4/5 Stars GoodReads Rating System
Amitav Ghosh, to my shame was a name that I knew only as the receiver of the ‘Padma Shri’ the 4th highest civilian Honor in India. Despite the shower of awards and recognition bestowed upon his famous works, specially in my beloved genre of Historical Fiction, I had not read any of his books before this. THAT, I assure you is surely gonna change because I have never seen Justice done to history as intricately as in “Sea of Poppies”.
This saga, being the first of three, initially tests your patience, you have to give it time which is not the easiest thing to do in a book spanning close to 500 pages. It introduces you to a host of characters in 1838 India, when the British gluttony for the opium profits knew no bounds, and in Bihar and Bengal where once the farms were green with rice or gold with wheat, there now resided a Sea of poppies. And thus our band of misfits consist of a village woman victim to such harvest in every sense possible, a mulatto American freedman who by a chance of fate finds himself among Gentleman of the empire, A raja reduced to nothing, a french orphan with an Indian heart, a Young boatman with dreams of the sea, an eccentric ‘munshi’, a half Chinese half Parsi opium addict and others as diverse and interesting as the era itself. The character building in this novel is phenomenal, Mr. Ghosh takes his time with each and every single one, shaping it page by page, this sometimes feel a bit cumbersome as you restlessly wait for the journey to begin aboard the ship, as you know it will. But no, he makes you pay attention, to invest in the characters before they do anything of note. This book sets the board for the coming story and thus as I have said earlier demands a bit of patience. But the wait is ultimately rewarding. Mr.Ghosh’s attention to detail is commendable, his research I believe would have been quite extensive and it shows in the book. The language used by many of the characters is a mix of Hindustani and English, With each character having their own style and way with words, from the Irish laced sailor slang of the first mate to the Bhojpuri of ‘Deeti’, the village woman, though being an Indian I had considerably less trouble following what was being said but to a foreign audience that style of writing might take some getting used to, though the author has I believe tried to ease this issue by cleverly including “THE IBIS CHRESTOMATHY” at the end of the book , providing a glossary of words used in the tale, their meaning and origins. But even so, it could sometimes hamper the reading experience, but the thing to appreciate even in this, is the writer’s total dedication to the authenticity of the era , and the characters. This I believe adds an extra quirk to the story and takes nothing away.
The only issue that bothered me was the abrupt end of the book, after my initial “What the..” reaction, some restless moments were spent feverishly searching my kindle and laptop making sure that I have the next installment ready for consumption, much like an “afeemkhor” (opium addict) I imagine, confirming I have the means for the next fix. As I have read this in 2017 and all the three books are out, this again was not much trouble, but to a reader in 2008, the exasperation level would have been quite high. So, yes, that cliffhanger ending was a bit uncalled for, nothing was resolved, nothing was even close to closure. But it is what it is.
The book overall is splendidly written, the hypocrisy of the raj has been portrayed as is. No watering down, the narrative from a third man’s perspective as we experience through ‘Zachariah’, our mulatto freedman, adds substantial clarity and effect to the story. It is a great historical fiction in all aspects, checking every box essential for an epic tale and series. I will be moving on to the next one immediately, out of compulsion, curiosity or admiration I cannot say, maybe all three and why not, as William Styron aptly said “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading”. This book fits that description to a T.