Sea of Poppies, the first of the Ibis Trilogy is a colossal tale of epic proportions set in the 1830’s in British India. The novel covers several themes but the themes of British involvement in the opium trade and the shipment of indentured labour from India to various British Colonies occupies much of the novel. The sprawling narrative weaves a detailed and intriguing plot, filled with a cast of very diverse characters that span a wide range from British Sahibs and Rajahs to convicts and opium addicts. The author maintains the reader’s interest throughout the 500 plus pages as the plot cleverly unfolds.
Under British colonial rule another “commodity” exported in large quantities was indentured labour. The demand for indentured labour increased dramatically after the abolition of slavery. Young able bodied Indians were willing to go to faraway lands as labour, to escape the poverty at home but they knew little of the lands they were going to or the conditions they would have to endure. The Ibis in the novel carries labourers to Mauritius under circumstances no better than slave ships carrying slaves from Africa to America.
The book does not portray the British in a positive light. Their colonization of most of the world being based on the belief that they were a chosen race upon whom the Almighty had imposed the divine mission to look after the welfare of people “as were still in the infancy of civilization”, “people incapable of the proper conduct of their own affairs” (pg 236). As Mr. Chillingworth says in the novel, “we are no different from the Pharoahs or 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 pretense of virtue……that will never be forgiven in history”.
The author is a master story teller. The story has several sub plots and the craftsmanship of the author brings them together on the Ibis. Amitav Ghosh’s prose is flawless. I highly recommend the book to all lovers of historical fiction and love of language. The book is the first in a trilogy so the end of the book may not be satisfactory to some readers but on the other hand it makes the reader eager for the next novel in the series.
Geetha`s love of books began when she was a child. She later turned that love into formal education with a Masters in English Literature and then again into a career for a few years, teaching English at Ethiraj and Fergusson Colleges in India. Though her career took her into the computer industry, Geetha has continued to read both individually as well as part of a book club in Newmarket, Canada where she lives.