I met Amitav Ghosh in Hyderabad at the launch of River of Smoke, the sequel to this book Sea of Poppies. And I remember him talking in detail about the opium trade as if that was all that the entire world was bothered about for the longest time. He claimed that Europeans came to India more for opium than any other thing. I believe he has centered his Ibis trilogy on the Opium wars of mid 19th CE. And that’s all he was focused on.
This is an extremely well-researched novel based on many different accounts of various aspects of the Opium trade in India. Set in 1838, it has characters from villages in what is now eastern UP, the port in Calcutta and a ship that has come here to take coolies to black waters or island of Mauritius. This book is about the journey of various people who will get on board a ship called Ibis that leaves Calcutta.
There is a Bhojpuri speaking woman from a village on the banks of Ganga who lands on the ship. And her journey tells us about the opium plantations, the agreements that the East India company had with the farmers, the factories in the rural areas. And the flow of people towards black waters in search of livelihood. There is an American sailor who comes to Calcutta as one of the few survivors on Ibis. And is appointed to be on its next journeys. There is a French Botanist’s daughter who has grown up with a Bengali wet nurse, whose son is like a foster brother to her, who is taken under the guardianship of a rich English family that she has to run away from.
There is a small time Raja who has been made to lose all his properties. And has been sentenced to imprisonment in Kala Pani. And has a Parsi-Chinese cohort. There is a Babu who is on a spiritual mission of decoding his master’s message. But is equally cunning and calculative. Then there is supporting cast of many engaged on the ship, in the offices, and in the Zamindaris.
The story brings out historical facts, social systems, and conditions. The changing power structures in India when the rich and powerful were slowly passing on the power to the British while still maintaining a social distance from them. A scene where a Raja entertains his foreigner guests but refuses to eat with them. And both parties are accepted and follow this practice tell a lot about what people were willing to lose and what not. There is a subtle romance between the American sailor and the French girl. But it also follows the norms of the 19th CE society when they hardly confess it to each other.
The language used is very confusing. To begin with as the English as we know it today is mixed with various dialects -primarily Bhojpuri and Bengali. The language spoken by the Europeans is very interesting. As they mix the local words but give them their own version. Sometimes you have to re-read the sentence as the words can have multiple meanings. The botanist even brings in the scientific language. And I wonder if there is a truth in some of those scientific names.
The book closes at a point of high curiosity where a small group of people on board leaves the Ibis. And it leaves you wondering about next part of the story. Which section of people would it focus on? Those on board or those who fled away or both? So anyone who reads this book Sea of Poppies is bound to read the next and the next one.
You may buy this book – Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh at Amazon.
Recommend you read the following book review of the author.