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A pukka old pishpash

Sea of Poppies by Aamitav Ghosh

Sameer Rahim

(Courtesy:The Telegraph, UK)

While researching his doctorate at Oxford, Amitav Ghosh came across a collection of letters written by medieval Jewish traders. In one letter, an Egyptian merchant arranges an exchange of silk and cardamom with a friend in Bangalore; he also complains that a shipment of Indian pepper has been lost at sea.

What really caught Ghosh’s eye, though, was a mention of the Bangalore trader’s “slave and business agent”. This man, whose origins and name are uncertain, could easily have been forgotten by history. Ghosh spent the next 14 years tracking down the few references to him in other documents, travelling to Egypt and learning Judaeo-Arabic. What he found is told in his superb book In an Antique Land (1992).

Much of Ghosh’s historical fiction has been driven by what he described in a note to The Glass Palace (2000) as “a near-obsessive urge to render the backgrounds of my characters’ lives as closely as I could”.

That novel traced the history of 20th-century Asia through the journey of a food-stall worker who becomes a wealthy teak merchant. In his new novel, Sea of Poppies, the first of a trilogy that opens in 1838 in India and will take us to the scene of the Opium Wars, we are introduced to characters whose social and cultural mobility are dependent on British colonialism – and the trading opportunities it brought.

The novel is structured around the Ibis, a ship docked in the Bay of Bengal that draws together a number of disparate characters.

Zachary Reid, the second mate and son of a freed slave, has travelled from Baltimore with the schooner’s cotton cargo. Four hundred miles inland, a poor woman called Deeti is struggling with her sick husband; he works in an opium factory and has become an afeemkhor – or addict.

After his death, she reluctantly submits herself to sati, but is rescued from the flames by a leather worker, with whom she escapes towards the sea. There is also an anglicised raja who, after falling out with the owner of the Ibis, is imprisoned on board for forging an Englishman’s signature.

The Ibis allows them to fashion new identities. Part of this is conveyed by the polyglot language used on board.

In Antique Land, Ghosh speculated that medieval traders communicated “by using a trading argot, or an elaborated pidgin language”. In Sea of Poppies, he has plundered Hobson-Jobson and other contemporary dictionaries of Anglo-Indian slang, to imagine such an argot.

“No fear of pishpash and cobbily mash at the Rascally table,” says an Englishman, reminiscing about the food served to him by the raja’s father. “Damn my eyes if I ever saw such a caffle of barnshooting badmashes!” the same man shouts later, sounding rather like Captain Haddock.

An Indian sailor teases Zachary for putting on airs in front of the English: “Michman wanchi, he can ‘come pukka genl’man by’m’by.” Although highly expressive, this packing together of odd words does not add up to a convincing imitation of speech.

A similar problem affects some of the descriptive passages. When we read that a dockside is full of “crowded sampans and agile almadias, towering brigantines and tiny baulias, swift carracks and wobbly woolocks”, it does not help us imagine what these vessels look like – even with the help of the OED.

At points, though, there are brilliantly clean pieces of writing. In an opium factory: “Stretching away, on either side, reaching all the way to the lofty ceiling, were immense shelves, neatly arranged with tens of thousands of identical balls of opium, each about the shape and size of an unhusked coconut, but black in colour, with a glossy surface.” And there are some memorable facts: sailors can burn off cannabis shavings from a canvas sail; opium freezes the bowels and has the opposite effect when you stop ingesting it.

But Ghosh seems to have left none of his research unused. The result is an absorbing but congested novel whose characters are restricted by being little more than vehicles for information. There is also a certain heavy-handedness in the multicultural symbolism, and the allusions to current events. (“Johnny Chinaman knows a good thing when he sees it. He’ll be delighted to get rid of the Manchu tyrant.”)

Englishmen in this novel are particularly stereotyped. While it’s valuable to be reminded of the outrages of the opium trade, we do not need the Englishman who enjoys having his backside beaten.

It is therefore ironic (perhaps something more serious) that most of the sources cited at the end of Sea of Poppies were compiled by British writers. Should a novel about the colonised underclass rely so heavily on the mediated records of the colonisers?

The ghostly subjects of In an Antique Land flickered briefly and faded; by so thoroughly embodying its characters, Sea of Poppies lacks that haunting power.

Filed under: Book Reviews, ,

The truth according to Archer


Interviewed by Ziya US Salam

Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Courtesy: The Hindu


He sells a thousand copies a day. Almost 30 years after its publication, his Kane and Abel is still in demand. A bit of a surprise that Jeffrey Archer calls his latest book, A Prisoner of Birth his best yet, and adds quietly in the ear, “I enjoy short stories better though. I have received greater critical acclaim”.


The short stories will have to wait a while, for, Archer is on a Landmark 11-day, six-city tour of India, his first as an author. Prompted by a friend in New York, Archer was advised that “a trip to India was more important than one to the U.S.”. India, he decided then and there, even stepping beyond the metropolises like Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai to go to Lucknow and Pune. “There are more readers in India than the U.S. With some 200 millions readers here, that is almost the size of the U.S. population. There are at least 50 million serious readers in this country. For me Japan was a big market, but India is emerging as huge now. I got some 5,40,000 hits on my website last month and almost a quarter were from India.”

Little wonder, Archer has been busy giving media interviews, signing copies of the book before heading for a formal release of A Prisoner of Birth in the evening. How does he squeeze in so much into one day?

“I write for two hours daily. My preferred time is from six to eight in the morning. But I had to write for about eight hours a day for 50 days non-stop to complete A Prisoner of Birth. That was for the first draft. The book has had 17 drafts.”

Wasn’t it a test of patience?

“No. When you see that millions of people write to you, and a thousand people pick up a copy of the book some 30 years after it is written, you don’t feel tired. That is just the energy kick you need.”

What is the secret of his success? Is it the fact that he is never short on controversies? Never away from headlines? From the brink of bankruptcy to a stint in prison, he has experienced it all.

“The books don’t sell because of the controversies. You got to be a story-teller, not a writer. If you look at Patrick White or Nadine Gordimer, they won all the prizes but how many copies do they sell? A few years down the line only academics would be reading them. People are reading my books and writing to me, talking about them. I am just back from a tour of Australia, the U.S. and of course my country U.K. A Prisoner of Birth is number one in every country it has been released so far. It became the bestseller in Britain within two days of the launch.

“A controversy helps you only if you have interesting things happening to you. Then you write better. But not much has happened in my life for the past six years and I have still written three books, been to theatre, attended art shows and done charity. I don’t need controversy to drive me on. The media does.”

Then he gets a bit acerbic with the media that has always attributed his success to every factor other than his own ability. There have been murmurs about his wife’s contribution, of his bad original drafts having to be polished by the editors and the like. Not to ignore the accusations that the man generates controversies to feed the author in him. “If the books were rubbish nobody would buy them. Success is not generated by controversy. In the end the reading public decides. And thank God for that. The reader is not bothered about any controversy. He is concerned about the quality of the book. I am what I am. I am a positive person. I have not allowed anything to come in the way, focus of my book. The journalists cannot handle my success. They thrive on controversies, not me. The readers like story-telling, love a tale, a yarn. The great writers appeal to intellectuals, a storyteller appeals to everybody. Whether it is Charles Dickens or Tolstoy or Jane Austen, it is the story that matters. Rudyard Kipling is still read in this country and thought wonderful. I am first and foremost a story-teller.”

Not quite enamoured of some of the big Indian names dotting the international literary firmament, Archer is a keen observer, a big-hearted man, generous with compliments. On the one hand, he comes across as an indulgent elder, who notices a child’s scribble on a notepad, and says, “Oh! The kids! They don’t know notebooks are for writing!” On the other hand, he does not hold back from expressing his opinion, even if it means not winning new friends with his words. In the middle of an animated discussion on his new book, he sneaks in a half sentence in a whisper-like fashion, “Can you jot down the name of one Indian guy I should read? Quick, give me a name.” It is not a query, just a little remark on the paucity of great story-tellers from India. But considering he gets so much mail from India, and his books are as popular in the book shops of five-star hotels as they are with the humble book vendor in down town railway stations, should he be writing more about India? “I don’t write much about India in my books because I am not qualified. For instance, it is only after coming here that I have discovered there is a huge market for translations in India and some of the regional languages have a huge readership. It was the same with Japan. I have had great readership in Japan, but it does not figure prominently in my work. If I were to speak about India and Indians in my books, it would be the same as an Indian writer talking of somebody living in Bristol without having any first-hand experience. It would be unwise to tread on unfamiliar territories. My characters are based in the U.S., U.K. That is the world I am confident talking about. I do politics, revenge, big business through my characters there. Others do it better for India and Indians.”

Now that he is here, having criss-crossed the country by touching places like Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune and Delhi, Archer is keen to find publishers for his work in Indian languages. “I am read in 131 languages across 137 countries. Indian rights are very important to me. I would love to have a Tamil, a Hindi or a Malayalam version of my latest book.” Of course, he struggles to pronounce the names of the languages but that does not dissuade him from proudly proclaiming, “I probably sell more here than most much feted names.”

Some candour. There is more to come. “I absolutely adore Vikram Seth. He is a genius. I loved his book, A Suitable Boy. He can do anything. I am surprised he does not open the batting for India! He can play the violin, he does poetry. He is pretty special. I am a huge fan.”

One thing he would very much like to do is to be able to go back to his short stories. “Oh! They are my favourites. I have got a lot of critical acclaim with them. They are a hard medium, very different to novels but I enjoy them immensely.”

Some 30 books in 32 years — his first book, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less came in 1976 — to go with all the accusations of perjury, misappropriation of funds and the like. How does Archer find the solitude for his work?

“Again, I don’t allow things to affect me. I think of my readers, and then words come easy,” he says. He might be a prolific writer and a fine orator but listening is not his forte. “I have a problem,” he admits modestly. May be, some day, he would use the condition to put together a book on the subject, having used every calamity in his challenging career as an opportunity to pen a fresh book. He put together A Prison Diary based on his jail experience in the perjury and conspiracy case.

Amidst all the challenges, he manages to sneak in time for charity. “I do charity auctions in the evening. I did one for Ian Botham last week for leukaemia. We need to raise 2.5 million pounds a year.”

Well, if A Prisoner of Birth does half as well as Kane and Abel, he would be able and willing to help!

Not a Penny More, Not a Penny


Less (1976): His first book stemmed out of necessity. His investments had gone so horribly wrong that he was almost bankrupt. He wielded the pen to ward off accusations of being insolvent, and the result was a book he calls “a sentimental favourite”.





Kane and Abel (1979): A hugely success


ful book which is “bought by someone somewhere every day”. Almost 30 years after it was published, he calls it “my passport to lasting rapport with reader”. The book sells many more copies through pirated versions across India.

The Prodigal Daughter (1982): Back in the news thanks to the Clinton campaign in the U.S., the protagonist is inspired by the lives of the five women Prime Ministers of the world at that time. “I worked with Margaret Thatcher. So some influence is natural and unavoidable,” is all he offers by way of tribute to the lady.

Twelve Red Herrings (1994): “My favourite” is how Archer sums up the 1994 short story collection. But then that is the expression he has also reserved for Kane and Abel and A Prisoner of Birth!

False Impression (2006): A lady is murdered on the eve of 9/11 in this book where Archer takes his readers to Tokyo, a rarity considering his characters operate out of the U.S. and the U.K.

A Prisoner of Birth (2008): Archer calls it a modern day version of The Count of Monte Cristo. This latest book uses his prison experience to the fullest with the story of a guy accused of a crime he never committed. “We draw from our experience of life. We are comfortable writing about what we know,” Archer says, indirectly admitting to the influence of his prison years on his book. Incidentally, his two-year imprisonment has lent itself to four books now. “My challenge was to make everything authentic, including getting the guy out of the prison and making the reader believe it.”


Quick takes



On writing to mint money, almost like a factory production…



Who has the time to sit back and understand the classics these days? My books are racy to read. My readers are proof of my success as a writer.



On allegations that his wife writes for him…



Ridiculous. Just rubbish. She is a scientist. She knows nothing about the kind of books I write. I wrote three books in prison, she could not have written them for me.



On thriving on controversy…



You are the first one saying that I thrive on controversies. There have never been any controversies, just different experiences.



His love for cricket…



I absolutely adore Indian cricketers. Sachin Tendulkar has to be among my favourites along with Brian Lara. I also keenly watch the progress of Virender Sehwag and Anil Kumble.



Not much of a T20 fan…would prefer to watch an “India versus England Lord’s Test match with England winning”.



On India…



I have been to Mumbai before but this is my first official visit to India. I love it because Indians are voracious readers. For one mistake in my book, they write six pages to me. I love that too. It shows they read carefully.



Delhi? A green city. I looked out of my hotel conference room, it was all green. Awesome. I am told it is full of heritage landmarks but I would need a separate tour to visit all of them.





l Coming up next…



Archer is working “a script” for a film that he intends to turn into a novel shortly. To be directed by Bruce Beresford, Archers intends to wrap it up shortly. It is based on a real person, a first for Archer.

Filed under: In conversation,

Cyber Quiz


1. What is ‘Google Juice’?

2. Name the struggling managed VPN service provider that Reliance Communications acquired recently for $76.9 million?

3. Werner Brandt is the CFO of which European business software giant?

4. In telecommunication, what is the term used for unused frequencies in the radio waves portion of the electromagnetic spectrum?

5. Man & Machine, a maker of computer peripherals, has filed a trademark-infringement lawsuit against Apple and CBS against the use of which brand name?

6. What was first launched in 1991 by Radiolinja in Finland, with joint technical infrastructure maintenance from Ericsson?

7. Which popular application has had codenames such as ‘Liquid Sky’, ‘Strange Cargo’ and ‘Venus in Furs’?

8. Which is the only company in Nasdaq-100 beginning with ‘Q’?

9. The first Google Doodle was a reference to…?

10. Name the Indian, one of the two authors of the patented Hilltop algorithm.


1. It’s the ‘mysterious’ quality or value that causes pages to come up high in a Google search.

2. Vanco plc.

3. SAP

4. White space.

5. Mighty Mouse.

6. The first GSM network.

7. Adobe Photoshop.

8. Qualcomm

9. Burning Man Festival of 1999.

10. Krishna Bharat.

Filed under: YW-Cyber Quiz



1. Who was the last king in Nepal’s monarchy which came to an end on May 28, 2008?

2. Name the director of films such as “Roja”, “Guru’ and “Bombay” celebrating his birthday on this date.

3. Which critically endangered animal, found in India, is the second-longest of all living crocodilians?

4. Who are the two debutant countries in the 2008 UEFA European Football Championship starting on June 8?

5. In Hindu myth, who were the parents of Balarama?

6. How are the states in Switzerland referred to?

7. Professor Pierre Aronnax is the narrator of which famous adventure classic?

8. In which U.S. city is the famed Central Park located?

9. Where in the human body is the longest muscle, the Sartorius?

10. In Thomas the Tank Engine series, who is called the “Fat Controller”?

11. According to the nursery rhyme, where did Mary’s lamb follow her to?

12. Which day of the week do the French refer to as Vendredi?

13. Which cinematic legend’s first film appearance was in “Making a Living” released in February, 1914?

14. “Dasheri”, “Banganapalli” and “Dasheri” are varieties of…?

15. How is the pungent vegetable scallion commonly called?


1. Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev;


2. Mani Ratnam



3. Gharial;


4. Austria and Poland



5. Vasudeva and Rohini;


6. Cantons;



7. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea


8. New York City;


9. Thigh



10. Sir Topham Hatt;


11. School;


12. Friday;


13. Charlie Chaplin;


14. Mangoes;



15. Spring onion or salad onion

Courtesy: The Hindu

Filed under: Young World Quiz,

World Environment Day

World Environment Day, commemorated each year on 5 June, is one of the principal vehicles through which the United Nations stimulates worldwide awareness of the environment and enhances political attention and action.

The World Environment Day slogan for 2008 is Kick the Habit! Towards a Low Carbon Economy. Recognising that climate change is becoming the defining issue of our era, UNEP is asking countries, companies and communities to focus on greenhouse gas emissions and how to reduce them. The World Environment Day will highlight resources and initiatives that promote low carbon economies and life-styles, such as improved energy efficiency, alternative energy sources, forest conservation and eco-friendly consumption.

The main international celebrations of World Environment Day 2008 will be held in New Zealand. UNEP is honoured that the city of Wellington will be hosting this United Nations day (read the press release).

The day’s agenda is to give a human face to environmental issues; empower people to become active agents of sustainable and equitable development; promote an understanding that communities are pivotal to changing attitudes towards environmental issues; and advocate partnership, which will ensure all nations and peoples enjoy a safer and more prosperous future.

When did it all begin?

World Environment Day was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972 to mark the opening of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Another resolution, adopted by the General Assembly the same day, led to the creation of UNEP.

How can you celebrate World Environment Day?

The World Environment Day Alphabet – 80 Ways to Celebrate
World Environment Day can be celebrated in many ways, including street rallies, bicycles parades, green concerts, essay and poster competitions in schools, tree planting, recycling efforts, clean-up campaigns and much more. In many countries, this annual event is used to enhance political attention and action.

Heads of State, Prime Ministers and Ministers of Environment deliver statements and commit themselves to care for the Earth. Serious pledges are made which lead to the establishment of permanent governmental structures dealing with environmental management and economic planning. This observance also provides an opportunity to sign or ratify international environmental conventions.

On this World Environment Day, let us examine the state of our environment. Let us consider carefully the actions which each of us must take, and then address ourselves to our common task of preserving all life on earth in a mood of sober resolution and quiet confidence.

World Environment Day 2007 Tromsø, Norway
World Environment Day 2006 Algiers, Algeria

World Environment Day 2005 San Francisco, USA
World Environment Day 2004 Barcelona, Spain

World Environment Day 2003 Beirut, Lebanon
World Environment Day 2002 Shenzhen, People’s Republic of China

World Environment Day 2001 Torino, Italy and Havana, Cuba

World Environment day 2000 Adelaide, Australia

80 Ways to Celebrate




Adopt a ‘green’ way of life
Art made of recycled materials
Auctions to benefit an environmental project
Award presentations for environmental competitions
Awareness campaigns


Bicycle parades/races
Broadcast of public service announcements (TV and Radio)
Buy a fuel-efficient car


Calculate your carbon footprint
Celebrity support
Clean-up campaigns
Competitions (banner, drawing, essay, painting, poster, poetry)
Conferences on the environment


Debates on environment issues
Dedicate your blog to World Environment Day on 5 June
Distribute leaflets, brochures and posters
Donate to an environmental cause


Environmental education programmes in schools
Excursions to nature sites
Exhibitions (drawings, posters, photos, paintings)


Film festivals on the environment


Give a gift membership of an environmental organisation
Guidelines to community-based environmental activities


Hoist banners at major road intersections
Help local environmental groups organise WED events


Inform all your friends about WED
Involve various partners (NGOs, ministries, youth groups, celebrities, private sector)
Issue First Day Covers (stamps)


Join an environmental group
Join UNEP’s carbon neutral network
Join the Billion Tree Campaign


Keep your neighbourhood clean
Kick-start an environmental campaign
Kick the CO2 habit!
Know your rights


Launch of government environment policies, books, reports
Lobby local authorities to adopt sound environmental policies


March for the environment
Media coverage and activities


Never litter


Offset your emissions
Organic farming/cooking
Organize a WED themed event in your neighbourhood


Performances (plays, songs, poetry)
Plant a tree
Plastic bags: avoid them!
Promotional material (t-shirts, stickers, bookmarks)
Puppet shows for children with an environmental message


Quizzes related to the theme for schools, youth groups, company staff, etc…


Rainwater harvesting
Ratify international environmental conventions
Reduce, re-use, recycle
Rehabilitate natural habitats
Replace your light-bulbs with energy saving ones


Save paper
Sort rubbish
Sponsorship from private sector
Sports activities
Switch off stand-by TV and computer


Take action
T-shirts for WED


Use sustainable modes of transportation (walking, jogging, cycling, skating, carpool)


Vehicle emission monitoring
Visits to botanical gardens and national parks
Volunteer for organizations such as Clean Up the World


Waste less!
Write plays, poems, songs
Write letters to civic leaders, members of parliament, government and newspapers


Xchange ideas
Xpect environmental responsibility


Youth-led activities


Zero emissions


Filed under: Article of the Week, ,


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