In Amitav Ghosh’s novel Sea of Poppies, the theme of colonialism is vibrant and well depicted throughout the individual stories of characters within the novel itself. Taking place in India during the late 1830’s, Ghosh begins the novel by introducing a young Indian woman named Deeti. Deeti’s story illustrates the caste system in India, the role and expectation of Indian women, the importance of the poppy crop, and her exciting journey. Another character is Neel Rattan Halder, the Raja of Raskhali.
Through Neel’s segments of the novel, the caste system is again evaluated and the connection between Britain, India, China and opium trade comes to light. Both character’s lives change immensely over the course of the novel, and they experience what would otherwise have been unfamiliar if they both never took the journey on the Ibis. Deeti is of a lower caste in India and is married off to her husband at a young age. Her brother-in-law assaults her sexually on her wedding night after she was drugged via opium. Opium has become the staple product of India, and along with many other Indians, Deeti grows poppy to be sold to the English Sahibs.
Deeti explains when she was younger, “things were different: poppies had been a luxury then, grown in small clusters between the fields hat bore the main winter crops- wheat, masoor dal, and vegetables. ” (Ghosh, 28) However, now the English sahib’s would to homes forcing cash advances on the farmers and requiring them to sign contracts to grow poppies, which later would barely pay off the previous cash advance during resale. The British completely manipulated the Indians though their contracts. They took advantage of the existing caste system, knowing that Indians could not get ahead in class.
When Deeti travels to the opium factory where his husband worked, ”the smell was not of spices and oil, but of liquid opium, mixed with the dull stench of sweat. ” (Ghosh, 92) A product that had once been an extravagance had become the main concentration of the Indian people. Opium production was accelerated and imported to China simply in hopes of addicting the Chinese and feeding those who were already addicted. The Chinese’ addiction to Opium acted as a gateway for Western traders into China. As her story continues, Deeti faces challenges within her family including he death of her husband and the abuse from her brother in-law. She chooses to escape with her new lover, Kalua, and while doing so internally struggles with abandoning her daughter and finding peace in a new life ahead. She meets Pugli when waiting to board the Ibis and when asking Pugli whether she is afraid of losing caste when on the ship with so many people, Pugli responds by saying, “Not at all… On a boat of Pilgrims, no one can lose caste and everyone is the same… From now on, and forever afterwards, we will all be ship-siblings. (Ghosh, 348) This is a turning point for Deeti who is looking forward to a new start on Mauritius and she grows as a person while she is on the Ibis. The Ibis somewhat eliminates caste, but it’s seen trying to thrive because for many people they on board they don’t know how to categorize people otherwise. Neel Rattan Hadler had been left with a great debt to an Englishman, Ben Burnham, after the passing of his father. As the Raja of Raskhali, Neel runs an estate and houses over a hundred people. Colonialism is responsible for the life Neel knew and that his father had built.
Zemindars, such as the deceased Raja, had gotten into business with Englishmen like Burnham because, “when it was to their advantage, they were glad to shape their lives to the world of the English. ” (Ghosh, 83) The raja had been very generous, so much so that he ran out of capital and had to be forwarded money by Burnham. In the year of his passing in 1837, opium trade in China, which was Burnham’s business, failed to generate its usual profits. Neel was asked to pay back the loan to Burnham and when he couldn’t he was arrested for forgery.
In Burnham’s words, “Times change, and those who don’t change with them, are swept away. ” (Ghosh, 119) At a dinner with Burnham and Neel, Ghosh highlights their differences in understanding each other’s cultures. While Neel understands that his family is in debt, he considers their estate to be priceless and figures that the debt can eventually be resolved without the loss of Raskhali. Burnham, on the other hand, doesn’t even believe the estate matches the worth of the debt owed to him, and therefore continues to have Neel arrested. Burnham also explains the importance of China’s opium addiction during this dinner.
Neel had always believed opium addiction was of antiquity in China was in actuality, it was quite new. Burnham believed a war was to come between Britain and China, but not a war over opium; “It will be for principle for freedom- for the freedom of free trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people. ” (Ghosh, 112) He followed this up with “Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ,” which is important to note because Burnham is basically proclaiming that this capitalist movement is all being done in the name of God. Ghosh, 113) Burnham also stated that without opium, British rule in India would be unsustainable. Neel goes from being a Raja to imprisoned for forgery, having “Forgerer; Alipore 1838” tattooed on his forehead while in jail. He is exposed to the cruelties of addiction while having an opium addict as a cellmate. The addict suffers from diarrhea and continues to soil himself, and Neel takes it upon himself to clean the man. The addict also suffers from seizures that would start off as shivers and escalate to the man violently convulsing on the floor.
Neel spends time with people of castes he would have never encountered otherwise. Both Deeti and Neel are extraordinary cases and share stories that eventually overlap in the end of the story. They are a part of a system that served as a foundation for British colonization. Their anecdotes provided knowledge on how India was prior to British rule, its changes during British rule, and the short-term benefits of the colonization as well as the consequences of colonization. Works Cited Ghosh, Amitav. Sea of Poppies. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.