Of opium, seas and tragedies: Sea of poppies by Amitav Ghosh

First part of the Ibis trilogy is named Sea of poppies. The name signifies the fate of characters which  are all connected by a ship (Ibis) , sea and opium and all three have been metaphorized into sea of poppies.


The introductory character of the book is Deeti, a woman from Eastern Uttar Pradesh who has an afeemkhor (opium addict) husband and she escapes with Kalua, a cart-puller from a scavenger caste. The story of Deeti talks about villages, opium fields and industries, rigid caste system and satee– the practice of burning women with her husband’s death pyre. She even becomes a witness to Kalua’s physical assault which makes her think

“So it could happen to a man too? Even a powerful giant of a man could be humiliated and destroyed, in away that far exceeded his body’s capacity for pain?”

She is forced to choose Ibis as her future because she has no other place to go.

The most recurring character in the book is Zachary Reid, who is an American sailor and is later appointed as second mate on Ibis.He is a well-behaved gentleman with the rational view. He questions opium trade of England to which Mr. Burnham, an opium trader replies

“For the simple reasons, Reid that British rule in India could not be sustained without opium- that is all there is to it, and let us not pretend otherwise.  Do you imagine that British rule would be possible in this impoverished land of India? And if we reflect on the benefits that British rule has conferred upon India, does it not follow that opium is this land’s greatest blessing?”

He develops love interest in Paulette Lambert, who is the daughter of a deceased French botanist. She is adopted by an English family in Calcutta but as the fate has it; she has to take the course of Ibis. An interesting character in the book is Baboo Nob Kissin who carries the words of his spiritual teacher and sister-in-law Taramony who said to him

 “There will be signs, she said. You must keep a careful watch,for the indications may be obscure and unexpected. But when they show themselves, you must not hesitate or hold back; you must follow them wherever they lead even if they take you across the sea”.

He finds his God in Zachary and his son in Neel Rattan Halder which inspires him to be on board the ship. Neel is a bankrupt king of raskhali estate and he has been sentenced for seven years for forgery. He has lost his pride, his wealth, his family but he chooses to persevere and return to his family one day. Ibis the ship is no less than a major character in the book. The ship was earlier used to carry slaves and now it carries coolies, girmitiyas (indentured labors) across the sea.


Amitav Ghosh has used lucid and intriguing narration which brings a natural flow to the book. He has used his collection of ship terminologies to add perfection. He has supplemented his writing with use of local dialects like laskari, Bhojpuri, Bengali.

Talwa jharaile

           Kawal kumbhlaile

Hanse roye

           Biraha biyog

The pond is dry

           The lotus withered

The swan weeps

           For its absent love.

The book shows the underlying importance of Calcutta as a city, a city where an Empire’s foundation was laid. The opium trade was entirely carried out through Calcutta and the most important commodity that brought revenue and tea from China in exchange was opium. Because of these ties, thousands of Chinese are still based in Calcutta.

He puts the intentions of the slave trade and opium trade into words

“Jesus Christ is free trade and free trade is Jesus Christ.” Opium was used under God’s will as an instrument to open China to his teachings.

But he breaks down the myth in other lines uttered by Mr Chillingworth,

“We are no different from the Pharaohs or the Mongols; the difference is only that when we kill people we feel compelled to pretend that it for some higher cause. It is this pretence of virtue, I promise you that will never be forgiven by history”

The other two books River of smoke and Flood of fire will definitely be an interesting read.

 Stay tuned  

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