Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 22, 2008

Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh

sea-of-poppiesThis was Booker Prize shortlisted, and even though it was a challenging book to read, I enjoyed it.

What made it difficult was the patois – a strange sort of creole language with lots of unfamiliar terms that either made sense eventually or had to be absorbed as unintelligible.  It was like reading in a foreign language one knows reasonably well – one has to concentrate hard, and every now and again there would be something not in the learned vocabulary and one would have to try and work it out from context, with varying degrees of success.

However, I also had difficulty in keeping track of all the characters. The book is set in the early 19th century during the Opium Wars, when the British East India Company was making huge profits from small farmholdings which had previously supported subsistence farmers. For a variety of reasons, a large cast of characters make their way onto the Ibis, an old slaving ship converted to take indentured labour to Makeech. They are a motley crew, riven by distinctions of race, gender, caste and class, and yet they are part of that curious community that emerges on board a ship.


The constrained life of Deeti, the central female character, embodies all that is curious about Indian culture to a Western reader.   She was married to an older man, an opium addict who worked in the opium factory.  She has only one child, fathered by her brother-in-law who raped her on her wedding night when she was in a drug-induced haze. She didn’t realise what had happened until after her husband died and the brother-in-law tried to claim her and her farm.  To escape suttee, she flees with the help of Kalua, a man of such low caste that her husband – poor as he was – would not even look at him as he drove to work each day in Kalua’s cart.  The caste rules and the cultural mores that support the suppression of women are so powerful that Deeti has to abandon her child and sign onto the Ibis where she hides below deck in purdah with the other women.

Trouble on board begins when independent-minded, flighty Munia fancies Kodu, an orphan boy.  Kodu was brought up almost as a Westerner by a French botanist who excluded himself from the racist white society around him and allowed his daughter, Paulette, to play with the boy.  After her father died, Paulette was taken in by a white family and (since all eligible women must marry, but can’t be choosy if poor) she was expected to marry a ghastly old religious nut.  She too flees aboard the Ibis, disguised convincingly in a sari and veil because she can speak Bengali and knows the ways of the locals.  When Jodu and Munia are found together, he is flogged, and she’s taken away to her inevitable fate among the sailors, but it is Deeti, not Paulette, who exercises her authority among the women and raises a ruckus to intervene.

Her heroism is sorely tested when Singh, a conspirator of her brother-in-law reveals that he had known she was aboard all along, and tries to rape her.  Kalua intervenes to protect her, thus exposing their forbidden relationship.  Captain Willoughby restores order by sentencing Kalua to a flogging and then death, because it’s so important for British law to ‘respect the caste laws of its subject people’.  This astonishes Zachary, a mixed-race American assumed to be ‘white’ because of his clothes and bearing and there is a curious moral argument between the two, in which Captain Willoughby evokes American social mores about contact between mixed-race relationships.  Although the usual shipboard tyrant, Willoughby is no stereotype, for he has personal flaws and failings, and a moral code all his own.

Zachary, one of a number of heroes in the tale, has bypassed the ranks to become Second Mate, through a series of lucky accidents, because of his light skin, a useful friendship with a helpful lascar called Serang Ali, and his ability to adapt himself socially and linguistically.  Paulette reveals herself to him to facilitiate Kalua’s escape, and there’s a chaste kiss between them.  I suspect that Ghosh will deal with the romance between Paulette and Zachary in the sequel (Sea of Poppies is the first of the Ibis Trilogy, apparently.)

However Kalua and Jodu are not the only escapees from the Ibis.  There’s also a bankrupt landowner, Raja Neel Rattan, sentenced to transportation along with the grotesquely disgusting Chinese Ah Fatt.  For Neel, his time aboard the Ibis is a painful journey of self-discovery, marked in particular by his rejection of caste rules to take care of Ah Fatt.  These two have suffered so much at the hands of Mr Crowe, the evil First Mate, that they too must get away.

The story ends enigmatically.  Paulette, Zachary, Deeti and the mad mystic Baboo Nob Kissin watch the longboat disappear into the waves, and that’s it.  We have to wait for the sequel to find out what happens next!

See my review of River of Smoke (Book 2 of the Ibis Trilogy) here.

Author: Amitav Ghosh
Title: Sea of Poppies (Book One of the Ibis Trilogy)
Publisher: John Murray, 2008
ISBN: 071956896X
Source: Personal library

Fishpond: Sea of Poppies


  1. May I ask a spoiler question:
    At the very very end of the book after escape from the Ibis Ghosh says (I think) that Zachary has seen Deeti before, also in rain drenched conditions. But when was this??

    (I finished the book just now and am all excited about the next one.)


  2. I’m not sure about this myself. Deeti gets wet three times but there’s no mention of Zachary witnessing it: when Kalua rescues her and takes her across the river on a raft (p164); when Deeti wades into the water to rescue Kabutri when she faints and falls into the water (p179) and then (during the monsoon season, mentioned on p200 and on p214) when Kalua wades into the water, carrying Deeti in his arms,(p208) onto the small boat taking them to Calcutta (where they board the Ibis). Although Zachary is within proximity when they board, there’s no mention of either of them noticing each other
    So I think it’s a reference to Deeti’s prophetic dream which begins the story, and is mentioned again on p363.


  3. Is anyone aware of when the next book in the Ibis Trilogy is coming out?



  4. I haven’t heard anything yet, and I subscribe to British LitBlogs so I would have expected to see something about it there if it’s available.
    Sometimes fame gets in the way of writers being able to settle down and get on with the next book!


  5. Could it have been at the beginning of the book? Deeti was standing in the river with her daughter when she had a vision of the Ibis. Is it possible that Zachary saw her from the ship, though the ship was only a vision?


    • A magic realism kind of thing? Maybe…I hadn’t thought of this possibility, Alex.


  6. […] isn’t necessary to first read Sea of Poppies (see my review) or River of Smoke (see my review), but if you like grand storytelling, well, why wouldn’t […]


  7. […] my review Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture see my review Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies see my review Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs see my review Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency see my […]


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