Sea of Poppies (2008) is a critically acclaimed historical novel written by Indian-English contemporary writer and novelist Amitav Ghosh. The novel is the first volume of Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, followed by River of Smoke (2011) and Flood of Fire (2015).
Set in Eastern India and the Bay of Bengal, the novel opens in 1838, at the beginning of what would come to be known as the First Opium War. The plot begins to unfold with the arrival of the former slave ship Ibis on the island of Sagar. The Ibis is set to transport laborers from Calcutta to the sugar estates of the British colony of Mauritius.
The story is divided into three parts: "Land," "River," and "Sea." The first part gives background information on the main protagonists and describes the reasons why they decide to board the Ibis; the second part, when the ship is moored in the river near Kidderpore, explains how these characters’ fates are intertwined and interconnected—like all of the flowers in a poppy field; in the last part, the passengers sale to the lands of Mauritius to find a better life.
Thus, Sea of Poppies represents the struggles and the sufferings of marginalized groups of people in Indian society who leave their native land in order to find better living conditions. Moreover, it covers a myriad of socio-economic and political themes, including (but not limited to): colonization, religion, tradition, exploitation, racism, social hierarchy, sexism, discrimination, patriarchy, poverty, violence, rape, abuse, culture, and identity.
All of Ghosh’s characters have suffered some sort of violence and abuse in their lives, be it verbal, physical, psychological, or taxonomic. However, one of the most disturbing examples is probably the violent abuse that is endured by Deeti Singh—the main protagonist of the novel.
Deeti was raped by her immoral husband, who drugged her with opium on their first wedding night, and allowed his sadistic brother to sexually assault and impregnate her. More importantly, she was forced to die along with her husband; this represents the "sati" practice, wherein a widow must immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre or kill herself in another way:
She was slumped over, barely upright: she would not have been able to stand on her own feet, much less walk . . . Half dragged and half carried, she was brought to the pyre and made to sit cross-legged on it, beside her husband’s corpse.
What’s even more concerning was the fact that Deeti considered being burned on her husband’s pyre a far more welcoming fate than dealing with her brother-in-law's violent abuse:
better by far to die a celebrated death than to be dependent on Chandan Singh, or even to return to her own village, to live out her days as a shameful burden on her brother and her kin.
She felt so threatened by him, that at one point she considered carrying a knife to defend herself, as she feared for her life:
His advances became so aggressive that Deeti took to hiding a small knife in the folds of her sari, fearing that he might attack her, right on her husband’s bed.
Fortunately, she is saved by Kalua, an untouchable lower-class man from a neighboring village, and they both escape by boarding the Ibis.
The fact that many women of lower and middle social classes experience the same thing that Deeti went through is proof of taxonomic violence of epic proportions. These women are degraded, discriminated against, oppressed, forced to be submissive, raped, beaten, publicly shamed and criticized, subjugated, and murdered, in some cases, on the basis of the rules in their patriarchal society.
Sea of Poppies gives relevance to these societal issues; it provides encouragement to its readers to empathize with the pain and suffering of the marginalized characters and unveils all the social and political injustices that are still occurring to this day.