Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

I am a fan of Indian writing in English and have read most of the commercially successful work publsihed in the last ten/fifteen years. There are some very good writers in this trade namely Rushdie, Vikram Seth, etc. but in my view Amitav Ghosh is the master of this fast growing community. Those who have meandered with him on the Irawaddy in the Hungry Tide or traveled from the forests of Burma to the western ghats of India in the Glass Palace will often share the view that his writings have a certain unputdownable quality in them. But the manner in which a he has told the story in his latest historical and literary fictional work the “Sea of Poppies” has taken his craft to a new level altogether. Very rarely does it happen to me that I do not want a novel to end due to the void that finishing it will cause. All through the reading I was mildly concerned that once I finish the book I will miss the characters and the story. That was the extent to which the writing made me engage with the story, the characters and the settings. Almost as if it was part of me. The statement “Getting lost in the story” characterized what I went through, I think.
However, Sea of Poppies is not just about the story, the age in which the book has been set and the granularity with which the historical aspects of that time have been crafted have an equal if not greater role in making it a compelling read.

Set in the early nineteenth century Bihar and Bengal, Ghosh brings alive the implications of the forced cultivation of Opium as a cash crop in the region and its implications on the lives of every one around it. The other important part of history that the book reflects on is the movement of Bihari indentured workers (girmitiyas) to work in British islands like Mauritius and the West Indies. The latter subject has been a great source of curiosity for me and names like Ramnares Sarwan, Chandrapaul and Ramagoolam have fed that curiosity over the years. The treatment of this era, the lingo that was used, the culture, the rites, rituals, fears, hopes, events and happenings have been expressed in a manner that you get the feeling that Ghosh has actually traveled in a time machine and been able to observe the people from a vantage position. This treatment of the time and age coupled with fascinating events that unfold create a truly magnificent read.

I am glad that this is the first of a triology and am very eagerly waiting for the next one to come out. Just to make sure that I do not feel the void for too long, I have immediately started reading one of Ghosh’s much earlier novels, “The Shadow Lines”. Reading this one is making it clear to me how much Amitav Ghosh has evolved as a writer in the last ten years or so. If I project the same slope of progress in the future and assume that the trend will continue for another ten, then there is a very good chance that we may look back at him as the best ever.
I am now very curious about the “White Tiger” by Arvind Adiga which won this years booker ahead of the “Sea of Poppies”, if that was seen as better, then it better be mind-blowing. I hope the expectation of greatness does not come in the way of judging a very good piece of work. More on that later.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello Dev,

Just like you, I have been very curious about the laborers who went to places like Guyana & Trinidad in the Caribbean and also, Fiji, along with some of the African countries too (if you have seen the movie, The Ghost & The Darkness.....Om Puri does a good cameo, as usual, as 'Abdul', I believe). Dev, you won't believe me man...there are many such People of Indian origin in the US man...their accents are quite distinct -- they are not entirely West Indian (or Indian -- they are a curious combo of the two cukltures) but their names have changed over the century or two that they have been there.....sometimes they have western first-names like Kenny or anglicized Indian names like Ramnaresh (as you have pointed out)....but in almost all cases that I have seen man...their family names (surnames) are an anglicized version of a Hindu family name...For eg, there is a guy whom I know a guy called "Rohan Mohan"...I know a woman with the family name "Persaud" but her first name is Renae.....I could go on....these people live all over the US and Canada, esp the eastern seaboard of both these nations but man, do they love their islands or what...you know, when we were in Tumkur, in my batch, I used to see guys from Karwar, Udupi, Goa, Bhatkal, etc.....man, they really missed the sea and more importantly, sea-food.....believe it or not, it is exactly the SAME sentiment that I see here too...that wistful longing for the noise of seawaves, the smell of the breeze wafting from the ocean, the food, and obviously, the music.....it is amazing dude.....different geographies (Tumkur vs Mangalore, Caribbean vs US...) but same wistful nostalgia for the oceanside.....Dev..dude....what a post man....I have not visited your blog for months...just burned out dude due to work and other crap...but when I started reading your latest posts...you are my freakin' alter-ego man....and most importantly, you have what I yearn most -- joie de vivre.....keep writing man....please..you give me hope that my "tough phase" shall pass one day.....tomorrow will always be another day....

Sri

Dev said...

hey sri - buck up, whatever is bothering you will soon be history - lage raho.

Read this book da if you are interested in indian migrants, it is this aspect of the book that really fascinated me.

there are some really interesting and funny parts explaining how Madho kalua became Maddow Clover. In this case due to the poor translation of a bengali babu gumasta and a drunk english clerk noting down the names on the bank of the river hooghly as the indentured labourers were boarding the slaving schooner, the "ibis" which was about to leave for Mauritius. Super book man, read it.

Anonymous said...

Dev,

Just a random article (written in 1995) that I picked from Google regarding Guyanese Hindus in New York....

http://www.hinduismtoday.com/archives/1995/8/1995-8-02.shtml

Sri

Sudhir syal said...

Dev - Nice review. Just picked up White Tiger - let's see how it goes.

A lot of your interest and fascination for this book must also be derived from your interest in exploring your Bihari roots. Or maybe I'm taking credit away from Mr.Ghosh :)

Dev said...

ya sudhir - u r taking the credit away :-) Its a great read man, u will love it.

Anonymous said...

Folks:

This is six-part series that is currently airing on PBS about the history of India. I don;t know if/when it'll be aired in India. Just letting those of whom may be interested know about it:

http://www.pbs.org/thestoryofindia/

Sri

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Anonymous said...

Dev,

I don't know how much you or other fellow visitors to your blog may be interested but I thought I must share this with you -- please do check out the works of MG Vassanji -- he is a Toronto-based writer born in Kenya (I believe), raised in Tanzania, did his higher studies in the US but has spent his adult years in Canada. He is of Gujarati Khoja origin (Ismaili) and he has written a lot about Indians in eastern Africa -- we forget how much Indians have contributed to the development of Africa for more than a century -- we don't pay attention because Indians in Africa is not sexy enough a topic for media and entertainment folks, to bring about more mainstream awareness of our people of Indian origins and their stories over the years, in Africa. Vassanji does a great job of filling that gap. The Gunny Sack is his most famous work (I believe). I would urge you guys to check his work out.

One last thing....Mira Nair deserves kudos for Mississippi Masala as that movie captures a slice of Indians in Uganda with L Subramaniam's scores hitting the ball out of the park...for some of your younger blog visitors, do check that movie out too.

Sri

dev said...

both seem like good suggestions sri. will check out both and let u know

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