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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, ,

Amitav Ghosh

Nationality: Indian. Born: 11 July 1956. Education: Delhi University, India, B.A. in history, M.A. in sociology; Oxford University, diploma in social anthropology, Ph.D.; Institut Bourguiba des Langues Vivants Tunis, diploma in Arabic. Career: Since 1986 lecturer in sociology, Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University. Contibutor to Indian Express (New Dehli), Granta (Cambridge), and The New Republic (Washington, D.C.). Award: Academy of Letters, India, annual prize, 1990. Agent: Wylie, Aitken and Stone, 250 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10107, U.S.A.



The Circle of Reason. London, Hamilton, and New York, Viking, 1986.
The Shadow Lines. New Delhi, Ravi Dayal, and London, Bloomsbury, 1988; New York, Viking, 1989.
The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery. New York, Avon Books, 1995.
Countdown. Delhi, Ravi Dayal Publisher, 1999.
The Glass Palace. New York, Random House, 2000.


The Relations of Envy in an Egyptian Village. Trivandrum, Centre forDevelopment Studies, 1982.
In an Antique Land. New Delhi, Ravi Dayal, 1992; New York, Knopf, 1993; London, Penguin, 1994.
Translator, The Slave of Ms. H. Calcutta, Centre for Studies in SocialSciences, 1990.

Critical Studies:

The Novels of Amitav Ghosh, edited by R.K. Dhawan. New Delhi, Prestige Books, 1999.
* * *

Amitav Ghosh’s fictional world is one of restless narrative motion. His central figures are travelers and diasporic exiles: exemplars of “the migrant sensibility” that Salman Rushdie calls “one of the central themes of this century of displaced persons.” If in Rushdie’s metaphor “the past is a country from which we have all emigrated,” Ghosh’s conflation of time and space—and of distinct times and distant places—is even more extreme. He treats national borders and conceptual boundaries as permeable fictions to be constantly transgressed. Through the multiple criss-crossings enabled by a free-ranging narrative, discrete binaries of order and category give way to a realm of mirror images and hybrid realities. Reason becomes passion, going away is also coming home, and the differences between us and them, now and then, here and there are disrupted by the itinerant maps of a roaming imagination.
The Circle of Reason follows Indian characters from a Bengali village to an Egyptian town to an outpost in the Algerian Sahara. This first novel begins as a comic tale of unlikely conjunctions. The scientific Reason with which Balaram is obsessed combines Hindu ideas of purity and Western notions of cleanliness with Louis Pasteur’s microbiology; Balaram’s vision of social progress through weaving suggests both Gandhi’s nationalist self-sufficiency and a global multinational economy in which technology “recognizes no continents and no countries.” However, this eccentric version of Reason is almost wiped out in the novel by forces of unreason: ambition, paranoia, territoriality, and violence.
Balaram’s last disciple, the mysterious Alu, is chased across oceans and continents as a narrative of shifting, spooling time within fixed village space gives way to a linear-time, picaresque story spread across the international space of diaspora. In al-Ghazira, Alu’s charismatic socialism quixotically links the eradication of germs with the elimination of money. The final scenes in El Oued are more earnest and down-to-earth, favoring the migrant’s adaptive “making do” and “being human” over the purist strictures of science and religious tradition. Nevertheless, Reason and the past both circle back in the form of Balaram’s favorite book, the Life of Pasteur, which has also traveled from Bengal to Algeria, and which Alu can now “reverently” cremate.
Ghosh’s second novel is more somber, less fanciful in its politics, and quite stunning in the power with which its formal experiments in sequence and location resonate thematically. The Shadow Lines traces nearly a half-century of interlocking relations among three generations of two families, one Indian and one British, giving perhaps the definitive fictional demonstration of Benedict Anderson’s dictum that nations are “imagined communities.” When the same Hindu-Muslim conflict can take place simultaneously in Dhaka and Calcutta, the unnamed narrator must abandon his common-sense assumption “that distance separates, that it is a corporeal substance,” and his belief “in the reality of nations and borders.” The self, like the cosmopolitan cities it lives in, becomes a palimpsest, sedimented with history, memory, and others that the self has absorbed. The narrative mode echoes this intricate layering with its looping, Russian-doll-like nestling of story within story, place within place, memory within actuality.
The unnamed narrator, with his internationalized consciousness, wallows in an empowering sense of simultaneity and correspondence. Growing up with Tridib in Calcutta, he can “know” war-time London neighborhoods and see the English boy Nick Price as a spectral mirror image. His grandmother’s confusion between her childhood Dhaka and the present-day foreign city becomes symptomatic of the violence done to people by artificial borders and partitions (poignantly allegorized in her family’s divided house). If the novel valorizes the search for unbounded space and co-existing time, however, it refuses to endorse self-serving appropriations of “other” realities. When Ila compares her pleasure at bohemian living with that of war-time radicals, the narrator criticizes the “easy arrogance” by which she assumes “that times and places are the same because they happen to look alike, like airport lounges.” But after a futile argument about whether her London or his Calcutta is the site of real history and important politics, he realizes the shaky ground on which he too claims possession of people and places he has largely invented.
Ghosh thus recognizes the political stakes involved in drawing connecting lines, like airline routes, across the “shadow lines” of national boundaries and historical periods. His globe-shrinking project enables not only integration but also juxtaposition. The controlling metaphor of the airport lounge makes this point brilliantly: as replicated space (they all look alike) and individual place (each one is distinctive); as both attached to and detached from its national home; as a place where departures rub shoulders with arrivals, where everyone is always on the move. Full of complex cross-cultural encounters, The Shadow Lines makes a unique contribution to the debates over “difference” and “otherness” that have galvanized the contemporary post-colonial world.
Ghosh’s astonishing third novel, The Calcutta Chromosome, plunges into the colorful medical history of European research into malaria a century ago. It begins with the unlikely discoveries of Ronald Ross, an imperial army doctor in India who, despite ignorance of microbiology and erroneous ideas about how malaria is transmitted, nonetheless managed to win a Nobel Prize for helping understand the disease. In an ingeniously plotted narrative, Ghosh unravels some mind-boggling alternative possibilities for where Ross’s knowledge really came from and what it might—very radically—entail. Full of outrageous fantasy and “decentering” impulses that speculatively reroute European knowledges through Indian ones, the book imaginatively ventures into what Brian McHale, in Postmodernist Fiction, calls “secret” or “apocryphal” history. It does so through a genre—the mystery—that makes unlikely mental journeys, startling discoveries, and the revelation of secrets into its narrative life-blood.
Ghosh’s protagonist, the Egyptian researcher Antar, works in a near-future New York on a highly advanced computer. The machine, Ava, outlandishly blends the visionary empowerment of recent Internet hype—it really can do anything, speak any dialect, find any document—with the oppressive scrutiny of Orwell’s Big Brother—it won’t let Antar stop work early, and its invasive hologram technology respects no bounds of privacy. Antar and Ava investigate the disappearance of the long-lost Murugan, a self-styled authority on Ronald Ross, who went to Calcutta in 1995 on the trail of some suspicious anomalies he’d found in Ross’s work; he was last seen the day after his arrival. The narrative follows Murugan through two days of unsettling encounters and strange coincidences that augment and clarify his incipient theories; he also discovers an inextricable link between himself and one of Ross’s research subjects.
The discovery process shared by Murugan, the reader, and Antar follows a narrative rollercoaster that at times resembles a fun-house, a “laff in the dark” ride with a carefully timed sequence of grotesque surprises popping out at every turn. In stylized prose emphasizing dialogue and description, Ghosh employs conventional devices of the mystery, the high-tech thriller, the “hard-boiled” detective novel, the science fiction adventure, and the Victorian ghost story—all with such boldness and panache that it can be hard to tell if he is parodying the genres or “doing” them in earnest.
But after the novel’s controlling plot lays down the last bit of secret knowledge, it turns out to be very much about control, and about knowledge. And although Ghosh typically does not wear his politics on his sleeve, the implication of this novel’s secret history is that control of medical knowledge is wrenched away from Europeans in the past and bestowed on Indians in the past, present, and future. Unhoused from the apparatus and methods of European science, malaria is repossessed by the locals—rightful owners, perhaps, since it is they and their ancestors who have most often been possessed by its malign fevers. Understanding of the disease is reclaimed and redefined on distinctly Indian terms; in Ghosh’s version it has significance not just for science and bodily health, but also for spiritual health and worship, fate and predestination, reincarnation, time cycles and other notions more dear (by and large) to Indians than Westerners.
Ghosh is remarkable in his use of narrative structure to exemplify thematic interests. The Circle of Reason ‘s itinerant and wayward picaresque echoes the intellectual caprices of its characters, while The Shadow Lines makes impossible coexistences and disrupted metaphysical boundaries into real struggles both for its narrator and its readers. Similarly, The Calcutta Chromosome insists on a reading process that enacts its central ideas. It uses the controlled surprises and circuitous discoveries of the mystery-thriller to convey a story whose initial germ—malaria science—is all about circuitous routes to surprising discoveries. In Ghosh’s exacting hands that story becomes a feverish literary journey into a possible world where to find that one is following someone else’s agenda—indeed is totally trapped by it—can be paradoxically to achieve new mastery over the future agendas of oneself and others.

—John Clement Ball

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