Sea of Poppies
|14 October 2008|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
|LC Class||PR9499.3.G536 S43 2008|
|Followed by||'River of Smoke'|
Sea of Poppies (2008) is a novel by Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008. It is the first volume of what will be the Ibis trilogy. The second volume is River of Smoke.
The main characters include Deeti, an ordinary village woman, an "octoroon" American sailor named Zachary Reid, an Indian rajah / zamindar called Neel Rattan Halder, and Benjamin Burnham, an evangelist opium trader.
The story is set prior to the First Opium War, on the banks of the holy river Ganges and in Calcutta. The author compares the Ganges to the Nile, the lifeline of the Egyptian civilization, attributing the provenance and growth of these civilizations to these selfless, ever-flowing bodies. He portrays the characters as poppy seeds emanating in large numbers from the field to form a sea, where every single seed is uncertain about its future.
The story begins with Deeti, a simple, pious lady, caring mother and an efficient housewife. Married to Hukam Singh, a crippled worker in the Ghazipur Opium Factory, the unfortunate Deeti figures out that on her wedding night, she was drugged with opium by her mother-in-law, so that her brother-in-law could rape her and consummate the marriage in place of her infertile husband. This brother-in-law is the real father of Deeti's daughter Kabutri. When her husband dies, Deeti sends Kabutri to stay with relatives. Deeti looks almost certain to meet her doom when she is forced to consider sati ritual (immolation on her husband's funeral pyre) as the only option in the face of threats of more rapes by the brother-in-law, but then Kalua, the untouchable caste ox man from the neighbouring village, comes to her rescue. The couple flee and unite. This is not acceptable to the high caste villagers. In order to escape Deeti's in-laws, she and Kalua become indentured servants on a schooner named Ibis.
Zachary Reid, an American sailor born to a quadroon mother and a white father, receives a lot of attention. He has been on the Ibis since the schooner started her arduous journey, and hopes to die with it. He maintains that in his lifetime he has never seen a more admirable article than the Ibis and it is no less than a mother to him, supporting him in his dark hours and rejoicing with him in his happiness. With the support of the head of the lascars, Serang Ali, he becomes the second in command of the ship, when it was refitted to carry indentured labour to the island of Mareech or Mauritius instead of the tradable opium.
Neel Rattan Halder, a wealthy rajah whose dynasty has been ruling the zemindary of Rakshali for centuries, is confronted by Mr. Burnham with the need to sell off his estates in order to pay for the debt he had incurred when trading opium with China at the height of the opium trade. But now that the opium trade has come to a standstill, as a result of the resistance shown by the Chinese authorities, he is left with no money to clear his loan. When Mr. Burnham proposes to settle the load for Halder's zamindary, Halder refuses the deal as the zamindary is his family's ancestral property and selling it would mean turning his back on his many dependents living in his household and zamindary. He is tried for forgery, but it is a sham trial orchestrated by Burnham and his cronies. The court punishes him by sentencing him to work as an indentured labourer for seven years in Mauritius. It is then that he meets Ah Fatt, a half-Chinese, half-Parsi opium addict from Canton, his sole companion in prison since the two will eventually be transported together on the Ibis.
The book also features Paulette, a French orphan, who has also grown up in India. Her father was an eccentric but kind botanist, and her mother died in childbirth. Mr. and Mrs. Burnham take Paulette into their home after her father's death. She becomes determined to run away because Mr. Burnham has behaved in a disturbing way with her in private. Also, he is trying to get her married to his friend, the stern, elderly Justice Kendalbushe. As it happens, Paulette had met Zachary Reid, the American sailor, at a dinner at the Burnhams'; she was instantly drawn to him, and he to her. She has resolved to travel to Mauritius, as her great-aunt did, in the hope of finding a better future. Along with Jodu, her childhood friend (or brother, as both Jodu and Paulette are brought up under the care of Jodu's mother following the death of Paulette's mother at childbirth), she boards the Ibis, unaware of her destiny. Paulette easily disguises herself as an Indian woman, using her fluent Bengali, which she learned in childhood growing up at close proximity with Jodu and his mother. Paulette's upbringing in India has also made her feel more at ease with Indian manners, food, and clothing than with Western ones.
As the stories merge, each carrying its share of joys and sorrows, the Ibis becomes a shelter to those in destitution.
After much strife and bloodshed on board the vessel, Neel, Ah Fatt, Jodu, Serang Ali and Kalua manage to escape, unaware of the destination the sea waves will carry them to.
- Sea of Poppies, Official Website
- Amitav Ghosh website
- Opium financed British Rule in India BBC News interview June 23, 2008.
- Adventures in the Opium Trade Cathleen Schine review from The New York Review of Books