Library@Kendriya Vidyalaya Pattom

Where Minds meet and Ideas pop up !

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, ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Live updates

Library@KV Pattom

Dear Visitor,

This is the official Blog of Library @ Kendriya Vidyalaya Pattom, launched in September 2007. Explore the site, you will get a complete picture of all offline and online resources available and services provided by the Library. Here is a friend, who will help you to find, evaluate and use the right information at right time.

You are the Visitor, Number

  • 5,093,565

5 Million Hits and counting..

Thank you all for making this blog a great success.

Upcoming Events

No upcoming events

KVS Innovations and Experimentations Award 2010

"Library Junction" won the KVS Innovations and Experimentation Award 2010.

All India Competition on Innovative Practices and Experiments in Education for Schools and Teacher Education Institutions 2010-’11

Library Junction won the "All India Competition on Innovative Practices and Experiments in Education for Schools and Teacher Education Institutions 2010-'11" conducted by NCERT.

Visit your Library

Browse Books and Periodicals. Read Newspapers. Pick a New Book from the 'New Arrivals' rack. Search the Internet and the OPAC. Refer for assignments and projects. Suggest a book. Ask a question.Write your comments. And more...Visit the Library Today itself. You are most welcome.

Telephone Reference

+91 9447699724 (Librarian)

E-mail Reference

mail your reference questions to librarykvpattom@gmail.com

Ask the Librarian

“Billion beats:the pulse of India”

The fortnightly e-paper uplinked to www.abdulkalam.com. To visit click the link "E-paper" on Web directory

Website of the Week

http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/

Archives

RSS This day in History

  • Pompey defeated by Julius Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalus: 9 August 48 - This Day in History
    During the Roman Civil War of 49–45 , Julius Caesar's troops on this day in 48 decisively defeated the army of Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus, causing Pompey to flee to Egypt, where he was subsequently murdered.More Events on this day:1945: The second atomic bomb dropped on Japan by the United States in World War II struck the city of Nagasaki.1 […]
  • Amedeo Avogadro: Biography of the Day
    Amedeo AvogadroBorn this day in 1776, Amedeo Avogadro of Italy showed that, under controlled conditions of temperature and pressure, equal volumes of gases contain an equal number of molecules—what became known as Avogadro's law.
  • Concise Encyclopedia Book and CD-ROM: Special Price from The Britannica Store
    For RSS subscribers The Britannica Store presents a special 20% discount on the Concise Encyclopedia and free CD-ROM. This thoroughly revised and expanded edition of Britannica's most popular publication worldwide is a one-volume encyclopedia containing 28,000 articles accompanied by colorful photographs, diagrams, maps, and flags. The Britannica Concis […]

Recommendations

Library Bookmark

Be a Fan of Library on Facebook

e-reading hub @ Your Library

Face a Book Challenge

RSS KV News Digest

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

Reader of the Month (September 2016)

Sruthi S., VII A

Learn anything freely with Khan Academy Library of Content

A free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.

Interactive challenges, assessments, and videos, on any topic of your interest.

It’s My Library: Share your Bookfies, Libfies and all Library Stories

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 5,661 other followers

Face a Book: The Reading Challenge

InfoLit India: Information Literacy Project for Young Learners

Subscribe SMS updates

Send: ON Library_KVPattom to 9870807070

‘School Libraries Rocks’ ; International Bookmark Exchange Programme 2015, with Croatia

Twitter Updates

CBSE Toll Free Tele/Online Helpline

Students can call 1800-11-7002 from any part of the country. The operators will answer general queries and also connect them to the counselors for psychological counseling. On-line counseling on: director.edusat@rediffmail.com, mcsharma2007@rediffmail.com

Child Line (1098)

CHILDLINE 1098 service is a 24 hour free emergency phone outreach service for children in need of care and protection.

Population Stabilization in India Toll Free Helpline

Dial 1800-11-6555 for expert advice on reproductive, maternal and child health; adolescent and sexual health; and family planning.

Quick Answers

CONTACT

S.L.Faisal, Librarian, Kendriya Vidyalaya (Shift-I) Pattom, Thiruvananthapuram-695 004, Kerala, India. Mail: librarykvpattom at gmail.com
%d bloggers like this: