Welcome to the Chunkster Reading Challenge - a challenge which satisfies those readers who like their books fat and chunky!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Chunky Book Club Discussion: Sea of Poppies

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies (2008) is the first installment of a planned trilogy. This epic saga is set just before the Opium Wars, which encapsulates the colonial history of the East. The second in the trilogy, River of Smoke, was published in 2011.

Learn more about the history behind the novel by reading this wonderful interview with Amitav Ghosh.

  • Birth—1956
  • Where—Kolkata, India
    Education—St. Stephen's College, Deli; Delhi University;
       Ph.D., Oxford University. 
  • Currently—lives in New York City; Kolkata and Goa, India

Amitv Ghosh is the internationally bestselling author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including The Glass Palace, and is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes. Ghosh divides his time between Kolkata and Goa, India, and Brooklyn, New York. (From the publisher.)

Learn more about Ghosh and his work by visiting the author's website.

Amitav Ghosh's literary awards include:
  • Prix Medicis Etranger (French; for Circle of Reason)
  • Sahitya Akademic and Ananda Pursaskar Awards (Indian;
      for The Shadow Lines)
  • Arthur C. Clarke Award (UK; for The Calcutta Chromosome)
  • Grand Prize-Fiction, Frankfurt International e-Book Awards
      (for The Glass Palace)
  • Hutch Crossword Book Prize (Indian; for The Hungry Tide)
  • Grinzane Cavour Prize (Italian)
  • Shortlisted for Man Booker (UK; for Sea of Poppies)

How Does the Discussion Work?
  • ANYONE may participate who has read the book.
  • Questions (below) are to stimulate discussion. You may choose to answer any, all or none of them...or you may pose your own questions for discussion.
  • Respond in comments on this post. I have activated the "reply" function in comments so that you may reply directly to someone else's comment if you wish to do so.
  • Consider subscribing to the comments so that you will be notified when someone posts a comment.
  • BE FOREWARNED: There may be spoilers contained in the questions and in the discussion below!!!
That's it! Have fun!!!

  1. Have you read anything by this author before? If so what have you read and how does it compare to Sea of Poppies?
  2. How does class and the caste system impact the relationships between the characters?
  3. How are women's roles different from men's in Sea of Poppies? What common ground do Deeti, Paulette, and Munia share?
  4. Many of the lives Ghosh depicts are shaped by social and political forces beyond their control. What are some of these forces? Describe some of the individual acts of bravery, defiance, or deception that enable his characters to break free from what they see as their fate. 
  5. How does the opium trade industry compare to modern-day drug trafficking versus the pharmaceutical industry?
  6. Love is one of the themes in the novel. Discuss the power of love as it motivates the characters. Does obsession strengthen or weaken Baboo Nob Kissin? What kind of love is illustrated when Deeti gives up her child? What kinds of love does Neel experience in the presence of his loyal wife and his fickle mistress?
  7. Which historical aspects of the Opium Wars surprised you the most? What did you discover about colonial India by reading Sea of Poppies?
  8. Sea of Poppies makes rich use of Asian-influenced English and the language of the novel is unique. Did you find the use of language in the novel cumbersome or did it add to the richness of Ghosh's book? Discuss the "Ibis Chrestomathy," which appears at the end of the book. What do Neel's observations suggest about language and culture? Why do you think some words disappear from usage, while others endure? Can a culture's vitality be measured by how eagerly its language absorbs outside influences?
  9. There are two more novels in the trilogy. Do you have plans to read either of them? Both of them? 
If you have read Sea of Poppies and reviewed it, please feel free to add a link to your review using Mr. Linky below:


  1. First again. Yay!!!

    When I bought this novel (before it became part of our challenge here), I was not aware that this novel was Part 1 of the "Ibis Trilogy".

    I have only read Marianne from "The Glass Palace" by this author so far. It was a book club read and it is one of my favourite books ever. I don't want to say too much in the first line but this novel will join it on my shelf of favourites.

    This book has it all, history, love and war, the people from different countries. Amitav Ghosh manages to invite us into this world. I love it when you have the feeling that you are there. You can see the colours, hear he sounds, smell the smells, it's so lifelike.

    This novel describes the fate of a ship and its passengers, At the beginning, we get to know the sailors, then the different people who will become passengers later on, all from different kinds of life.

    Amitav Ghosh manages to describe all classes of people so well, the different castes in India, the British and other foreigners, all neatly put into their respective drawers. The women belong in yet another part, they have nothing to say, they get married off to someone, have to produce the heir. Everyone is forced into a certain role due to social and political reasons. And yet, everyone tries to live with their fate in their one different way, some are subservient, others rebellious. Some form an attachment to people from the other groups, others desperately try to keep that invisible wall between them.

    In any case, this book teaches so much about life in India at that time, about the Opium War. We learn about the fate of the farmers who are forced by the colonialists to produce opium which they, in turn, import into China so they can afford the trading with that country. So many lives are affected and destroyed because some Europeans want Chinese products. It also is a lot easier for the occupiers to destroy the lives of anyone who originally lived in the country than the other way around. We see that one wrong accusation can take away one man's wealth and honour.

    I would have liked to have some sort of ending to this part of the book but because I started it late, "River of Smoke" was already out and I carried on with it right away.

    In an interview the author mentioned that "oil is the opium of today." I think he is absolutely right and it might help to think about what we are doing to people in the other parts of the world today.

    I guess some people might have a problem reading this as there are a lot of different versions of English used, that of the sailors is different of that of the Indians, that of the British different than that of the other foreigners, there are many different dialects and idiosyncrasies. It seems irritating at the beginning but I can only encourage everyone to keep on going, it's definitely worth it. We also learn that a lot of words have come to the English language from the colonies this way. An interesting observation, if you like language.

    This story is like "One Thousand and One Nights", so many different stories, so many different lives. And all in a country far far away and a long time ago. Fascinating. Enchanting.

    I am looking forward to discussing this book with the all the other readers from this group.

    There is a good website about "The Ibis Trilogy" and "Sea of Poppies".

    Marianne from Let's Read

    1. Loved your response, Marianne! This was also one of my favorite books (and my first by this author). I love historical novels, and in this one I learned so much about the Opium Wars which I never knew about before.

      I know other readers have complained about the language in the novel - at first it threw me too...and then I grew to love it because the language becomes like a musical score for the novel. Just beautifully done.

      Have you finished River of Smoke? I also read the book (in fact, I bought it within a week of its release because I couldn't wait to read it). I really loved the second novel as well...I have no idea when the third book will be released, but I hope it is soon!

    2. Sorry, somehow I "misplaced" the notification fo this message. Anyway, historical novels are my favourites, as well, and I have never read about the Opiums Wars, either.

      I love your comparing the language of the novel to a musical score, wonderful descirption.

      I have finished River of Smoke, I had already finished it before I posted here. If you would like to read my review, you can find it here: River of Smoke. I simply cannot wait for the third book to be published but I guess I will have to.

      By the way, is one of the blogspot addresses featured on your profile yours or are they all shared sites? I would love to "follow" you.

    3. Sorry for my delay in response, Marianne! I will go check out your review today :) I'm eager for the third book as well.

      Re: my blog address...you can find me at http://www.caribousmom.com - all the other blogs associated with my profile are shared blogs :)

  2. Thank you, Wendy, I will see whether I can "follow" you there. I feel we have a similar taste in books.

  3. Have just finished the book - I know, I know late as usual - I have had this on my TBR list for a while I didn't know there was to be two more so was quite excited when I realised that - have bought the next one (a day after I finished poppies) - Fantastic book - so full, so interesting, so nail biting - I agree with you both aboiut persevering with the language - I have never worried about having accents and dialects in books - I can hear the voices clearer that way - just takes time to wrap ones mental tongue around the words - I found the women came over as very strong despite their lower status - making their own way through the confinments of rules in a way I suspect women have done for ever:)

    Every character however minor a role was just so well drawn - and regardless of where/what/who haven't we met them in real life:) I will write a review when I can clear time (have been and still recovering from illness - so time is difficult)

    1. Thanks for weighing in on the book and so glad you loved it. Are you planning to read the next in the trilogy? I loved that one too (although the first book is my favorite so far).

      Sad to hear you are not well - hope you are feeling better soon!!!


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