Sea of Poppies

Amitav Ghosh

First Sentence: The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast?

Before deciding to read this book it’s good to know that it is part of a trilogy and parts two and three of The Ibis Trilogy, as it is known, have yet to be published. What I’m saying is if you’re the type of person who needs closure in a story maybe you should wait a few years and read them all together, because on its own this book offers little in the way of closure. It is, however, incredibly engrossing. The Ibis is the ship Deeti has the vision of at the beginning of the book and eventually she will go on board this ship (after being rescued from her opium-addicted husband’s funeral pyre by the low-caste Kalua, who will accompany her on her journey). Also joining her on this voyage in the ‘Black Water’ will be; Paulette, the orphaned daughter of a French Botanist; Neel, a bankrupt raja who loses his family and everything he owns; Jodu, the son of Paulette’s wet-nurse, and many others. And that’s not even mentioning Serang Ali (leader of the deck hands [or laskars as they are known]), Ah Fatt (dishevelled Chinese opium addict), Zachary Reid (Mulatto son of a Maryland freedwoman) or any of the others already on the Ibis.  Set against the backdrop of the opium wars, opium  itself is practically seeping through every page of this epic. There is one scene which sums it up beautifully, as Deeti ponders an opium seed:

She looked at the seed as if she had never seen one before, and suddenly she knew it was not the planet above that governed her life: it was this minuscule orb – at once bountiful and all-devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful.

She then puts the seed in her mouth and says to Kalua:

Here[…], taste it. It is the star that took us from our homes and put us on this ship. It is the planet that rules our destiny.

Opium has, in one way or another, led them all to this place, and when all these characters are thrust together on the same ship we just know a special tale is about to unfold. Their previous lives are insignificant now that the Ibis is their home:

[…]all the old ties were immaterial now that the sea had washed away their past[…]

Yet again Deeti sums it up best when she finally lays eyes on the ship and realises:

[…] her new self, her new life, had been gestating all this while in the belly of this creature, this vessel was the Mother-Father of her new family[…] an adoptive ancestor and parent of dynasties yet to come.

This is the beginning of something epic…

* * * *

Final Sentence: Although it was the first time he had seen her face, he knew that he had glimpsed her somewhere, standing much as she was now, in a wet sari, hair dripping, looking at him with startled grey eyes.

Final Sentence explained: Serang Ali, Jodu, Neel, Ah Fatt and Kalua all escape on a small boat and are sailing off into the distance. Zachary, watching them sail away from the fo’c’sle, notices he is not alone on deck. Paulette, Baboo Nob Kissin and a third woman, hidden by a veil, are also there. This mystery woman is clearly Deeti, and their meeting is bound to be significant. The ending itself is full of murder and meetings; Paulette finally reveals herself to a startled Zachary, and Ah Fatt and Kalua have been pushed to the edge by their poor treatment and take it out on their oppressors by killing them. This theme of power is a strong one throughout the book, and people’s will to power, whether they be a Zemindar (land owner) or peasant, is of great concern. As Captain Chillingworth notes at one point:

The truth is, sir, that men do what their power permits them to do[…]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.

Nowhere is this power struggle more evident than on the Ibis itself. When all the characters are confined in this small space on a vast ocean, mischief is inevitable. This doesn’t feel like a ship at sea, but rather an entire new world. After all, it is hard to picture the boundaries when there is no land on the horizon:

For water surely needed a boundary, a rim, a shore, to give it shape and hold it in place. This was a firmament,like the night sky, holding the vessel aloft as if it were a planet or a star.

This planet is one to get lost in, and one to come back to for the second and third parts…

Random quotes from the book:

“Does an envelope know what is contained in the letter that is folded inside it?”

“[…] with the bile that came from knowing that he had spent all his years as a somnambulist, walking through his days as if life mattered no more than a bit-part in a play written by someone else.” Neel, when he loses everything.


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