Monday, November 10, 2008

Sea of Poppies

Amitav Ghosh's latest book "the Sea of Poppies" was nominated for the
Booker Prize and is getting rave reviews from the press.

"At its heart, Amitav Ghosh's epic novel, Sea of Poppies, is a book
about seeking freedom and renewal in breathtaking, daring ways.

Written in a polyglot language of 19th-century sailors — where Hindi
and English mixed freely — the novel tells the stories of a disparate
group of seafarers aboard a former slave ship that has been
retrofitted for the opium trade and its human cargo," says NPR.

The New York Times review says--

"At the start of "Sea of Poppies," Amitav Ghosh presents two indelible
visions: a tall-masted ship 400 miles from the Indian coast and a
voluptuous agricultural crop, a profusion of flowers capable of
warping the world. The crop, the livelihood of a woman named Deeti and
her neighbors, is opium poppies. The ship is named the Ibis, and at
first it seems a pipe dream, a figment of Deeti's imagination. But
during the course of this novel, the first installment in his
projected Ibis trilogy, Mr. Ghosh turns the ship into something
robustly, bawdily and indelibly real.

Deeti's family is one of many that supply produce to a British-run
opium factory in Ghazipur in colonial India. It is 1838, a pivotal
year in the annals of the opium trade, when Mr. Ghosh's story so
vividly begins. Poppy farming is considered a perfectly legitimate
line of agricultural work, especially by the businessmen who find it
so profitable. And the Ibis, which will become a rowdy and imposing
vessel as this novel gets under way, transports both drugs and
outcasts to far-flung corners of the world.

Originally a slave ship making raids in West Africa, the Ibis is not a
prized vessel. Even in a new, improved incarnation, it is "a
hell-afloat with pinch-gut pay," in the words of a crew member named
Zachary Reid, a freed slave's son from Baltimore. Yet this ship
becomes home to Mr. Ghosh's sparkling array of eccentrics, blowhards,
runaway lovers and people seeking new leases on life. One of its most
memorable passengers is a raja, seen at the height of power and
privilege as the book begins. Later, humiliated and exiled, he sails
aboard the Ibis past the fief he once ruled.

And although none of these people know it, their ship appears to be
headed toward the fight that will be central to Mr. Ghosh's extended
story: the Opium Wars, waged between Britain and China over the
British East India Company's monopolistic drug trade. "Sea of Poppies"
is pointed toward that conflict, in a series perhaps headed for the
thick of the fray. This opening book concentrates affectionately on
its oddly matched characters, explaining who is aboard the Ibis and
the curious, roundabout way in which each has wound up adrift in this

The tale told engagingly by "Sea of Poppies" is hardly a
straightforward one. Beyond the clever circuitousness of Mr. Ghosh's
narrative there is also a language barrier to be surmounted. "Sea of
Poppies" is written in thick, polyglot jargon that is made more or
less self-explanatory by its context but still gives the book a
mischievous linguistic fascination. For instance: "Wasn't a man in
town who could put on a burra-khana like he did. Sheeshmull blazing
with shammers and candles. Paltans of bearers and khidmutgars.
Demijohns of French loll-shrub and carboys of iced simkin. And the
karibat!" Many such passages also have a cryptically obscene ring.

"Sea of Poppies" comes equipped with a lexicon of sorts, an addendum
that Mr. Ghosh calls "The Ibis Chrestomathy." If you need to pause to
contemplate what chrestomathy means (one dictionary definition: "a
selection of literary selections, especially in a foreign language, as
an aid to learning"), it won't be the only time "Sea of Poppies" slows
you down. Mr. Ghosh uses this lexicon to provide elaborate
amplifications of his favorite (though by no means all of the book's)
turns of phrase and to connect those words with the characters who use

Listen to the NPR story at--

Read the NYT review at--

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