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Old 04-14-2018, 11:07 AM   #1
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Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

'At the heart of this vibrant saga is a vast ship, the Ibis. Her destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean shortly before the outbreak of the Opium Wars in China. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a diverse cast of Indians and Westerners on board, 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. The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the exotic backstreets of Canton.'

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This is the MR Literary Club selection for April 2018. Whether you've already read it or would like to, feel free to start or join in the conversation at any time, and guests are always welcome! So, what are your thoughts on it?

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Old 04-15-2018, 02:18 PM   #2
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I'm enjoying Sea of Poppies so far; I'm at the point where Ibis has arrived at the mouth of the Hooghly.

For anyone wondering about Gosh's use of Anglo-Indian slang - The Ibis Chrestomathy
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Old 04-15-2018, 07:31 PM   #3
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Thank you, bfisher! I started reading over the weekend.

Here are interesting articles about the Ganges River.
https://www.thoughtco.com/ganga-godd...-river-1770295
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganges_in_Hinduism
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Old 04-15-2018, 08:48 PM   #4
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Thanks, Bookworm_Girl.

I love the way that Ghosh plays with the sounds of words: the cant of the sailors, the pidgin of the lascars.

As Ibis sails ever eastward, everything becomes easternized - the crew, the language Zachary must use to communicate with the crew, even the clothes he wears (eventually a sarong) and the food he eats:

"...switching from the usual sailor’s menu of lobscouse, dandyfunk and chokedog to a lascar fare of karibat and kedgeree – spicy skillygales of rice, lentils and pickles, mixed on occasion with little bits of fish, fresh or dry. The tongue-searing tastes were difficult to get used to at first, but Zachary could tell the spices were doing him good, scouring his insides, and he soon grew to like the unfamiliar flavours."

Are the colonizers being colonized?
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Old 04-16-2018, 11:22 AM   #5
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If you are curious about dandyfunk
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Old 04-26-2018, 01:31 PM   #6
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Thanks for the links, both of you! I'm not too far in yet but am really enjoying this book so far, and I can see it's right up my alley. I like adventure, travel, ship stories, other cultures, and this hits on all that. That first chapter was amazing; gauzy in a way I felt was soaked in heat and romanticism, almost a Gabriel Garcia Marquez-like magical realism. Then it switched to a more straightforward tale of the ship. I've had a few raised eyebrows at some of the events - it seems like Zachary is having some preternatural luck and help - but I'm enjoying the story enough to outweigh that.
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Old 04-26-2018, 04:05 PM   #7
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It's a pleasurable read! The writing is excellent. I am about 1/3 through the book now. Just proceeding slowly to enjoy it. What an imaginative cast of characters he is building. I am just approaching the part where they are going to start interacting together.
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Old 04-26-2018, 10:16 PM   #8
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Yes, some very good passages and a diverse set of characters.

Some interesting similarities to me:
The Ibis carries the stains of her previous career - “Jodu became aware of a sickly, fetid odour, welling upwards from the darkness below: it was a smell that was at once offensive and disturbing, familiar and unrecognizable, and it became stronger as he descended.”

Deeti’s visit to the opium factory - “The air inside was hot and fetid, like that of a closed kitchen, except that the smell was not of spices and oil, but of liquid opium, mixed with the dull stench of sweat – a reek so powerful that she had to pinch her nose to keep herself from gagging. No sooner had she steadied herself, than her eyes were met by a startling sight – a host of dark, legless torsos was circling around and around, like some enslaved tribe of demons.”

The departure for Mauritius with the cargo of indentured labour “The leaden gloom, combined with the midday heat and the fetid stench of hundreds of enclosed bodies, gave the unstirred air a weight like that of sewage: it took an effort even to draw breath.”
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Old 05-03-2018, 05:02 PM   #9
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While spread over a sprawling cast and a wide area, Sea of Poppies in concise in its theme, the spread of bondage via the medium of opium. I had been aware previously of the opium wars that had been waged against China to force its government to cede large tranches of sovereignty. I had not been fully aware of how linked the opium wars were to the wrecking of the Indian economy and the fortunes of the British Raj, and to the diaspora of Indian coolie labour through the British empire. Shame on me, I have had friends at school and work who carried that history in their lineage - an ethnic East Indian person from Guyana, and an ethnic Chinese person from Mauritius. I had never connected the dots; this book has done that for me.

It is marvelous how Ghosh has linked so many forms of bondage here:

American chattel slavery and the African slave trade, personified by Ibis, an ex-slaver.
Indentured labour - the unfortunates being transported to Mauritius.
Domestic bondage - “When I become master of this house, how will you get by except at my pleasure?”
The burden of karma
The addiction of opium - Deeti’s husband’s life is reduced to living to consume opium - or is that living to be consumed by opium?
The addiction to violence and torture - Crowle and Bhyro Singh, who live (and die) to torment
Worst of all, the contracts that can be used to encompass ruin.

Ghosh builds some striking images in this book - Deeti’s hut “floating upon a river of poppies”, where “in an age of flowers”, no thatch can be gotten for her roof. It is an image he returns to - “the flood of flowers that had washed over the countryside: lands that had once provided sustenance were now swamped by the rising tide of poppies”, just as a tide will engulf the land “the flat, fertile, populous plains yielded to swamps and marshes; the river turned brackish, so that its water could no longer be drunk; every day the water rose and fell, covering and uncovering vast banks of mud”

Perhaps the most striking image is from the opium factory - Deeti sees the demons of hell labouring to encompass humanity’s ruin - “a host of dark, legless torsos was circling around and around, like some enslaved tribe of demons”. The Ghazipur opium factory is still in operation. It was visited by Kipling. His article In an Opium Factory illustrates some of his nastier aspects.

Oddly, there are several connections here to the United States besides Ibis. The book makes several references to the flag of the East India Company - the American flag bears a startling resemblance to it. By another oddity, the tomb of Lord Cornwallis is at Ghazipur; he died here during his second tour as Governor-General.
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Old 05-05-2018, 02:46 PM   #10
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Great insights, bfisher! I especially like your breakdown of bondage examples. I am up to 50% and hope to make significant progress over the weekend. I too have been surprised at how much history I am learning in this book. I also was unaware of the Indian linkage to the opium wars. It's sad how they were forced to grow opium on so much land in the small villages at the expense of not being able to grow the necessary food for basic living. I suppose that's an example of economic bondage to add to your list. I always think of tea as the commodity that has a dark history between China-Britain-India. I recommend the book For All the Tea in China by Sarah Rose on that subject.

I found this great timeline of "opium throughout history."
https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/front...c/history.html

This next statement is a random aside on one of your comments. It's interesting how cultures move across the globe, and we often don't recognize or realize the historical significance. Several years ago I worked with a Brazilian company and noticed that many of their employees were of Japanese heritage. I wouldn't have thought too much about it until one of them explained how his family migrated to Brazil during WW2, and it prompted me to do some research. I never would have guessed that Brazil has the largest population of Japanese outside Japan! Their cultures seem so very different.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_Brazilians
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Old 05-07-2018, 08:32 PM   #11
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Thanks for the links and the pointer to the Sarah Rose book.

Another commodity that has a dark history re Britain/India/China continuing to this day is cotton - Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton traces the economic history of the cotton trade up into the current era

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Old 05-13-2018, 08:28 PM   #12
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And salt had a dark history too apparently! I just read Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, and it had a chapter about India.

I finished Sea of Poppies today. Wow! What a grand adventure and cast of characters! It took me longer than expected to read this book but that's ok. It was very entertaining. There was just so much density packed into the writing. I really enjoyed the historical details and plan to continue the trilogy soon with River of Smoke.

I loved the female characters in the book. Paulette and Deeti both had great courage, even if it took them both slow paths to come into their own independence. I can't wait to see what happens next.

What an interesting life Jeanne Baret led. This book by Glynis Ridley looks like a promising tangential read.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeanne_Baret
https://www.npr.org/2010/12/26/13226...-the-high-seas

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Old 05-13-2018, 08:42 PM   #13
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I also wanted to add that a main theme of this book is identity - racial, religious, national, familial, gender. I'm going to have to digest the book for awhile to ponder these statements.
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Old 05-13-2018, 09:02 PM   #14
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Thanks for the links, Bookworm_Girl. Jeanne Baret must have been a remarkable person to have overcome the barriers of gender and childhood poverty to accomplish what she did.
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