Sea of Poppies (Ibis Trilogy #1)

by Amitav Ghosh

4.5 stars actually.

Sea of Poppies reads to me like classic literature, like reading Moby Dick or Dickens. Only this is decidedly more visceral and takes place in the multilingual/multicultural stewpot of languages and races in colonial India of the 1830’s.

The story follows a disparate cast of characters at first: a Raja, a mulatto mate on the ship Ibis, a lower caste rural town wife, and a French orphan who is more native than European, amongst others. In a category all by himself is Nob Kissin Pander, the character who provides a kind of deus ex machina that changes the fates of all the characters when they meet together on a voyage to the Mauritius islands on the Ibis itself.

The prose is a wonderment, a linguistic buffet of pidgins and words and phrases, a third of which I completely guessed the meaning of. It is so replete with slang of that time and place, that reading this was like learning another language. About halfway through the book things finally clicked into place and I was able to read for storyline, but it was a slow-paced slogging up until then.

This book will not be for everyone. But for linguists and historians, it’s a treasure trove.

check out this exchange between the French orphan and her memsahib guardian:

“It seems like I’ve been waiting an age. I though for sure you were off to bake a brinjaul.”
“Oh, but Madame!” protested Paulette. It is not the bonne hour.”
“No, dear,” Mrs. Burnham agreed. “it would never do to be warming the coorsy when there’s kubber like this to be heard.”

So we can guess that “bake a brinjaul” means something like “busy with errands?” and “bonne hour” is french but I am not sure what “good hour” has to do with doing errands? And then “warming the coorsy” and “kubber” is definitely gossip…but it’s mostly guesswork.

And one confusing, but incredibly detailed/historically excellent thing the author does is have East Indian characters use words like quaidi (convict, I think) and then have the British overseers use the same word but spelled differently such that you can see the twisting and sneering way in which the words are used (quoddy) etc. It’s very cool, but takes an agile mind to keep up with.

But what got me in the end about this book, is once I turned the last page, I realized how the almost callous treatment of the fates of the characters (bad things happen apace) was the very thing that showed the value of humanity in all its guises and states. 1830 society is unfair and caste and colonialism make sure plenty of white men have almost unlimited power over others. But in the midst of this stew of the poorer sides of humanity, there is also an undeniable vitality that is conveyed in the pages of this book.

It’s not a story soon forgotten.