Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies- A Novel (The Ibis Trilogy)

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh is a 2008 novel that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It is the first volume of the Ibis trilogy and won the 2008 Vodafone Crossword Book Award for Fiction, the 2008 British Book Design and Production Award, the Indiaplaza Golden Quill Award for best novel, the Indiaplaza Golden Quill Popular Vote Award in 2009, and the prestigious Tagore Literature Award, awarded by Sahitya Akademi in 2012.

The story is set prior to the First Opium War, on the banks of the holy river Ganges and in Calcutta. The novel interweaves the stories of a number of characters, who all, in the latter half of the novel, find themselves taking passage from Calcutta to Mauritius on a schooner named the Ibis.

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 novel highlights the dark side of early globalization – the violence and exploitation upon which fortunes were made and empires were founded.

It 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 impotent 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, travelling on the Ibis.

The novel closes with Neel, Ah Fatt, Jodu, Serang Ali and Kalua escaping in a longboat towards Singapore, while Deeti, Paulette, and Zachary proceed towards Mauritius.

Sea of Poppies is a vivid and captivating tale of imperialism and colonialism, drug smuggling and human trafficking, and the power of love and friendship.

Useful Takeaways

  • Sea of Poppies is a 2008 novel by Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008.
  • The novel highlights the dark side of early globalization – the violence and exploitation upon which fortunes were made and empires were founded.
  • The story is set prior to the First Opium War, on the banks of the holy river Ganges and in Calcutta.

What I Liked

It’s a beautifully written book that tackles just how complicated and awful on all sides the past was. I’m glad I’m alive right now in human history…with the knowledge, appreciation, and gratitude of all the forgotten millions of people who built the world that I get to live in. It was rough back then.

What I Did Not Like

The writing is lush – it’s a beautiful book to read…but I did not like how the florid writing got in the way of the plot and characters at times. It’s also wasn’t ideal to be googling terms every few sentences.

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