Skip to main content

Sea of Poppies

Book Review

“The truth is, sir, that men do what their power permits them to do. 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 is for some higher cause.  It is this pretence of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.”

Captain Chillingworth of the ship Ibis utters those words in Amitav Ghosh’s novel, Sea of Poppies.  The novel is about power and how different people wield it over others as much as it is about the powerless who are destined to suffer the oppressions. 

The novel presents a part of the India in the 1830s.  The British have become very powerful in India and they control the trade too.   As Benjamin Burnham, one of the traders in the novel, says, trade indicates the “march of human freedom.”  Even slave trade is part of that glorious march.  According to Burnham, the white man gave freedom to the African slaves from “the rule of some dark tyrant.”  He brings in Jesus Christ too to justify free trade.  “Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ,” he asserts.  There are missionaries who assist the traders.  Burnham became a successful trader with the help of some missionaries.  His first bid is to transport indentured labourers from India to Mauritius. 

Ghosh brings together some charming characters from various parts of India to the Ibis.  One of them is Deeti, a young widow who is saved from becoming a Sati by her low caste friend, Kalua.  Deeti’s husband was an impotent man and so she is impregnated by her brother-in-law with the assistance of her mother-in-law and an uncle.  It is the duty of every Indian mother to give birth to as many children as possible.  She can be a Draupadi for that.  Being a Draupadi is more honourable than being the wife of a single man.  But Deeti will save herself from that fate by killing her mother-in-law with slow and steady doses of opium.  After the death of her impotent husband, her brother-in-law wants to keep her as his second wife, his sex object.  When she protests he wields whatever power he has in order to make her a Sati.  He will be able to earn much money by building a temple in her honour after she is burnt in the funeral pyre of her husband.  Religion is also about power and wealth.  The missionaries help in transporting slaves.  The ordinary man creates goddesses by burning widows.

The Raja of Raskhali also ends up in the Ibis, as a prisoner rather than an indentured labourer the latter of whom are much better off in comparison.  One of the masters on the ship is none other than Deeti’s uncle who had held her legs open in her wedding night so that her brother-in-law could sow his seed in her.  Deeti’s attempts to hide herself from the uncle fail and both she and Kalua will be punished for breaking the sacred caste rules.  The white man will support the uncle.

Captain Chillingworth justifies the cruelty in the name of caste system.  “... there is an unspoken pact between the white man and the natives who sustain his power in Hindoosthan,” he explains.  It is important that the power structures in Hindoosthan are honoured.  Otherwise the white man’s power structures will not be honoured.  That is his logic.  “The day the natives lose faith in us, as the guarantors of the order of castes – that will be the day, gentlemen, that will doom our rule.  This is the inviolable principle on which our authority is based...”

Sea of Poppies is about such authority and power.  It is about the ruthlessness and cruelty that has sustained such authority and power throughout history.  It is about how religion is a handmaid of that authority and power.  It is a brilliant novel with some very fascinating characters taken from the British India.  It shows us the hypocrisy of religion and moral systems. 

Excellent as the novel is, it presents a lot of difficulties to a normal reader because of the polyglot lingo it uses.  The ship is a place where all sorts of people mingle.  And their language is a terrible pidgin which is a mixture of many languages.  Here is an excerpt as an example:

   ‘Why for Malum Zikri wanchi pay for jiggy-pijjin?’ said the serang.  ‘Oc-to-puss no have see?  Is too muchi happy fish.’

   This had Zachary foundering.  ‘Octopus?’ he said.  ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’

   ‘No hab see?’ said Serang Ali.  ‘Mistoh Oc-toh-pus eight hand hab got.  Make herself too muchi happy inside.  Allo time smile.  Why Malum not so-fashion do?  Ten finger no hab got?’

That is Ali, the master of the indenture company, teaching Zachary, the second mate on the ship, how he should grab with all his ten fingers the opportunity to enjoy sex with the girls available. 

Ghosh has done much research to make the lingo as authentic as possible.  But it makes the novel difficult to read.  Apart from that, the novel is an exquisite work.  I am looking forward to reading its sequels though the pidgin in this book is quite a deterrent for me. 

Indian Bloggers


  1. A coincidence! My earlier poem was based on the sea of poppies novel! That book was a journey of melancholy, nostalgia, poppies and how the poppy industry under british colonisation era led the characters meet each other. And the characters! they were perhaps more lively yet complex than any real person. A great novel with a thick volume, enough to quench your thirst of literary fiction

    1. I had read your poem, Pranju. You have a literary and philosophical seeker in you. All the best.

      Yes, Ghosh is an excellent novelist.

  2. Sounds like an interesting read! The language does sound like a deterrent but I guess the plot is quite gripping to overlook that! This seems like the kind of story Hollywood would love....the India of the dark ages!

    1. If you have the patience the pidgin won't be much of a problem; you will get used to it. The book shows the darkness of both: India and the Great Britain.

  3. Amitav Ghosh is a master at creating atmospheres..!

  4. This is on my Kindle for some time now.. Will get to it soon.

  5. A wonderful and detailed review :) Hope to read it soon.

    1. All the best, Purba. I'm sure you'll like the book.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

An Aberration of Kali Yuga

Are we Indians now living in an aberrant period of history? A period that is far worse than the puranic Kali Yuga? A period in which gods decide to run away in fear of men? That’s a very provocative question, isn’t it, especially in a time when people are being arrested for raising much more innocuous questions than that? But I raise my hands in surrender because I’m not raising this question; the Malayalam movie that Maggie and I watched is. Before I go to the provocations of the movie, I am compelled to clarify a spelling problem with the title of the movie. The title is Bhramayugam [ ഭ്രമയുഗം] in Malayalam. But the movie’s records and ads write it as Bramayugam [ ബ്രമയുഗം ] which would mean the yuga of Brama. Since Brama doesn’t mean anything in Malayalam, people like me will be tempted to understand it as the yuga of Brahma . In fact, that is how I understood it until Maggie corrected me before we set off to watch the movie by drawing my attention to the Malayalam spelling

Karma in Gita

I bought a copy of annotated Bhagavad Gita a few months back with the intention of understanding the scripture better since I’m living in a country that has become a Hindu theocracy in all but the Constitution. After reading the first part [chapters 1 to 6] which is about Karma, I gave up. Shelving a book [literally and metaphorically] is not entirely strange to me. If a book fails to appeal to me after a reasonable number of pages, I abandon it. The Gita failed to make sense to me just like any other scripture. That’s not surprising since I’m not a religious kind of a person. I go by reason. I accept poetry which is not quite rational. Art is meaningful for me though I can’t detect any logic in it. Even mysticism is acceptable. But the kind of stuff that Krishna was telling Arjuna didn’t make any sense at all. To me. Just a sample. When Arjuna says he doesn’t want to fight the war because he can’t kill his own kith and kin, Krishna’s answer is: Fight. If you are killed, you win he

Kabir the Guru - 1

Kabirvad Kabirvad is a banyan tree in Gujarat. It is named after Kabir, the mystic poet and saint of the 15 th century. There is a legend behind the tree. Two brothers are in search of a guru. They have an intuitive feeling that the guru will appear when they are ready for it. They plant a dry banyan root at a central spot in their courtyard. Whenever a sadhu passes by, they wash his feet at this particular spot. Their conviction is that the root will sprout into a sapling when their guru appears. Years pass and there’s no sign of any sapling. No less than four decades later, the sapling rises. The man who had come the previous day was a beggarly figure whom the brothers didn’t treat particularly well though they gave him some water to drink out of courtesy. But the sapling rose, after 40 years! So the brothers went in search of that beggarly figure. Kabir, the great 15 th century mystic poet, had been their guest. The legend says that the brothers became Kabir’s disciples. The b

Raising Stars

Bringing up children is both an art and a science. The parents must have certain skills as well as qualities and value systems if the children are to grow up into good human beings. How do the Bollywood stars bring up their children? That is an interesting subject which probably no one studied seriously until Rashmi Uchil did. The result of her study is the book titled Raising Stars: The challenges and joys of being a Bollywood parent . The book brings us the examples of no less than 26 Bollywood personalities on how they brought up their children in spite of their hectic schedules and other demands of the profession. In each chapter, the author highlights one particular virtue or skill or quality from each of these stars to teach us about the importance of that aspect in bringing up children. Managing anger, for example, is the topic of the first chapter where Mahima Chowdhary is our example. We move on to gender equality, confidence, discipline, etc, and end with spirituality whi

Kabir the Guru – 2

Read Part 1 of thi s here . K abir lived in the 15 th century. But his poems and songs are still valued. Being illiterate, he didn’t write them. They were passed on orally until they were collected by certain enthusiasts into books. Vipul Rikhi’s book, Drunk on Love: The Life, Vision and Songs of Kabir , not only brings the songs and poems together in one volume but also seeks to impart the very spirit of Kabir to the reader. Kabir is not just a name, the book informs us somewhere in the beginning. Kabir is a tradition. He is a legend, a philosophy, poetry and music. I would add that Kabir was a mystic. Most of his songs have something to do with spirituality. They strive to convey the deep meaning of reality. They also question the ordinary person’s practice of religion. They criticise the religious leaders such as pandits and mullahs. Though a Muslim, Kabir was immensely taken up by Ram, the Hindu god, for reasons known only to him perhaps. Most of the songs are about the gr