Sea of Poppies

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1434

In Amitav Ghosh’s novel Sea of Poppies, Deeti lives in a village four hundred miles from the Indian coast. She has never seen the sea or a ship, and she has never left her home district. One day she has a vision of a sailing ship and she knows that it is a sign, although she is not yet certain what it portends. Deeti’s life is neither happy nor unhappy; it is a ceaseless round of back-breaking work. She does not love her husband, Hukam, who was injured in battle and now, disabled, works in an opium-processing factory. He has become an opium addict. Their daughter, Kabutri, was in fact fathered by his brother, Chandan, after Deeti was drugged and raped with the family’s connivance. Deeti has unexamined feelings for Kalua, a member of the leather workers’ caste, whom she rescued, without his apparent knowledge, from a beating. However, when Deeti’s husband dies, and she determines to commit sati (throw herself on Hukam’s funeral pyre) rather than marry Chandan, it is Kalua who rescues her from the fire and then leaves the village with Deeti, determined to find sanctuary elsewhere. Eventually, they find their way to Calcutta and, aware that Deeti’s in-laws are still searching for her, determine to leave for Mauritius to become indentured laborers.

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The ship in Deeti’s vision is later identified as the Ibis, a former slave ship, in poor condition, that has been sold to Benjamin Burnham and is now being taken to Calcutta for refitting. Zachary Reid, a mulatto freedman from Baltimore, has signed on as ship’s carpenter because he cannot find employment in his home town. The voyage to India is little short of disastrous, thanks to the ship’s condition. Illness breaks out, and Reid finds himself inadvertently rising to become, at one point, the ship’s de facto captain. He is helped by a group of lascar sailors, led by the mysterious Serang Ali, who effectively run the ship and who clearly have plans for the newly minted Zakri Malun. They make over Reid’s wardrobe so that he can play the part of a gentleman, and he learns their language and their various ways, coming to appreciate their food as well. What Serang Ali’s plans are for Reid remain unclear throughout the novel.

Having brought the ship safely to Calcutta, Reid finds himself among a colorful collection of “old India hands,” who represent themselves as understanding the ways of the Indians and the lascars but whose apprehension of local ways is quite different from Reid’s. In turn, they look askance at him because he seems able to engage with all segments of the population on apparently equal terms. As a result, they view him with the deepest suspicion. Eventually, the new first mate of the Ibis, Mr. Crowle, discovers that when Reid first joined the Ibis he had been described on the manifest as “black” and so seeks to blackmail him.

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As a presentable member of the crew, and because of his gentlemanly ways, Reid is invited to dine with the Burnhams, and it is here that he encounters Paulette Lambert, whom he previously met when he rescued her foster brother, Jodu, and gave him a place on the ship. Reid and Paulette inhabit a similar place in society, neither native nor gentry. While Reid has been assimilated into the culture of the lascars, Paulette has been brought up by an Indian woman and prefers Indian habits. Her father was a freethinker, and she did not receive a religious education. When she is adopted by the Burnhams, their concern is to rectify this perceived lack rather than to properly understand their new ward. They remain unaware of Paulette’s abilities as a scholar, a linguist, and a naturalist, not least because she has the wit to realize that she is best advised to keep quiet. However, Paulette is bored by the enforced lack of occupation that is expected of a white woman. Marriage is the only option, but while Paulette realizes she is attracted to Zachary, she finds to her horror that Judge Kendalbushe, an elderly Englishman, wishes to marry her. Between this and the unwanted attentions of Benjamin Burnham himself, Paulette determines to escape, hidden, on the Ibis when it sails. However, her appeals to Zachary for help fall on deaf ears.

Raja Neel Rattan Halder has, by contrast, led a life of almost complete indolence, governed by intricate custom and practice, which is vitally necessary that he maintain in order to preserve his position as zemindar of Rashkali, for his own sake as well as for the sake of the people who look to him for guidance. However, he is well aware that his world will disintegrate because he is in financial difficulties. When he is wrongly found guilt of forgery, Neel finds himself imprisoned and sentenced to be transported to Mauritius on the Ibis. Neel shares his imprisonment with an opium addict, Ah Fatt, and almost his first task, having accepted that his life has changed irrevocably, is to nurse Ah Fatt through an enforced withdrawal from the drug. Through this, the two men form an uneasy bond as they await transportation.

Though this disparate group of protagonists provides a microcosm of India in the early nineteenth century, Ghosh presents the reader with an intricate portrait of a multilayered society circumscribed at all levels by convention. It is also a society heavily dependent on one industry for its income; everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, is affected by the opium trade. No one is immune to its effects, economic or otherwise. As the narrative shows, however, this carefully constructed society rests on a fragile foundation. If the opium industry collapses, what will happen to these people?

As the group sails to Mauritius on the Ibis, various of its members are beset by danger, most particularly by the fear that they will be revealed to be something other than they have pretended to be. Despite their different backgrounds, the passengers and prisoners gradually form a community, mirroring that of the lascar seamen, and the ship gradually comes to stand for a new India, in which the poor and helpless fight for their rights when they are badly treated by the mostly white officers. Eventually, during a long night of brutality and revelation, the senior officers lose control of the ship, and some are killed. The community is broken asunder, with Serang Ali, Jodu, Neel, Ah Fatt, and Kalua fleeing the ship in a small boat and leaving behind Paulette and Deeti.

At this point, the novel draws to a close, but it is intended to be the first part of a trilogy of novels, the Ibis trilogy, in which Ghosh will explore the colonial history of India, principally through the portrayal of the opium industry but also through the transportation of indentured labor to Mauritius and to other British colonies. His approach is necessarily panoramic, with one character representing an entire social group, and yet he manages to portray society as a whole on a personal level. The reader identifies with and cares for the characters, knowing that whatever they have suffered so far is nothing compared to what they are going to experience as they take to the open sea and begin their long voyage into what is, effectively, a new society. Already there are hints that they are, however unintentionally, part of a grander story in which some of them will found dynasties and be remembered. In this novel, Ghosh also explores the ways in which people are perceived in the world, through language and appearance. People are easily persuaded that Zachary is a gentleman by the clothes he wears, although he is acutely aware that he might at any point be found to be not only a mere ship’s carpenter but also a mulatto. By the same token, Reid understands far more of the languages used by the lascars than the English officers who command the ship and who attempt to teach him how to speak properly to the seamen. In fact, the English colony prides itself on its ability to communicate with the Indian people, and yet Ghosh deftly shows the ways in which the Englishmen mangle the languages they try to speak because they do not learn them properly. The tragedy of the society that Ghosh portrays is that its disparate parts cannot communicate with one another. The community creating itself on the Ibis points the way forward, and it offers hope, although a fragile one.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61

Booklist 105, no. 4 (October 15, 2008): 23.

The Economist 387 (May 24, 2008): 108.

Far Eastern Economic Review 171, no. 7 (September, 2008): 71-72.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 17 (September 1, 2008): 907.

Library Journal 133, no. 16 (October 1, 2008): 56.

New Statesman 137 (May 5, 2008): 58-59.

The New York Times, November 6, 2008, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review, November 30, 2008, p. 8.

The New Yorker 84, no. 34 (October 27, 2008): 87.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 33 (August 18, 2008): 38.

The Times Literary Supplement, June 6, 2008, p. 19.

The Wall Street Journal 252, no. 93 (October 18, 2008): W8.

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