Sea of Poppies

Author:   Amitav Ghosh
Publisher:   Penguin Books India
Reviewer:   Monika Bisht
Designation:   Research Scholar

Ghosh, Amitav (2008). Sea of Poppies, Penguin Books India. ©Amitav Ghosh 2008, ISBN: 978-0-374-17422-4

With the advent of an open economy and technological advancement, the entire world remains strongly connected. The physical boundaries have blurred between people, societies and nations. Over the time, the issues related to People of Indian Origin (PIOs) and Non Resident Indians (NRIs), who have settled in various parts of the world since early 19th century, have gained salience in this debate. The movement and settlement of PIOs and NRIs must not be seen in isolation. There has been a constant connectivity between past and present of the migrant society. The settlement of Indian Diaspora abroad has a long history with various typologies and categories, and each category has different sociological attributes and significance. Considering the complex structure of Indian diaspora and its settlement in the host land, a significant scholarly literature has tried to understand the historic sequence, socio-cultural and linguistic heritage, of the diasporic community. ‘Sea of Poppies’ is one such masterpiece which constitutes an important reading in the area of migration studies and Diaspora.

‘Sea of Poppies’, a novel written by Amitav Ghosh in the year 2008, discusses the trajectory of a ship named ‘Ibis’. The book is divided into three parts: land, river and sea. The book traces the historical records of indentured labour migration from the rural villages of Bengal and Western Uttar Pradesh to the sugar estates of Mareechhi (Mauritius) in the early 18th century during the colonial reign of British in India. The story talks about the recruitment of girmitiya mazdoor (slaves) and coolies from the rural belt of Western Uttar Pradesh and Bengal, which were also the central location of the labor out flow from India. The book tries to explain the socio-economic adversities of the workers, which forced them to leave their mother-land. Ghosh has narrated an epic story centered around the opium cultivation in the Ghazipur district of Bengal, near Ganga Ghat and opium trade between Indians and Britishers during colonial time on the one hand, and the migration of Indian agricultural workers and coolies under a contract on the other hand and their links and connections.

The novel has raised several issues including zamindari system, caste hierarchy, gender discrimination, domination of patriarchy, impoverishment, destitution, exploitation of slaves, racial problem and so on. The author has discussed numerous issues with presentation of more than a dozens of characters including Deeti, a widow, mother of Kabutri who eloped with her lower caste lover to escape together, Kalua, a lower caste leather worker, Raja Neel Ratan Halder, a Bengali Zamindar or Raja of Rakshali who was wrongly sentenced to a penal colony on Mauritius, Mr. Zachary Reid, an American sailor, Miss Paulette Lambart, the orphaned daughter of a French botanist and others. The title of the novel is ‘Sea of Poppies’ which clearly stated the message that it is the voyage of the poppies in which all of them were passaged together having their individual stories. Each one belonged to different socio-economic and class background but they are all ‘Jahaz Bhai’s’ on the ivory. The two words are important here, ‘sea’ and ‘poppies’ – ‘sea’ gives an understanding of the passage (to move across the black water) and ‘poppies’ refers to the flowers sprouted from the opium seeds which existed the real purpose of that sea voyage. Therefore, ‘poppies’ refers to the significance of the poppies for the long sea journey. In this pretext, the word ‘poppies’ has been used for the migrants on boarded the ship.

Ghosh has portrayed the plight of women in the 19th century which were worse during the colonial period. They were subjugated and oppressed both within the patriarchal as well as zamindari system. Deeti, was herself a victim of male oppression and patriarchal violence in her husband’s family. She suffered marital rape by husband, sexual assault by brother in law, abuses like chuddail or chuddailiya after her husband’s death and the enforcement of ‘sati’ system wherein she was forced to die along with husband. The character of Elokeshi was different who was a mistress of Raja Neel Ratan. The Zamindars had right to enjoy multiple woman for  fun, lust and sexual desires but eventually when Raja was arrested in a false case, she betrayed him as she got to know that he lost his property. On the other hand, Malti, the wife of Raja Neel Ratan performed all the duties of a so called ‘good wife and mother’. She was a ‘bahu’ of a Zamindari family who was not allowed to speak in front of male heads. She was silent spectator and passive sufferer and her condition was not better than Deeti’s condition. The character of Taramony as guru ma of Baboo Nob Kissin is also very interesting. She was much younger than her husband and was leading a life of widowhood which was full of suffering and hardship. However, Baboo Nob Kissin was so much impressed by the spiritual knowledge of Taramony and her devotion towards her Lord Krishna. Both of them started living together in a small circle of devotees and people called her Ma who gave spiritual instructions to them. This is another set of relationship between a man and woman which shows their spiritual and pure love between a guru and a shishya. On the other hand, Mrs Burnham and her daughter are represented the mindset of the British women who considered them superior than Indians and anything which is part of Indian culture including language, dress, people, food are looked upon inferior. There were range of characters such as Heeru, Miss Paulette Lambart, Munniah and Sarju and so on.

During 19thCentury, caste hierarchy was very severe and adamant in the society. During that time, the rule of the Zamindars and Rajputs were dominant for the so called lower caste people. The attitude of Hukam Singh, as a high caste Rajput has been potrayed as authoritative towards Kalua who was ox-cart driver. Hukam Singh believed that the sight of his face would bode ill for the whole day. On the other hand, there is Raja Neel Ratan Halder, a Zamindar who loses his empire Rakshali due to the indebtedness under the British Opium company. Nevertheless, he was leading a fake royal life with his wife, son and dearest mistress. Since his childhood, he led a royal Zamindar life which he did not want to lose from the British traders. His empire ‘Rakshali’ was dear to his heart. He had a fear that if he will lose Rakshali, he would have to lose his ‘izzat’ which was maintained right from his great grandfather to him. Therefore, when he was arrested he felt very sad, low and hopeless before the huge crowd of the villagers.

Ghosh has portrayed the vibrancy of socio-cultural-religious practices, beliefs and customs among the migrants. Deeti used to do ‘puja’, offered flowers to the idols every day, in her husband’s home. She used to cook ‘roti’, dal, achaar for her husband’s lunch and carried them up to the opium factory all alone. Also, she had a belief that her fate was ruled by ‘Shani’ or ‘Saturn’ who brought all the bad luck, unhappiness and sorrow in her life. The river water of Ganga was considered as pure, pious and ‘Mukti Srot’. Deeti believed that unlike sea water, Ganga is pure enough that if a person bathe in the Ganga water, his/her sin will be clear out from the water. Moreover, Bhojpuri words used in the dialogues between the ladies illuminated the language of the novel.

The novel did justice to put the issues and problems of the individual characters. The author has adequately represented the issues of migration with the incredible characters who were facing similar dilemma.  Ghosh tried to depict the sufferings of women from all sections of Indian society during nineteenth century. He exposed the social evils like sati, sexual assault, rape, stereotypical image of women in the society. Indeed, he narrated the powerful and bold women character like Deeti who decided to elope with a lower caste guy leaving behind all patriarchal bonds. Ghosh has tried to narrate beautifully the reason of their sea voyage. Furthermore, the representation of dialogue, habits, tastes, costumes, objects etc. were creating excitement in the story.

Apart from the story and characters, the author has tried to represent how the ‘trade relations’ persisted during the colonial reign in the early 18th century. The author has discussed the plot and its characters under the influence of whole India and China opium relations. The author has set the characters that how the Indo-China trade relations influences the characters. The novel, however, a fine work in Diaspora literature which provides the in-depth knowledge of meaning, nature, characters of migration and Diaspora with an epic story, multiple incredible characters and the conversations between them. In addition to this, the novel manages to illustrate the lives and sufferings of indentured workers, migrant during the colonial times which also has relevance in the present context. A significant number of migrants today constitute the segment of unskilled, semi-skilled workforce going to the Gulf states, South Asia, South East Asia and other Western countries. Like the indentured past, these too face multiple hardships and struggles on a daily basis in the host land and receive scant attention of the homeland government.


Reviewed by Monika Bisht, PhD Scholar, National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi, Email: [email protected] 


© 2012-20 GRFDT, All Rights Reserved.Maintained by GRFDT.Designed by Abhinav Jain