OurBookClub


Sea of Poppies
The Glass Palace
River of Smoke

Sea of Poppies by Amitav GhoshBook Cover of Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Tracy recommends as a great book that looks at the Opium trade, slavery and the caste system of India through the eyes of woman. This is recommended for all ages as it can broach a lot of discussion topics with a wide range of age groups. Tracy may be biased though as she loves Indian authors and loves reading about India and the different castes, probably the reason why she keeps going back there (these comments are from the Publisher). Click here to read the full book review.


1. Discuss the relationship between Deeti and her family. How does her caste impact on her place within the family structure?
2. How do Deeti, Paulette and Munia communicate and how does their gender differentiate them from the rest of the male caste?
3. Describe some of the acts of defiance described in the novel? Would this happen today? Can you provide any examples?
4. Examine the role of the English in the novel and are there any benefits to their occupation of India?
5. How does the power of love drive the characters to continue their journey towards perceived freedoms?
6. Describe your opinion of Neel and his standard of living, considering the poverty around him - does he know or is he protected by his servants?
7. What did you enjoy about the historical aspects of the novel?
8. What does the Ibis represent to Zachary at various points in the novel? How does his perception of the ship change as his perception of himself changes?
9. 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.
10. How do those involved in the opium trade, from British factory owners to frontline harvesters, justify their work in Sea of Poppies? How does their industry compare to modern-day drug trafficking versus the pharmaceutical industry?
11. When Mr. Burnham gives religious instruction to Paulette, what does he reveal about his mindset in general? How does he balance his shame with his attitudes toward suffering, including his notion that slavery somehow yields freedom?
12. 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?
13. What gives Neel the ability to endure Alipore Jail and his subsequent voyage? Does he feel genuine compassion for his cell mate, or is he simply trying to make conditions more livable for himself? Ultimately, who is to blame for Neel's conviction?
14. How did Paulette's free-spirited upbringing serve her later in life? What advantages and disadvantages did she have?
15. What does Zachary teach Jodu about loyalty and survival? How is trust formed among the suspicious Ibis crew?
16. To what degree is Mr. Crowle powerless? What does the future hold for those who defied him?
17. Which historical aspects of the Opium Wars surprised you the most? What did you discover about colonial India by reading Sea of Poppies?
18. Sea of Poppies makes rich use of Asian-influenced English. Some of the words, such as bandanna, loot, and dinghy, are still used frequently, but many others, like bankshall, wanderoo, and chawbuck, are now rare, although they were once common and are included in The Oxford English Dictionary. 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?
19. In an interview with TheBookseller.com, Ghosh stated that "oil is the opium of today." Do you agree or disagree? 15. How does Sea of Poppies reflect themes you have observed in Amitav Ghosh's previous works? What new issues does he explore in this novel?

These questions are provided by the Publisher.

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The Glass Palace by Amitav GhoshBook Cover of The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

Set in Burma during the British invasion of 1885, this masterly novel by Amitav Ghosh tells the story of Rajkumar, a poor boy lifted on the tides of political and social chaos, who goes on to create an empire in the Burmese teak forest. When soldiers force the royal family out of the Glass Palace and into exile, Rajkumar befriends Dolly, a young woman in the court of the Burmese Queen, whose love will shape his life. He cannot forget her, and years later, as a rich man, he goes in search of her. The struggles that have made Burma, India, and Malaya the places they are today are illuminated in this wonderful novel by the writer Chitra Divakaruni calls "a master storyteller" (these comments are from the Publisher). Click here to read the full book review.


1. In an interview, Amitav Ghosh said of his work, The Glass Palace, “one can examine the truths of individuals in history definitely more completely in fiction than one can in history.” Discuss this statement as it pertains to the novel. Which truths do his characters reveal?
2. Look closely at the characters whom Ghosh envisions in the most detail, Rajkumar, Dolly, Uma, Arjun, to name a few. They become extraordinary in our minds of the reader, as we travel with them through a century of social upheaval and political turmoil. But according to the social structure, they are all, or once were, relatively ordinary individuals. What is the effect of focusing a novel of such grand, epic sweep, on members of common society? How does this very subtle choice affect the story’s shape? What does it tell us about history, and how we have always been taught to remember it?
3. Memory could almost be considered a character unto itself in Ghosh’s novel. For instance, Rajkumar’s life is utterly driven and shaped by his one, striking, boyhood memory of Dolly in the plundered Glass Palace during the invasion of Burma. How does memory play into the lives of Ghosh’s other characters? Can you think of examples where memory compelled a character to action, or impeded him from recognizing a particular truth? To what extent does Ghosh suggest the existence of collective memory?
4. Ghosh raises several debates over the course of the novel, one central to the political subtext being that of Imperialism vs. Fascism. Why does society not look upon Imperial soldiers with the same scorn it holds for those soldiers committing atrocities under fascistregimes? Should these Imperial mercenaries be considered willing and conscious henchmen, or were they merely following orders? What stance does Ghosh take on this issue, if any? What other debates were you able to extract from the book? What techniques does Ghosh use to bring these issues and their various arguments to light?
5. Ghosh constructs several unique, remarkable, and strong female characters: Dolly, Uma, Queen Supayalat, even the First Princess, who becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Each of these women tells us something different and important about the time and place in which she was living. What strengths do these women express, and at what points are they identified and illuminated in the novel? In examining the range and evolution of Ghosh’s female characters, what could we conclude about the relationship between feminine domesticity and empire? Where and how do the two intersect? What role do women play under colonialism, and how do Ghosh’s characters either reflect or reject it?
6. Uma is a particularly interesting character, as she illuminates one of the ideas central to Ghosh's novel. When we first encounter her, she is constantly worried about being the proper memsahib, following traditional domestic etiquette, and living up to the standards of her husband, the Collector. She soon realized, however, that her husband’s dream was not in accordance with the rules of Indian custom, he longed “to live with a woman as an equal in spirit and intellect, ” and she could never, according to custom, fulfill those expectations. We see a monumental change in her disposition when she returns to India from New York. How has she transformed, and by what force? What does Uma’s character tell us about the nature of history and the power of social forces as factors in everyday life?
7. Over the course of the novel, the division between conquerors and conquered becomes increasingly hard to distinguish. The inevitable ethical dilemma faced by Indian soldiers in the British army comes to the foreground of the novel, as one member of the INA challenges Indian soldiers in the British army, “Do you really wish to sacrifice your lives for an Empire that has kept your country in slavery for two hundred years?” Can you think of any other episodes in which Ghosh highlights this argument? How does this debate affect the course and scope of the story?
8. In several episodes, Ghosh asks the question, both of his readers and of his characters; can submission to an oppressor, in certain instances, be a sign of strength, rather than weakness? For example, at the very outset of the novel, Rajkumar is heartbroken when he sees Dolly marching out of Burma in the royal procession, offering the sweets he gave her as a token of his affection to one of the British guards. Was this a sign of strength on Dolly’s part? How does this foreshadow other events in the novel? What do such episodes tell us about the effect of colonialism, both on the individual and the collective?
9. In The Glass Palace Ghosh examines the individual, psychological dilemmas posed by colonialism. At one point, an Indian officer in the British army during World War II exclaims, “What are we? We’ve learned to dance the tango and we know how to eat roast beef with a knife and fork. The truth is that except for the color of our skin, most people in India wouldn’t even recognize us as Indians.” This quest for and recognition of personal identity, both lost and found, figures prominently in the novel. Where do we see this pursuit played out? How does Ghosh reconcile the notions of personal identity and national identity? Is one derivative of the other?
10. Exile and return are themes that lie at the core of The Glass Palace. We see King Thebaw and Queen Supayalat living out their exiles in Ratnagiri, we also experience Dolly’s flight from and return to Burma. Even Rajkumar appears in a constant state of escape and return, from his early abandonment at age 11. What other stories of exile and return play out over the course of the book? How do these individual cycles contribute to the overall structure of the novel?
11. At various points in the book, Ghosh invokes the art of photography. We are encounter photographers throughout the novel, and find ourselves in a photography shop at the story’s close. Where else does photography enter the story, and how does it serve as a thematic thread? How does Ghosh weave the theme of photography into the overarching ideas about history and memory that permeate his novel? How does the photographer’s art relate to Ghosh’s conception of the human heart and mind?
12. The style of The Glass Palace is elliptical, and at times, uneven. Ghosh dedicates an entire paragraph to describing the camera with which Mrs. Khambatta photographed Dolly and Rajkumar’s wedding, yet the actual ceremony takes place, elliptically, when Ghosh writes, “At the end of the civil ceremony, in the Collector’s ‘camp office’, Dolly and Rajkumar garlanded each other, smiling like children.” Other such major life events occur in only sentences, the births of children, the deaths of loved ones, wars, and other national catastrophes. Do you think this was an intentional literary choice on Ghosh’s part? What effect does it have on the book as a whole, on your perception of the characters and their stories?
13. As much defeat as there is present in The Glass Palace, there are also extraordinary tales of survival and hope. Can you think of some examples by which devastating defeat is countered by enormous hope? What claims does Ghosh make about the human spirit in this novel?

These questions are provided by the Publisher.

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River of Smoke by Amitav GhoshBook Cover of River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

The Ibis, loaded to its gunwales with a cargo of indentured servants, is in the grip of a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal; among the dozens flailing for survival are Neel, the pampered raja who has been convicted of embezzlement; Paulette, the French orphan masquerading as a deck-hand; and Deeti, the widowed poppy grower fleeing her homeland with her lover, Kalua. The storm also threatens the clipper ship Anahita, groaning with the largest consignment of opium ever to leave India for Canton. And the Redruth, a nursery ship, carries Frederick “Fitcher” Penrose, a horticulturist determined to track down the priceless treasures of China that are hidden in plain sight: its plants that have the power to heal, or beautify, or intoxicate. All will converge in Canton’s Fanqui-town, or Foreign Enclave: a tumultuous world unto itself where civilizations clash and sometimes fuse. It is a powder keg awaiting a spark to ignite the Opium Wars. Spectacular coincidences, startling reversals of fortune, and tender love stories abound. But this is much more than an irresistible page-turner. The blind quest for money, the primacy of the drug trade, the concealment of base impulses behind the rhetoric of freedom: in River of Smoke the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries converge, and the result is a consuming historical novel with powerful contemporary resonance. Critics praised Sea of Poppies for its vibrant storytelling, antic humor, and rich narrative scope; now Amitav Ghosh continues the epic that has charmed and compelled readers all over the globe (these comments are from the Publisher). Click here to read the full book review.


1. The opening scenes recount Deeti's survival after she and Kalua escaped the Ibis. She insists that destiny, not chance, led her to the site of her hidden shrine. For her, what does destiny mean? What legacies does she pass on to the next generation?
2. Like many of the novel's characters, Ah Fatt and Robin Chinnery have bicultural ancestries. What limitations and freedoms accompany their lack of a legitimate, aristocratic bloodline? Do ancestry and prestige go hand in hand in River of Smoke?
3. Discuss Bahram's and Fitcher's motivations. Are they simply greedy?
4. Paulette is a master of disguise and can comfortably move between cultures. What does she consider to be her true identity? Why is horticulture a suitable field for her?
5. Discuss the role of religion in shaping the characters' view of the world. How are the novel's Hindu characters affected by the expectations of the gods? When Christian characters justify the opium trade, how do they reconcile it with their faith? (You may enjoy revisiting Charles King's letter to Charles Elliot near the book's final pages.)
6. Bahram and Zadig discuss the experience of having an additional, foreign wife, debating whether love is a factor. How does the relationship between Bahram and Chi-mei change over the years? Would Bahram enjoy Canton as much if he weren't a foreigner?
7. How do the trilogy's ships—the formerly slave-trading Ibis, Fitcher's practical but eccentric-looking Redruth, and the treasure-laden Anahita (named for a Hindu goddess of water)—reflect their passengers?
8. In chapter seven, Robin's letter describes the Pearl River as a suburb of Canton. In chapter thirteen, Zadig recalls the legend that claims the river got its name from a foreign trader who dropped a mysterious pearl. Drawing on these and other impressions, discuss the Pearl River as a character: how would you describe its powers and its personality?
9. Consider Ghosh's penchant for intertwining fates. For example, Ah Fatt had been Neel's companion in the labor prison, while Neel (qualified to work as a munshi because of the education that accompanied his noble status) is close by when Mr. Punhyqua is arrested, marking the unlikely fall of another member of the ruling class. Does Ghosh create tragicomedy or pure irony in story lines such as these?
10. Near the end of chapter six, Bahram has a chance encounter with Napoleon (a scene inspired by reported encounters between the French emperor and seafaring traders). If you had been in Bahram's position, what would you have asked Napoleon?

These questions are provided by the Publisher.

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