Book Review – Sea of Poppies

It took me almost three months to finish this latest novel by Amitav Ghosh.

Not in the least because it was boring, but I had no more than ten minutes a day to read it.

Unlike another popular Booker famed book I started reading and abandoned midway, this is a book where you feel the presence of only the characters and not the author.

With no clever words or phrases to showcase the author’s command over the language or his sense of humor, the story does not lose pace even for a single paragraph. (I must admit that I had to run to the dictionary every once in a while!)

Though there are at least eight important characters in the book, Deeti is the hero of this book.

Deeti, a peasant woman in Bihar, single handedly toils in her poppy field, nurses a opium-addicted husband and brings up her child..

How she finds herself in The Ibis, sailing to Mareech (Mauritius) as a coolie with a new husband – an outcaste, leaving her daughter behind is half the story.

How the other characters – a Raja in exile, a Half Chinese/half Parsi ex-addict, a supposedly black second mate, a French woman born & brought up in Calcutta who is more Bengali than French, her foster brother who becomes a lascar, a Bengali goumasta  who fantasises that Ma Taramony – his aunt & love interest, but who was a Swamini is manifesting herself in him after death – all end up in the Ibis for various reasons is the other half.

The sense of injustice that begins with Deeti winds itself around all the other characters too. Those days, I suppose, it was all about submission of the weak to brute force.

Deeti, married to an opium addict, is fed the same opium on her wedding night, so her brother-in-law can rape her with the help of his mother and uncle.

Kalua who later becomes her husband is subjected to unspeakable atrocities by the upper class just for entertainment.

Neel, a much respected Zamindar is jailed and sent to exile so that the British can have his land.

Paulette, who becomes an orphan when her father dies, is forced to live with an English family in Calcutta. She breaks free when she’s forced to marry an old judge, who’s hard of hearing.

And the hierarchy in the ship bears the same injustice…

The Ibis provides a strong backdrop for the events to unfold once they’re all at sea.

Where hundreds of coolies are shut in a Dabusa in the lower levels of the ship and let out only during mealtimes.

Many die of either lack of will or disease.

A pregnancy, a wedding, a romance nipped in the bud, Deeti getting caught with the evil uncle – are all the events leading to the climax of the story.

The climax is the one that I feel didn’t gel with the rest of the story. It’s so much like a mythical story where the good conquer the evil in the end.

But then, it really doesn’t matter because, by then you’re so involved with the story, you breathe a sigh of relief that the good people’s sufferings come to an end.

Amitav Ghosh has done extensive research and it shows.

The way he’s crafted the lives of the characters with all the wefts and wafts so that they all serve a common purpose in the end is fabulous.

I specially enjoyed the language spoken throughout the book.

From the colloquial Bhojpuri and Bengali to the very different English spoken by those on board and the English the memsahibs spoke with a liberal dose of Hindi & Bengali – all of them offered us a glimpse of life back then…

To put it in a nutshell, this book is a fabulous read by a master story teller.

And since this is the first of a triology, I eagerly await the next book.


  1. September 18, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    I’ve read ‘The Hungry Tide’ by the same author, but wasn’t mighty impressed with the storyline. His articulation was exceptional though. I haven’t read any of Amitav Ghosh’s since. But this one seems interesting. And the first of a trilogy? mmm….will take me a while, given the sloth machine that I am!

    I read the Hungry Tide too. I’m yet to read Calcutta Chromosome which I hear is far superior…

  2. maami said,

    September 18, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    This is a fantastic book and I loved it as it transported me to a different world.

    Yes. Me too

  3. Lakshmi said,

    September 21, 2008 at 1:14 am

    I’ve read “The Glass Palace” of Ghosh -set in Burma and India in the british times. I got through the book, and won’t probably forget it, but can’t really say I enjoyed it. I met a Burmese photographer soon after and was happy to be able to talk to him and his wife about Burmese custom.

    🙂 yes, I read them too… But I heard Calcutta chromosomes is his best. I shall update you whenever I get a copy & finish that!

  4. davematt said,

    September 22, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    Hi Padma,

    Nice write up. I must admit that I am a little unnerved about the number of characters you have listed out, and I am sure there are more.

    I was tempted to pick up the book at several times but my experience with Hungry Tide prevented me.


    🙂 Yes, there more characters. I guess you’re still too young to read the book!!!

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