Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh: A Review

July 13, 2008

It takes a story-teller with prodigious skill and supreme confidence in it to assemble a diverse group of characters, draw stories around each one of them- some intersecting while some independent- slowly bringing them together aboard a ship and letting them adrift in the Bay of Bengal.


This is a story of victims. The once-widowed village woman and her low-caste husband, victims of their gender and caste respectively in their Eastern UP village. The urbane English-spouting Raja from Bengal, victim of his family traditions of extravagance. The gutsy and erudite young French woman victim of fate and sexual exploitation by her guardian. The Hindu clerk in the service of an English trader in Calcutta victim of his intense devotion to Lord Krishna. The man from Canton, a victim of his opium addiction. Victims all, their lives criss-crossing each other and inexorably drifting towards Ibis, a ship being prepared to ferry them across the oceans towards an uncertain and scary future.


The story is set in early 19th century, a couple of decades before the first war of independence in 1857. Against the backdrop of the early consolidation of the British empire, and the forced cultivation of opium in the Gangetic plains of Eastern UP and Bihar the stories of the individuals are told with unbelievable detail and empathy for the situation they get into. The story centers around Ibis, a massive ship which is being prepared to transport indentured labourers to the sugarcane fields run by the English in far-off countries across the “black waters”. The ship is owned by a self-made trader, Burnham, who uses his religious beliefs to justify anything from forcing the cultivation of opium to attacking China for preventing the trade of opium, right down to his sexual tastes. The ship prepared for sailing, loaded with the labourers and a couple of convicts is assigned to an aging captain on his last sailing mission. The captain is assisted by a foul-mouth and vicious first mate while the second mate is a mulatto American. The crew consists of sailors from various parts of the world including Rohangyas from Burma.


As this motley group sets sail, there are tales of torture, killings, confessions, intrigues and yes, even an on-board wedding complete with song and dance. The laborers may be victims in their home-land and maybe sailing away to a land which no one knows anything about except for stray rumours like how they would be slaughtered once in the distant Mareech (Mauritius), hung upside down and oil extracted from their heads. But they are determined to forge a new future for themselves, away from the rigid social shackles of India. As they share their limited physical space and limited resources they form new bonds of jahaj bhais and jahaj bahins breaking the centuries old shackles of caste system.


The author clearly has done some intense research on the time. The description of the opium making process and the factory, the sailors’ language and terminology, the functioning of a ship in those days, the English language used in those times, even the marriage rituals and songs of the Bhojpuri region people. The use of various languages is something which may overwhelm the reader. Sample this from the Rohingya sailor Serang Ali. “No hab see? Mistoh Oc-tuh-puss eight hand hab got. Make heself too muchi happy inside. Why Malum not so-fashion do. Ten finger no hab got?” And this from Mrs Burnham, “This mate-his name was Texeira I recall- was from Macao, a Portuguese, and as chuckmuck a rascal as ever you’ll see: eyes as bright as muggerbees, smile like a xeraphim.” You nearly want to pull out your copy of Hobson Jobson to decipher this!


One quibble which I have is the author’s portrayal of the Englishmen as ultra-evil, they nearly look like card-board characters.


The end of the book leaves you wanting for more as the author leaves the story mid-way with some key characters try to escape the ship. We are told that this volume is the first in what is called Ibis trilogy. We will await the next installment eagerly.