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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.

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