Sea of Poppies – a book by Amitav Ghosh is the first in the Ibis trilogy, which revolves around the theme of indentured labour, which is a contract by which a person agreed to work for a set period for a colonial landowner in exchange for passage to the colony. It maintains a likeness to slavery, as the workers were paid piteously, and the only difference being the fixed time period. The book is set in the 1830s, a period post the ban on slavery, and prior to the opium wars when many workers, especially from poorer backgrounds were forced to work as ‘coolies’ by the British lords, in hope of a better life. The book doesn’t actually describe the treatment of the labour in Mauritius, but focuses more on their reasons for escaping India, and the obstacles they face at sea.
The central character is Deeti, a peasant who produces opium in the Ghazipore district of Bihar, who sets sail on the Ibis, the ship after which the trilogy is named, post her husband’s death in order to escape her oppressive in laws, who want her dead. Other significant characters who also board the Ibis, include Raja Neel Rattan, who has been wrongly convicted for forgery, Paulette Lambert, a Frenchwoman, who wishes to live life as per her own terms and Zachary Reid, the mulatto Second Mate, with a heart of gold. The first half of the book delves into the lives of each of the afore-mentioned characters before they undertake the life- altering voyage to the Mauritius islands to work for Mr. Burnham, an opium trader. It discusses how each of the characters is faced with certain dilemmas and how they come across the ship as a means of ‘liberation’. For Deeti it represents liberation from the dread of her in laws, as well as an opportunity to earn and eat three meals a day, after her escape from her home in Bihar. For Raja Neel Rattan, one can say it is liberation from the fickle clutches of pride and, indulgence at the cost of others and for Paulette, it is a means to fulfill a destiny that her father wished for her. The second half focuses on the journey to Mauritius, and describes the hierarchy and customs followed on the vessel. The story describes in great detail, the mental and physical anguish that pushes the characters towards their fate, as well as their aspirations, their fears and the social structure that prevailed in pre-colonial India as well as the perceptions of people. From common knowledge, we assume that indentured labour was only restricted to the lower classes who were tricked into signing up for the bonded labour or those who wished to leave in hope of escaping a famine, however we may notice a stark contrast in the story from these facts, as people belonging to all backgrounds, take to the ship, for a variety of reasons.
The author, Amitav Ghosh is a master at conveying the emotions felt by the characters, be it the apprehension and anxiety of the ‘girmitiyas’ or workers who are afraid of crossing the black water to go to a foreign land, or the callousness of the powerful, who inflict much torture upon the less privileged, at times, just for sport. The reader can feel their anguish and happiness as the plot unfolds. He also incorporates the several dialects, such as Bhojpuri & Hobson Jobson, spoken by the characters, who belong to various countries and classes. All this makes the book seem more realistic and transports you to a bygone era.