The Book Group on Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies

The Group’s December meeting picked Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light for the next title, but word of that decision didn’t go out until a week before the February meeting, so those who, like me, had missed December had no chance of reading it. Instead, in February we each brought along a selection of our summer reading and had fun comparing and contrasting, recommending and lending. Those who had read or partly read the Moorhouse were having second thoughts, someone had an alternative in his briefcase, and the coup was complete.

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (John Murray 2008)

Before the meeting: While waiting for my library copy I asked another Grouper how he was enjoying the book. ‘A lot,’ he said, ‘and I’ve stopped looking up the meanings of words.’ That remark is a lot funnier than you might think. There could be very few readers of this book who wouldn’t stop looking up unfamiliar words – unless you’re extraordinarily knowledgeable, you either ride the language like unruly surf or give up the book altogether.

It’s a wonderful book. I came across a tweet that said it well:Brian Minter: Just finished 'Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh - super good. Serious Literature + Adventure Story + Dickensian Saga.It’s the first instalment in a trilogy, of which the second – River of Smoke – was published last year. Set mainly in northern India, with the impending English-Chinese Opium War and the English outlawing of slavery as backdrop, it’s a riproaring adventure–romance with an extraordinarily diverse cast of characters: a peasant wife forced into dependency on the East India Company, a young Frenchwoman adopted by a wealthy English family after the death of her enlightened parents, a young Indian man who makes a living as a boatman on the Ganga and yearns to be a sailor on the open sea, a Hindu mystic who believes himself to be possessed by the spirit of his deceased female guru, a freeborn Black American sailor who passes for white, a rajah whose life is ruled by ceremony but who finds himself suddenly and humiliatingly deprived of his status, a ship’s crew of lascars. As the book progresses we realise that the disparate paths of all these characters are converging – from desire, necessity, ambition or coercion, they are all to board a former slave ship, the Ibis, which is to take a cargo of indentured workers to Mauritius. The first half is like a pool above a waterfall: it takes a while, but you realise that all the narratives are moving inexorably towards the same point, and they’re picking up speed. When the ship sails you can almost hear the roar of the falls in the trilingual prayers of those on board, and then there’s another hundred pages of churning and roiling, and just as you think perhaps it will all settle down (with a shipboard wedding here, a comic-mystic revelation there) we’re plunged into a new tumult – not so much a cliff-hanger as an over-a-new-cliff ending.

All that is marvellous, but it’s the language(s) that make the book sing: not just the sometimes familiar bits of Indian English like the dhoti, kameez and puja that occur on the first page, but the lascar lingo and the garbled slang of the English in India, the French- or Bengali-inflected dialogue of particular individuals, the technical terms of the opium and sailing trades, the traditional languages of Islamic, Hindu and Catholic prayer, botanical nomenclature … It’s a written equivalent of the spectacle that assails the senses in the streets of India. I’d love to quote lots, but will content myself with a scrap from an Englishman’s description of the hospitality of the Raja of Raskhali :

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-saug. 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 chuckmuck sight for you! Rows of cursies for the sahibs and mems to sit on. Sittringies and tuckiers for the natives. The baboos puffing at their hubble-bubbles and the sahibs lighting their Sumatra buncuses. Cunchunees whirling and the ticky-taw boys beating their tobblers. Oh, that old loocher knew how to put on a nautch all right!

That tobbler, recognisably a bastardisation of tabla, makes me think that the more linguistically adept you are the more you will enjoy this and the book’s many other passages like it.

I happened to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel while I was reading Sea of Poppies. It’s not by any means a vicious film, but in part it presents modern Rajasthan as a kind of decayed remnant of the splendours of the Raj. Well, it will be hard ever again to think of the Raj as splendid after reading the account here of the East India Company: you’d be closer to the mark with vicious, hypocritical, callous, smug, treacherous. Another word whose meaning has been permanently deepened for me is indentured. The viciousness that lies beneath that economistic sounding word has been laid permanently bare. (My great-grandfather had indentured labourers from the Pacific Islands (Kanakas) on his Queensland farm.)

After the meeting: Our host for the evening hadn’t had time to make an Indian meal, though we did start out with bhajis. Not everyone was as enthusiastic as I was. One guy said that although he learned a lot of history and enjoyed the ripping yarn, he wasn’t swept away by the language. But we had all clearly read the same book, which isn’t always the case.

9 responses to “The Book Group on Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies

  1. You state much better than I exactly why I loved both of GHOSH’s books – the tale and the language – and the humanity of all the characters!


  2. Henry and Jim – a couple of older brothers of my paternal great great grand-father – plied the waters of these two books between 1799/1800 and 1820 – Calcutta to Macau/Canton – out of Sydney Town. Perhaps it was getting some kind of handle on the cultural diversity of those days those parts of south-south-eastern Asia that pulled me in.
    My namesake Jim (1793-1809) was murdered by pirates on the north-west tip of Java – his father’s rep. aboard the brig the “Fly”. News of his demise did not reach his family in Sydney until a ship with a Calcutta newspaper report arrived in early 1811.
    In the early to mid-19th century there was a trader Zeniya Gohei – out of the port of Kanazawa on the Sea of Japan (inner “elbow” of Honshu) – of whom it is said that he had ownership of some land in northern Tasmania, purchased for him by some of the Australian whalers to whom he illegally supplied with water/fresh vegetables. He was executed in 1852 aged 79 over some failed business plan. I have pondered such contact and stories (in the latter days of Japan’s seclusion – which came to end with the US PERRY in early 1854) and possibilities that Gohei’s illegal paths may well have crossed those of my own family.
    Ghosh allows the mind to roam more freely over such things – real life being often more surprising than fiction.
    On other matters – Checking something on Gleebooks (which was how I came across your site) I found all the details concerning the launch of “Compassionate Bastard” – speech/interviews from the author plus the launch by Ian Macphee. I once handed Ian MacP a cup of coffee at a TESOL conference in Sydney – but beyond such meagre proximity admired him – and now, yet again, all the more. I was largely absent from Australia during the 1990s till about three years ago. Much horror/outrage at my sense of Australianness being dirtied/sullied by the Howard/Ruddock et al years – and the dreadful treatment of our fellow human beings doing their level best/UN sanctioned level best – to escape dire situations in their own lands and seek sanctuary here! Thank you for making accessible information on Peter Mitchell.


  3. I wish I’d read this book when it came out … I love the cover but that’s not the reason! I recently read the second in the trilogy, The river of smoke, which I enjoyed immensely, It starts in Mauritius but moves pretty quickly to China, and deals with the opium trade and the British traders’ determination to keep trading opium against the will of the Chinese emperor. Free trade and all that doncha know!

    Love your reference to the delightful Marigold Hotel. Point nicely made.


    • WG: I’ve just read your review of River of Smoke. It sounds like more of the same, and I mean that in a very good way. As far as I can tell, you could read the books out of order and not be any the worse for it.

      There’s an interview with Amitav Ghosh in the current Asia Literary Review, where he says of River of Smoke, ‘I wouldn’t say that the book came out of my response to the Iraq war but I would say I was writing it at a time when the parallels were so obvious and so relevant – even the language – that you couldn’t escape it.’


      • Thanks Jonathan … I had heard that they could be read as standalone, which is why I decided to go ahead and read it.

        That make sense re the Iraq war. As I read it I was thinking about the British determination to protect freedom of trade 200 or so years ago, and America’s focus on freedom now. Freedom on its own is not necessarily the most important value, particularly when it’s attended by a focus on self to the detriment of the selves of others.


  4. Pingback: Book Review: The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh | media laundry- @Dhobitalao

  5. Pingback: The Book Group goes up Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke | Me fail? I fly!

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