On November 5, Sunil Amrith, Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies and Professor of History, led a virtual discussion with teachers from across the country about Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh in an Online Book Group sponsored by SAI and the Harvard Asia Center.
Using Adobe Connect webinar software, teachers representing Massachusetts, Iowa, New York, and Rhode Island were able to log on to a virtual classroom and interact directly with Amrith and other participating teachers.
The novel is an epic journey set in the poppy fields of the Ganges. The first in a trilogy, the historical novel uses its ship, the Ibis, as the central motif to tell the story of 19th century India.
“In a much broader way, I think Sea of Poppies is a novel about the making of the modern world,” Amrith explained. “It highlights the dark side of early globalization – the violence and exploitation upon which fortunes were made and empires were founded.”
Amrith explained that a major theme in the novel is the colonial presence, and how it affected everyone on the subcontinent, especially the characters in the novel such as Deeti. The novel sheds light on how even the “smallest players” in history were affected.
Another central historical theme was how opium changed the dynamics of the economy: “This was the drug that started everything,” Amrith explained. “Amid the backdrop of advancing colonial rule, the novel reminds us of the centrality of a drug – opium – to the histories of China, India, and the British Empire in the 19th century.”
Amrith also explained that another central theme of the novel, through the journey of characters traveling on the Ibis, is migration. “It is this link between empire, and commodities, and migration which provides the point of greatest interest in Sea of Poppies. It makes us think about the world in a different way.” said Amrith.
The Global Studies Online Book Group is a partnership of international study centers at Harvard, which hosts online reading discussions for k-12 educators to explore literature from six global regions: Africa, Asia, Latin America, Russia / Eurasia, the Middle East, and South Asia.