended to achieve an end–their bundles and bojhas were so small and so many times packed and unpacked that there was not much to be done to them–but rather as an expression of awe, of the kind that might greet a divine revelation: for when a moment arrives that is so much feared and so long awaited, it perforates the veil of everyday expectation in such a way as to reveal the prodigious darkness of the unknown“.
The italics are my own, as I just love the way that this sequence of words so succinctly captures the dread that the protagonists feel at this point.
I often wonder how long it takes writers to come up with just one such sentence. Do they just drip off the writer’s pen? Or does it take blood, sweat, toil and tears, and reams and reams of crossed-out pages (or deleted computer drafts)?
How did he think up the plot? Does he already have an ending to the trilogy worked out? Or will he make it up as he writes? Will (gasp, horror) Deeti and Kahlua remain separated, or will there be a happy reunion? Or maybe not such a happy one? What about Pagli and Malum Zikri? Or Jodu and Munia? Who knows? (Well, Ghosh, hopefully) Who cares? (I most certainly do).
Coming to the plot: The story is set in India just as the First Opium War is about to break out. The book is extremely well-researched. (Which leads to the chicken-and-egg question: What inspired what? Did the writing of the book stimulate the research? Or did the body of research provide fertile ground for the setting of the book, and eventually, trilogy?). The book opens with Deeti, a humble village girl and peasant. She is the unifying feature in the tale, and one gets inexorably drawn into her life as it twists and turns its way through the book. I risk spoiling it for you if I reveal too many of the other characters, but suffice it to say that this is also a nautical tale, a book about a ship, the Ibis, and the characters on and in it (Zachary Reid or Malum Zikri, Serang Ali, Bhyro Singh, James Doughty) are brought to life under Ghosh’s skillful pen, with the same consummate ease as those in RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island. I am convinced that this book will join the ranks of such classics.
This is a book about caste and class, about migration, indentured workers, about gross injustice and atrocity committed under the guise of colonial self-righteousness, piety and condescension. It is about what is essentially slavery in all but name. And in the midst of all of this, it is a book about humanity and the indomitable human spirit.
I did not find it an easy read. And this is said not as a criticism, but rather quite the opposite. I would still rate Glass Palace higher, but Sea of Poppies is a must-read.
I must admit that I was not aware about the fact that this is part of a trilogy, so when I got to the end of the book, I was bemused, as there were so many loose ends still to be tied up. I eagerly await the next book. I absolutely HAVE to know what happens to all of them now; they have become so familiar that they seem like old acquaintances.
This is what good writers are able to do. Tell a good story, and leave you aching for more.