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sea of poppies by amitav ghosh

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sea of poppies by amitav ghosh
i finished this book a few days ago and immediately wished to write a review. i have been struggling as to where to begin, and hence this delay.
so i will start at the very end. and perhaps work backwards.
i loved this book. i will give it a 8.t out 10 :)
there are so many threads in this exciting novel that i have so far failed to identify the hero and heroine. too many of them.

what attracted me to this book from the reviews was two things: it dealt with the emigration of indians in the 19th century to mauritius. second, the enforced growing of opium in central india by east india company.

i have been fortunate enough to meet the descendants of indian emigrants (indentured, forced or otherwise) from such disparate places as trinidad, guyana, surinam, fiji, mauritius, south africa, east africa, malaysia, singapore and (ofcourse) singapore.
many of them are several generations removed from india. many still, only resemble us in physical features, but inwards, as alien as any european or chinese. i figure, in about 100 years my own descendents will resemble such.

all of these descendents have a fascination for india, to different levels. till they open their mouth, they are de facto identified as indians. only after they identify themselves, we get to know the real person behind the brown skin.

i have not yet read any novel of the migration process. what initiated it. how it went.

amitav's novel deals with one such group of people who are bundled together in an ex africa trade slave ship, the ibis. they are gathered from bihar and calcutta and each has his/her own unique set of circumstances which brings them to ibis.

along with this, is the background of the forced cultivation of opium, in central india by the east india company. land that was hitherto self sufficient to feed was now converted to cultivating the drug for export to china.

this had a disastrous effect on the peasants, for the giddying prices fetched for opium went to the hands of the zamindars and the company. not much trickled to those who grew it.

one way to get out of the poverty, was to remove those additional mouths to feed, by indenturing them to agents who were looking for labour in far off lands.
these lands used to have human capital from africa, and since the gradual abolition of slavery, were looking for alternates. hence, the new feed of indentured labourers from central india.
incidentally, many a men/women from tamil nadu/andhra too were part of this semi forced emigration, and not much has been narrated about them either.

sea of poppies is a snapshot of some incidents in 1838 in british ruled india. there are ofcourse villains and kind hearts. whites and browns, are both. which humanizes this book. no one race has the monopoly to cruelty. we know that.

the central character in this book, who is there from the start is a mulatto, who is almost passed for white. he has an interestng story and it is a believable tale as to how he rises in ranks in the old slave ship during its initial journey under a new owner, from baltimore to calcutta.

then there are two female interests... hah! but i am getting too detailed here. the book is a set of substories of interwoven novels, and how they are all weaved together to form the tapestry that is the sea of poppies.
it is my intention to only throw some morcels of flavour of the book here. and leave it to you to enjoy the surprises. there are umpteen reviews of this book if you google.

the language is very easy reading and superbly intermingled with bengali/hindi words. i do not know either language, but i could decipher their meaning from the context. and really it does not matter to understand every word. there are no translations.
there is a personal glossary at the back, but not of the kind that we are used to.

i have also been reading a few reviews. in foreign magazines. where the reviewers being well known indians, they appear to bring in a dose of jingoism, which i abhor. the western reviewers, on the whole, while flattering, have maintained a level headed overview. just my impression, that's all.

there is also an element of mysticism of the unknown interwoven in this book. which i am yet to understand.
there are no single good or bad race. it is the reactions of people forced to act by the tides of time against the river of life. this book is an awesome attempt to photograph one such series of events and present it to us as a scrumptuous (non) vegetarian thali !!!
the book ends rather abruptly. after all, it is but one of three parts. i cannot wait for the other two. :)

amitav is painting a very complex picture in a large canvas. so far what he has completed, gives me excitement and promises that the next stage, when unveiled, if it is as good as this first part, it is bound to rank among the greatest of historical yarns, spun for the infinite pleasure for generations to come.

Now that i have read this, i do not need to read the book anymore :) Thanks.

Have you read the White Tiger by Arvind Adiga?
Have you read the White Tiger by Arvind Adiga?

Finished reading 'The White Tiger'.

A small book in comparison when i consider 'The God of Small Things' ; 321 pages, I did in about 4 hours.

Whatever be the negative comments that Adiga has received with respect to his writing skills or the lack of it, the book is surely a page turner - whether you like what he has to say or not.

Adiga portrays a grim, almost surreal picture of India ; If India was believed in the West to be a land of Snake charmers, Mystic Yogis, Poverty, Pollution, Adiga's book does help to change the view, for the worse.

His book is an exercise in narcissism; A narcissism borne out of a view that only the dark side of India represents the true India.

The entire story (?) is narrated in the form of a letter addressed to the Chinese Premier. Why Chinese ?

Because according to Adiga it is the land of milk and honey !

The main protagonist is Balram Halwai, sweet-meat maker by caste, son of Vikram Halwai, a rickshaw puller. In brief the story traces the life of Balram Halwai from the humble beginning in 'Laxmangarh' to the glitz and glamour of Delhi and finally to Bengaluru where he turns an 'entrepreneur' ;

In the process Balram narrates the life in 'Darkness' ; the problem of labour bondage/slavery; the goondaism of the village landlords; the ostentations of the ultra-rich ; corruption ; greed; caste etc.. And for the record Balram also tells us about his visits to prostitutes and his fetish for 'golden haired' girls.

Looked in a different way, Adiga's book is an exercise in simplicity

--> All rich men are heartless, maverick b******s;

--> It is ok to do "anything" to escape the vice grip of poverty

--> Entrepreneurship in India begins and ends in corruption

So those who share Adiga's conviction will immediately identify with TWT.

If those who loving India bashing have not yet read the book, here is why, I think, they should read it :

a) Adiga shares almost a comparable contempt for India like the Communists and the Dravidians

b) Adiga's contempt can be well gauged from the fact that Balram's homeland is just known as 'Darkness'

c) Adiga's prejudice against the rich men would fare well against my own prejudice against Dravidians and the Dravidians prejudice against Brahmins

d) Adiga has a very simple way of letting the reader know of his contempt. All those who are despicable are not known by their names ; Instead the reader has to be content knowing that they are Mongoose, Stork, Vitiligo-Lips et all.

e) Adiga's protagonist believes that there are only 4 poets who are the best in the world. And all of them are Muslims !. I can sense the pseudo-secularists' emotions of joy.

f) Adiga reserves his very best for the end. He lets us know, thru the course of 7 Nights (*) that Balram slit his Master's throat, decamps with 7 lacs and sets up a Call-Centre cab agency at Bengaluru. As Balram winds up his long letter to the Chinese premier, he contemplates about his possible arrest and writes :

'Even if they make me walk the wooden stairs to the hangman's noose - I'll never say I made a mistake that night in Delhi when I slit my master's throat'

'I'll say it was all worthwhile to know, just for a day, just for an hour, just for a minute, what it means not to be a servant'

Not to Spoil anyone's visions of a lip-smacking delight that Adiga's book is, I have the onerous responsibility of warning them of those parts of the dish that should possibly be avoided :

a) Adiga has this to say of the Muslims : ' Have you noticed that all four of the greatest poets in the world are Muslim ? And yet all the muslims you meet are illiterate or covered head to toe in black burkas or looking for buildings to blow up ? ' Hmm...not so pleasant for the pseudos !

b) Though Adiga touches upon the Caste system, much to the disappointment of the Dravidians i am sure, he converts that into a class issue . Infact Adiga, if anything seems to think that India with the full fury of the caste system (I for one, believe it has been tempered so i am not suggesting that today we are in a casteless society) was "a clean, well-kept orderly zoo".

Much to the chagrin of the Dravidians and their cohorts, Adiga's protagonist thinks that the system ensured "Everyone in his place, everyone happy" ; Hmmm...what say Mr M K ?

And with independence Balram says that the "cages" were let open and "the most ferocious, the hungriest had eaten everyone else up"

Balram sums up : "In the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes - Men with Big Bellies and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies : eat or get eaten up"

So with this statutory warning, I commend this book to this august house.

And the tailpiece : In terms of narcissism and anti-nationalism, i think TWT would give communists and the dravidians run for their monies.

(*) The book is narrated as a letter to the Chinese Premier ; Balaram writes only in the nights so each chapter is a "Night"
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Cool Hariharanji. Thanks. Will be getting my hands on the book soon..cudn't help smiling wryly at some of the corelations you have drawn..
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