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Sea of Poppies (2008)

by Amitav Ghosh

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Ibis Trilogy (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,8301423,977 (3.96)2 / 720
At the heart of this vibrant saga is an immense ship, the Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean, its purpose to fight China's vicious nineteenth-century Opium Wars. As for the crew, they are a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt Raja to a widowed tribeswoman, from a mulatto American freedman to a free-spirited French orphan. As their old family ties are washed away, they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, or ship brothers. An unlikely dynasty is born, which will span continents, races, and generations. The vast sweep of this historical adventure embraces the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the crowded backstreets of Canton. But it is the panorama of characters, whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself, that makes Sea of Poppies so breathtakingly alive - a masterpiece from one of the world's finest novelists. "Such is the power of Ghosh's precise, understated prose that one occasionally wishes to turn the pages three at a time, eager to find out where Ghosh's tale is headed." - The Boston Globe… (more)
Recently added byArina8888, nickrowe, TheHarrys
  1. 80
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (booklove2)
    booklove2: Very similar in writing style and general events.
  2. 50
    Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (BookshelfMonstrosity)
  3. 30
    The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh (Booksloth)
  4. 20
    The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (suniru)
  5. 10
    The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh (gennyt)
  6. 00
    Golden Hill by Francis Spufford (wandering_star)
  7. 00
    Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (jigarpatel)
    jigarpatel: Appreciated by the Booker prize, Sacred Hunger (1992 winner) and Sea of Poppies (2008 finalist) are powerful and well-researched indictments of British imperial trade interests. They explore slave and opium trade routes respectively, combining adventure with multi-threaded plots and sensitive characterisation.… (more)
  8. 00
    Barkskins by Annie Proulx (JoEnglish)
  9. 00
    Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter (Limelite)
    Limelite: A panorama of representative characters sail on ocean voyages in allegorical novels set on the eve of great historical events.
  10. 00
    River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh (sturlington)
    sturlington: The sequel to Sea of Poppies.
  11. 00
    The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye (mcenroeucsb)
  12. 00
    Raj by Gita Mehta (mcenroeucsb)
  13. 00
    Ten Cities That Made an Empire by Tristram Hunt (wandering_star)
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» See also 720 mentions

English (129)  Italian (5)  Spanish (2)  Norwegian (2)  Catalan (2)  Vietnamese (1)  French (1)  All languages (142)
Showing 1-5 of 129 (next | show all)
A historical novel set in 1838, with the East India Company's lucrative opium trade stalled because of the frivolous objections of the Chinese government to the import of large quantities of addictive drugs. There are rumours that Lord Palmerston may be contemplating firm action to teach them the value of Free Trade, but that's for the later parts of the trilogy.

In this first part, Ghosh sets himself the task of getting a bunch of very diverse characters on to the schooner Ibis, sailing from Calcutta to Mauritius with a cargo of indentured labourers ("coolies", or girmitiyas). But he has a lot of scene-setting to do, and social and historical background to fill in, and after all it is a trilogy, so there's plenty of time, and the ship doesn't sail until about three-quarters of the way into the book anyway.

The book picks up a lot of the typical themes of 19th century adventure stories: disguises, rescues, accidents, orphans fending for themselves, people passing as other races or genders, cruel tyrants, pirates, prisons, shipboard floggings, and all the rest of it. There's even a widow rescued from her husband's funeral pyre in the nick of time, although sadly Ghosh forgets that you're supposed to do this from a hot-air balloon... But this isn't a pastiche of Kipling or Jules Verne: there's a hard modern edge to the threats that the characters face, and you know that it isn't necessarily all going to turn out right in the end. And, perhaps more to the point, there's a sharp postcolonial view of life that questions what it sees and doesn't allow the reader to slip automatically into identifying with the European characters.

Ghosh is evidently deeply in love with the languages of the period, from the bizarre Indianised English of the British (what would later be called Hobson-Jobson) and the peculiarities of nautical English and the very specific shipboard pidgin used to communicate between European officers and their multiracial "lascar" crew members. Not to mention Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri, etc. His exploration of odd words and their origins is perhaps a distraction from the unfolding of the story, but it is a great part of the enjoyment of reading the book.

The only place where he strikes a slightly wrong note linguistically is in the character Paulette, whom he makes to speak an implausible Hercule Poirot sort of Franglais, to remind us how different she is in her background from the British around her. But she's also a clever teenage girl, who has grown up bilingual in Bengali and French, in a city where (Indian) English was being spoken all around her, and has lived in a British family for a year when we first meet her. Young people accommodate to the language around them very fast: there's no way she would still be saying "attend" for "wait" and "regard" for "look", entertaining though that is to read. She'd be much more likely to have picked up "have a dekko..." ( )
2 vote thorold | Jan 11, 2022 |
Multilingual adventure set around the time of the Opium Wars. Reminiscent of P. O'Brien books but told through the Indian setting and mainly via Indian characters. A little pat by the end but I was glad that the characters I liked so much didn't perish. ( )
1 vote Je9 | Aug 10, 2021 |
I need to learn that "epic" means I'm probably going to get tired of it.

Reminds me of The Thorn Birds using the stories of individuals to give a history lesson.
1 vote KittyCunningham | Jul 5, 2021 |
"Sea of Poppies" was an exciting page-turner with an incredible cast of charming idiosyncratic characters.

I picked this book up because it was listed as an example of Modern Indian Literature written in English, and I expected it to be as difficult as all the Modern American Literature I've encountered. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. The details and circumstances of a few small parts of India in the 1830's aren't presented didactically, but vividly and effortlessly through the perspective of the book's characters.

I typically like to note any really unusual words that I run into in a book and look them up in a dictionary so I'm sure of their definitions, but I'm not going to do that for "Sea of Poppies". This book had a lot of words that were misspelled phonetically to convey an accent, a great many Indian words that were spelled phonetically in English, and an a great deal of early 1800's maritime slang. The book included a very helpful glossary at the back, but even without that it was very easy to follow the story and to get a general impression of what words meant through context. As a part of the story (and often a source of humor) many of the characters misunderstand one another, resulting in rephrasing and clarification that makes the words understandable. In some cases the lack of a clear definition for a word actually becomes an important part of the story.

Here are the words that I had an easy definition on hand for:
hanjes (haunches), younker (young man), pawk (fool), lasking (sailing), meprise (mistake), inhere (invest), maggering (talk), giglet (woman), forelift (robber), timmyknocky (robbed), cognomen (nickname), alkhalla (voluminous unisex robe), charpoy (mattress), gaidis (criminals), butcha (child), elision (lack), shroffing (accounting?), badmashee (sex), puckrow (sex), chuckeroo (young man), cuzzanah (money), langoot (diaper), classy (sailor), dawk (shit), bandobast (business), careened (as a nautical term), kajal (make up), monticule (hill), morceau (morsel), chamar (caste), mussahar (caste), uncroyable (incredible?), chuckeroo (boy), evenment (event), bundo (charm), exage (exxagerate), caranchie (carriage), kewra (tree), tawa (griddle), atta (dough), aluposth (potatoes cooked in poppyseed paste), jahaj (a vision?), beti (word of affection for daughter), roti (flatbread), tukas and tihais (dances), sirdraos (clothing), gup (talk), jin (understand), bunt (a fungal crop disease of wheat), capstan (a windlass rotated in a horizontal plane around a vertical axis; used on ships for weighing anchor or raising heavy sails), saccade (a rapid, jerky movement of the eyes between positions of rest; an abrupt spasmodic movement), jaggery (unrefined brown sugar made from palm sap), bight (the middle part of a slack rope (as distinguished from its ends); a broad bay formed by an indentation in the shoreline; a bend or curve (especially in a coastline); a loop in a rope; verbfasten with a bight), equinoctial (relating to an equinox (when the lengths or night and day are equal); relating to the vicinity of the equator; noun the great circle on the celestial sphere midway between the celestial poles), estuary (the wide part of a river where it nears the sea; fresh and salt water mix), epiphytic (of or related to epiphytes, a plant that grows harmlessly upon another plant), phaeton (large open carriage or car seating four with folding top), ambit (an area in which something acts or operates or has power or control), punkah (a large fan consisting of a frame covered with canvas that is suspended from the ceiling; used in India for circulating air in a room), moot (verb, think about carefully; weigh), purdah (a screen used in India to separate women from men or strangers; the traditional Hindu or Muslim system of keeping women secluded; a state of social isolation), acreocracy (rule by land owners), chokey (prison), binnacle (non-magnetic housing for a ship's compass), solecism (a socially awkward or tactless act), ghat (stairway in India leading down to a landing on the water), dacoity (robbery by a gang of armed dacoits), arrack (any of various strong liquors distilled from the fermented sap of toddy palms or from fermented molasses), garret (floor consisting of open space at the top of a house just below roof; often used for storage), lota (burbot; a globular water bottle used in Asia), munificence (liberality in bestowing gifts; extremely liberal and generous of spirit), obduracy (resoluteness by virtue of being unyielding and inflexible), dhoti (a long loincloth worn by Hindu men), bumboat (a small boat that ferries supplies and commodities for sale to a larger ship at anchor), barque ( a sailing ship with 3 (or more) masts), lascar (a volcano in the Andes in Chile; an East Indian sailor), cuddy (the galley or pantry of a small ship), dal ( a metric unit of volume or capacity equal to 10 liters), arak (any of various strong liquors distilled from the fermented sap of toddy palms or from fermented molasses), sahib (formerly a term of respect for important white Europeans in colonial India; used after the name), lobscouse ( a stew of meat and vegetables and hardtack that is eaten by sailors), kedgeree ( a dish of rice and hard-boiled eggs and cooked flaked fish), luff (the act of sailing close to the wind), etiolated ((especially of plants) developed without chlorophyll by being deprived of light), nautch (an intricate traditional dance in India performed by professional dancing girls), carboy (a large bottle for holding corrosive liquids; usually cushioned in a special container), nainsook (a soft lightweight muslin used especially for babies), sampan (an Asian skiff usually propelled by two oars), lateen ( rigged with a triangular (lateen) sail; noun a triangular fore-and-aft sail used especially in the Mediterranean), godown (a warehouse in the East), tael (a unit of weight used in east Asia approximately equal to 1.3 ounces), nabob (a wealthy man (especially one who made his fortune in the Orient); a governor in India during the Mogul empire), farrago (a motley assortment of things), pucka ( absolutely first class and genuine)

And here are the ones I haven't pulled up a definition for:
isabgol, gordower, choola, halwai, jalebi, jamna, balties, kampung, knockingshop, joskin, sawais, afsar, mirch, balty, blores, bhandari, pintle, kalpas, yugas, lown, ballyragging, blashy, becketed, , tilak, haldi, kohbar, sharab, maza, couing, paratha, tamasha, bojha, pansari, batelo, macareos, kursi, admonitory, pipas, bimbas, tirkaoing, hamar, zanjir, hansil-holes, caramoussals, perikoes, linkisters, shebeens, dhansak, tapori, gollation, azun, machwa, gudge, jugboolaks, zambooras, istingis, rup-yan, seetulpatty, batti, martabans, bunyuk, shokes, cabob, nautcheries, bouleversed, nippering, odure, infructuous, maistries, kubber, chull, daftar, puri, haru, , dekho, kotwal, , sniplouse, paan, mallemarking, hookum, coir, thakur, heeng, kalonji, mela, puja, bhauji, luchha, pykari, kanker, dhobi, chikan, dooputty, titler, jumma, bobotie, muttongosht, Burdum, foogath, solecism, jildee, paltan, birnjaul, gantas, jooties, foozlowing, fuleeta, bhetki, bobachees, munshi, durwaun, khidmutgars, charpoys, tikki, dekho, gawpus, chouteries, ghera, leela, almirah, alkhalla, silahdars, darogas, dacoity, zenana, addlings, doasta, gamahoochie, duffador, girmit, tiffins, xeraphim, puisne, kameeze, achar, puja, sepoy, ghungta, nukha, puja, pateli bange, rudraksha beads, sindoor, ablewhackets, resum, malum, serang, seacunny, darzee, kussab, topas, balwar, paletot, sahib, dumbcow, marrons, dandyfunk, chokedog, karibat, skillygale, caffle, badmash, budzat, fogle, bowlas, halalcore, kubber, lagow, lattee, bysmelas, borakpoke, lollshrub, nalki, dai, ojha, zemindar, jillmilled, sheeshmahal, dupattas, kanchani, choli, tumashers, paltan, khidmutgars, clemijohn, simkin, rankin, mems, buncus, loocher, pootlies, cumra, puckrow, dashy, bandar, samjaoing, clodpill, jildee, gubbow, zubben, chee-chee/lip-lap/mustee/sinjo, challo, luckerbaug, ho-ga, chawbuck, malum, seddity, flumadiddle, pishaches, langot, dargah, almadias, baulias, woolocks, buggalows, bulkats, bankshalls, kothi, chabutra, bara, khichri, duffadar, girmitiyas, hurremzed, chota, launderbuzz, shroff, puckrow, tuncaw, dufter, chabea, dacoits, kippage, jadoo, tihai, thumris, hoga, bania, dasturi, gomusta, burkundazes, ghara, muharir, serishtas, carcoon, malis, ghaskatas, gamchha, calputtee, caique, chalta, silmagoors, calaluzes, proas, pattimers, pulwars, azan, calamander, balty, shanbeff, jooties, zenana, piyada, paik, hoga, gudda, chuntocks, linkister, girmitiya, desturee, chuntock, guddee, bichawnadars, farrashes, matranees ( )
  wishanem | May 27, 2021 |
This is a well-written and paced historical novel with many threads that tie the parts of the story together. This is not only ambitious but also heartbreaking and thrilling to read. I look forward to teading the rest of Ghosh's trilogy. ( )
  DrFuriosa | Dec 4, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 129 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (12 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Amitav Ghoshprimary authorall editionscalculated
Gobetti, NormanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nadotti, AnnaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Risvik, KjellTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny, for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast?
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At the heart of this vibrant saga is an immense ship, the Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean, its purpose to fight China's vicious nineteenth-century Opium Wars. As for the crew, they are a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt Raja to a widowed tribeswoman, from a mulatto American freedman to a free-spirited French orphan. As their old family ties are washed away, they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, or ship brothers. An unlikely dynasty is born, which will span continents, races, and generations. The vast sweep of this historical adventure embraces the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the crowded backstreets of Canton. But it is the panorama of characters, whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself, that makes Sea of Poppies so breathtakingly alive - a masterpiece from one of the world's finest novelists. "Such is the power of Ghosh's precise, understated prose that one occasionally wishes to turn the pages three at a time, eager to find out where Ghosh's tale is headed." - The Boston Globe

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Book description
Haiku summary
Raja et coolies
Se retrouvent tous sur l'Ibis
Cap sur l'Ile Maurice
(Tiercelin)

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