Sonya’s Picks: Sea of Poppies

Sea of Poppies
Imagine being whacked on the head, and force fed opium. Made to cultivate it (instead of food) and made to take it . And by what an all-powerful drug dealer – a giant cartel, like in the movies, of trading and shipping companies, supported by the government of Great Britian.
Yes – all this really happened. It’s true. It’s the story of 1839 and the Opium Wars.

“What I tried to do was to let the material speak for itself”, says Amitav Ghosh, of the shocking stuff in his new novel the Sea of Poppies .The book is the first of a trilogy. It tells of young mother Deeti, in a village on the Ganges. Married to an afeemkhor (an opium addict) Deeti , like the farmers around her, must grow only poppy and sell it to the Company for a pittance. Besides Deeti, there’s low caste Kalua, Jodu, the boy who will be sailor; Pauline, the French orphan girl and Raja Neel Rattan, the bankrupted landowner.All of these colorful characters and others , displaced by the Great Opium Trading Company, in one way or the other , come together to journey on a slaver ship – the white masted Ibis, that will make its way to the sugar cane plantations of Mareech (Mauritius)
But you have to read the book really- it’s all too gorgeously wide and rich to describe. The landscapes, from the poppy fields of Bihar, to the bustling port of Calcutta and the narrow estuary down to the Bay of Bengal (backwater) are amazingly cinematic. The language, which some critics have panned, is lovely full of terms like daftar and tankwah and baorchee and whisky pawnee and lattee, all of which slip in easily and appropriately into the conversation of the time .
And the descriptions ! I ask Amitav Ghosh what inspired some of them the opium factory , near Deeti’s village , for instance . All fact, it appears .” The principal source was a book called ‘Notes on an Opium Factory’, published in Calcutta in 1865,” says Ghosh ” It was written by a man called JWS MacArthur who had run the Ghazipur opium factory for many years and was very proud of it. He wrote the book in order to encourage British tourists to visit the factory. Many detailed illustrations of the factories were also published in the 19th century by visiting British lithographers. These illustrations are so good that I did not have to make anything up. It was like describing a set of excellent photographs.”
Slave labour and the Opium Wars Ghosh has taken these two horrifying economic themes of the 19th century to recreate a stunningly rich (and tragic) world . Certainly it makes you think . “Many of these things”, Ghosh says “would be impossible to inventThe material is so astonishing”.
Is their a pattern in all of this ? In the novel, British merchant Ben Burnham says ‘Jesus Christ is free trade’ and gets away with selling opium to China and India . Is this not what all the weapons selling (or ethanol subsidizing/famine causing) governments today are doing?
Note from Shekhar
It is a fascinating book that I am reading myself, and I am recommending this personally. I have been looking at the Opium Wars from a China perspective too, and it is a rather shameful episode in the history of western captalization. In fact the Industrial Revolution in England was funded by the ‘opiumization’ of China.

9 thoughts on “Sonya’s Picks: Sea of Poppies

  1. Hello Sir,
    How are you? I am sorry to be bothering you.
    I, Mr. Premal Akshay Desai, would like to be your student and work with you to learn the ropes of filmmaking from you.
    I have assisted Filmmaker Mr. Anurag Kashyap and working on an Animation film. I would be thrilled to work with you in the Department of Direction or Production.
    Kindly lemme know your email id so that I can send across my Resume.
    I am sorry to write to you here but I didnt know any other way of getting in touch with you.
    Kindly contact me at the email id mentioned above the comments or you can get in touch with me at
    Best Regards,
    Prema Akshay Desai
    Age -26 years

  2. Sea of Poppies would make an amazing film.I read somewhere that Amitav is open to the idea of a film.Deeti,Kalua,Neel,Nob Kissin,Paulette,Serang Ali etc.Amazing charecters and a marvellous tale with a whiff of the great Moby Dick!

  3. Ajay, agree completely on that one. The characters and the locations, are all gorgeous.
    Poppy fields, the port of Calcutta, the white masted ship – and always, loads of action .
    We’re all looking forward to part 2 , which will be set , largely, it seems, in Mauritious.

  4. Hi Sonya,
    I read a few pages of the book at Shoppers Stop here yesterday as it is one of the 10 bestsellers these days and I’d definitely get it, just that I have about 10 books to go in my reading list. From what I read Amitav has written is very wonderfully.
    Right now I am reading a book called
    Positioning: The Battle for you mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout which is supposed to be one of the best book written about Global Branding – it is just amazing with it’s examples and case studies.
    Best Regards,

  5. Kochuthresiamma ; true .This is of the great and unusual things about this book ; the way it manages to reveal both the whitewashing and the stuff below it.
    The trial scene ,in the book, for instance , of landowner Raja Neel Rattan is brilliant. Also some of the dinner party conversations !! the one on the boat and one in Calcutta ..but then you have to read it.

  6. Shekhar,
    I haven’t found a relevant part in your blog that talks about the work you guys are doing with Virgin comics.Hence I am posting it in a section that’s closest to the topic (books 🙂
    Let me tell you this, I am a huge movie buff and comic art buff.Like any average Indian babyboomer (post Independance 🙂 I grew up on Amar Chitra Katha (ACK).Anant Pai single handedly defined fantasy and mythology for the Indian mindset. As a child up I lost those comics to other friends only to doggedly start collecting them again now.
    Your work with Deepak Chopra in adapting Indian mythology to an International audience is simply up there,outright visionary.I have recently finished savouring ‘Devi’,’Shiva’,’Sadhu’,and am eagerly waiting for ‘Ramayan’ to arrive.I wanted to tell you what I loved most about the comics
    – The Art work , simply stupendous.Its simply beautiful how you guys have managed to keep it strikingly Indian while giving the characters a western fantasy wrap.The art work is so intricate with personality,you love to go back to it purely to enjoy the art itself.
    – The content is surely top notch.You carry an immense responsibility while handling Indian mythology.Its not written by one author who can place a ‘fiction disclaimer’,but is part of tradition,culture and ethos of world’s oldest civilization.Utmost sensitivity while keeping it relevant and interesting is required – and again the team’s done such an incredible job.
    – In places where content is fresh brew (Sadhu) I see such mature story telling techniques.Fantastic layering akin to movie watching experience.I have always enjoyed such layering in works from Neil Gaiman.You have outdone on this department too.Pai’s ACK was linear story telling apt for kids.
    -Thanks for bringing alive a fantasy,great quality adult Indian comic art.
    **If it matters and has any relevance,pl pass on my sincere thanks and helluva appreciation to the Virgin comics team.You have a die hard fan,who needs the first loyalty card whenever its out:)
    I have some questions for you and would really love to hear from you on these:
    1.Are you considering adapting Mahabharat into a VC series?
    2.Have you ever considered adapting Mahabharat onto screen yourself??(One of my dreams is to see Mahabharat come alive on screen at the scale of LOTR or more).
    3.Why don’t you have a part of your blog covering comics?

  7. yes shekar ive picked up this book ironically it was the tatas the readymoneys and the sassoon families who made the money selling opium to china . bengal and bihar was tranferred to opium cultivation which resulted in the great bengal famine of 1777. hope you picked up mike davis late victorian holocausts . another book is the opium wars another empire addiction on the other.

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