What are the major themes that arise in Sea of Poppies?
One of the themes of Ghosh's Sea of Poppies is the way in which the people of India have no control over their own fates. The book takes place during the Opium War, when Great Britain used India to grow poppy seeds that were sold, as opium, to the Chinese to create a more favorable balance of trade for Britain. Just as India was a pawn in the Opium Wars, so are the characters in the novel. For example, Deeti is the widow of a man whose brother raped her to impregnate her (as her husband was addicted to opium and was too insensate to have children). As a widow, Deeti is expected to commit sati, or throw herself on the funeral pyre; instead, she falls in love with an untouchable and escapes aboard a ship called the Ibis that brings "coolies," or workers from Calcutta, to Mauritius to work. Other passengers on the ship, such as Paulette, a French girl disguised as a coolie, are also tossed about by fate.
Another theme in the novel is the treatment of women, as Paulette and Deeti are forced (or, in Paulette's case, will be forced) into loveless marriages. The family that adopted Paulette, the Burnhams, do not recognize her intelligence and want to force her to marry someone she does not love. Instead, she loves Zachary, the biracial crew member of the Ibis. Deeti's and Paulette's escape on the Ibis is their attempt to regain control over their lives.
Sea of Poppies is the first novel in the Ibis trilogy, created by author and historian Amitav Ghosh. The book takes place in India at the beginning of the opium trade. In proceeding years, the opium trade would lead, in part, to the domination of the subcontinent by British rule.
The novel traces the stories of a cast of diverse characters who are implicated, in one way or another, in the opium trade. These characters include Deeti, a low-caste Indian woman with an opium-addicted husband; Neel, a former raja who has fallen victim to the cunning of English traders; and Zachary, an American sailor aboard the ship Ibis, which is carrying opium from India to the international market. Eventually, all the characters in the novel come aboard the Ibis.
In bringing together this diverse cast on the opium ship, the novel stages themes of interconnectivity and power at the cusp of globalization. How do individual differences (cultural, economic, or otherwise) fade or intensify in the context of internationalism? How do different modes of power (gender, class, caste, etc.) conflict, evolve, or reinforce each other when they collide through international systems of commerce? What freedoms does globalization create, and what constraints does it impose?