SEA OF POPPIES by Amitav Ghosh. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2008. 515 pages.

“Chrestomathy: A collection of selected passages from an author or authors, esp. one compiled to assist in learning a language”—Shorter Oxford English Dictionary1b582f9d2958b329ec701d21c7512a32-2

“Words!” At the end of his tour de force, polyglot, Booker-nominated Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh exclaims in a chrestomathy that serves as a hallucinated glossary, “Words, no less than people, are endowed with lives and destinies of their own.” The vessel that carries Ghosh’s words and people is the Ibis, a 19th-century, tall-masted, slave-transporting, opium-exporting ship that takes the reader from the ports of Baltimore to the Bay of Bengal, from the zamindars of Calcutta to the mandarins of Canton, and from the certainty of village Gazipur to the unknowable Black Waters around Mauritius. After climbing aboard this schooner of a book, few passengers will mistakenly believe that globalization began with the internet flattening the world, or that diasporas began with passports and green-cards. Sea of Poppies is about journeys that transform individuals and the societies that they migrate to and from.

To be sure, a map is needed (and provided) to help the reader situate the narrative from land to river to sea. And although Ghosh’s deft contextualization of speech obviates the need for a glossary, it is provided as an “after-words” to help English speakers make sense of the mish-mash of languages that are to be found in the gentle poppy fields of Gazipur, the insulated royal estates of Calcutta, and the rough waters of the Indian Ocean. But because of the multiplicity of fascinating characters, it is helpful to maintain a “family tree” of sorts to make sense of the subtle interrelationships.

A more pedestrian title for Ghosh’s collection of interwoven personal histories would be “A Sea of Stories.” Like the sea itself, this wide-ranging novel does not have a center. It is thrilling to move from one passage to another, to float above the surface of a character, only to be taken on a deep dive illuminating multiple dimensions in the darkness, to learn that all lives matter and have meaning, not just the life of an omniscient narrator. Although the absence of a singular focal point may be off-putting to some, it will be welcome by those who believe in transformation’s art of possibility. The theme of change is pervasive, as is the belief that even in the most constrained circumstances, each person can choose to change in a way that is consistent with his or her identity.

While Sea of Poppies opens and closes with Deeti, a Bihari villager whose “colourless” grey eyes “made her seem at once blind and all-seeing,” the novel is not held together by any single protagonist. In bringing alive the numerous characters who populate his sea-going craft, Ghosh performs multilingual magic. He gives each of these men and women voice through a “farrago of sound.”

If you are willing to embrace a medley of languages that you don’t always understand, you will be rewarded by a novel that transports you to distant wor(l)ds. Patiently, like Zachary Reid, a pip of an American boy who has left behind the land and language of his freed-slave mother to become the second mate of the Ibis, you’ll learn the languages of Serang Ali, Deeti, Kalua, Paulette Lambert, Jodu, Raja Neel Ratan Halder, Ah Fatt, Baboo Nobokrishna Panda, James Doughty, and Benjamin Burnham—all of whom, in chrestomathic fashion, serve as authors of their own stories.

After leaving Baltimore aboard the Ibis, “Zachary had learned to “say ‘resum’ instead of ‘rations’, and he had to wrap his tongue around words like ‘dal’, ‘masala’ and ‘achar.’ He had to get used to ‘malum’ instead of mate, ‘serang’ for bosun, ‘tindal’ for bosun’s mate, and ‘seacunny’ for helmsman; he had to memorize a new shipboard vocabulary, which sounded a bit like English and yet not: the rigging became the ‘ringeen’ … and the cry of the middle-morning watch went from “all’s well’ to ‘alzbel.’”

In his pidgin English, Serang Ali, the sing-song leader of the Ibis’ lascar seamen, changes Zachary’s name to Zikri, and keeps a paternal eye on the boy who will rise to lead the Ibis: “Malum Zikri! Captin-bugger blongi poo-shoo-foo. He hab got plenty sick! Need one piece dokto. No can chow-chow tiffin. Allo tim do chhee-chhee, pee-pee. Plenty smelly in Captin cabin.”

Having become “girmitiyas” after having signed “girmits” which were legal agreements indenturing them to servitude in Mauritius, Deeti and Kalua escape an India that could not tolerate their mixed-caste elopement. Like all the non-English speech in the novel, theirs is either italicized and/or without quotation marks. Their poetry of love needs no translation (line breaks added): “Afterwards, when she lay / enveloped in his arms, / He said, in his rough, hoarse voice: / Ka sochawa? / What’re you thinking? / Thinking how you saved me today; / Sochat ki tu bachawela. / It was myself I saved today, / He said in a whisper. / Because if you had died, / I couldn’t have lived; / Jinda na rah sakela…

Along with Deeti and Kalua, Zachary and Paulette bring a gentle romance to what otherwise could have become a harrowing maritime tale replete with opiated colonial and caste rage. With a hint of the French patois that her father had willed to her before orphaning her in Calcutta, Paulette flirts with Zachary, “But Mr. Reid … my little finger has told me that you have been sortieing a great deal of late.”

Paulette and Jodu’s sibling relationship, which began with the two of them sharing Jodu’s mother’s breast milk, parallels that of the Jahazbhais andJahazbahen, ship-siblings who share the same milky journey but different destinations: “As for Jodu, his eyes went from Paulette’s face to Zachary’s and he knew at once … that something of significance had passed between them. Having lost everything he owned, he had no qualms in using their new-found friendship to his advantage. O ke bol to re, he said in Bengali to Paulette: Tell him to find me a place on this ship’s lashkar.”

Ghosh’s range of characters and settings is tremendous. The scenes move easily from the turbulent river life of Jodu, who has nowhere to live, to the regally humiliated life of a Raja, who seemingly has everything only to lose it all. The erudite Raja Neel Ratan Halder, who has been stripped of his lands and sent off on the Ibis as a convict, is reliably capable of summoning irony regardless of his station: “My present zemindary consists of no more than a toilet bucket and a set of rusty chains.”

Sharing the Raja’s chains, but not his erudition is Ah Fatt; this fellow convict was born of a Chinese mother and a Parsi father in Canton, where the British imported much of the opium grown in India. Ah Fatt’s body language is that of an afeemkhor, an opium addict: “His paroxysms of shivering, for instance, would begin with a mild, almost imperceptible trembling, like that of a man in a room that is just a little too cold for comfort. But these gentle shivers would mount in intensity till they became so violent as to tip him off his charpoy, depositing his convulsing body on the ground.”

Ghosh is nonjudgmental about his characters’ transformative paths. Whereas Ah Fatt’s path includes opium, Baboo Nobokrishna Panda’s bhakti path is that of a Krishna devotee. He is certain that Zachary, who is registered on the ship as black, must be Krishna, the blue-hued dark lord. His own name having been changed dismissively to Baboo Nob Kissin by the British masters, Panda is keen to be Radha to his real master, “only searching to see if kunth is blue.”

In humorous transitions, the novel moves from the sublime to the sewer. In its coarse, seafaring way, James Doughty’s Hinglish had not only piloted its way up the Ganga, but as is evident at a meal hosted by Raja Neel Ratan, it had also navigated its way through Calcutta’s less godly districts. Doughty refers to the Raja’s mistress, who he has had a liaison with, as one of many “Damned badzat pootlies.” After being disgraced by the mistress, he shouts, “You think I don’t samjo your bloody bucking? There’s not a word of your black babble I don’t understand.”

And there is Benjamin Burnham, a living embodiment of the British East India Company, whose character reminds us that all great literary works have contemporary relevance. In condescending to Zachary and the Raja, Burnham uses the Orwellian doublethink of imperialism: “The war, when it comes, will not be for opium. It will be for a principle: for freedom—for the freedom of trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people.” To transform Mr. Burnham into President Bush, simply substitute “oil” for “opium,” “freedom of elections” for “freedom of trade,” and “Iraqi” for “Chinese.” Burnham’s words not only echo present political realities, but also foreshadow subsequent novels in the Ibis trilogy.

Although Ghosh plies the Queen’s English in a way that would make the Oxford English Dictionary proud, it is his use of the language in dictionaries ranging from Hobson-Jobson to A Laskari Dictionary, as well as his anthropological appreciation of subaltern lives, that gives the voiceless voice and infuses the novel with detailed observations of the human condition. In writing about migration in an astonishingly novel way, Ghosh brings newness to the world. Like the Ibis, which “was not a ship like any other,” Sea of Poppies is not a novel like any other. “In her inward reality she was a vehicle of transformation, traveling through the mists of illusion towards the elusive, ever-receding landfall that was Truth.” And like the search for truth, this novel does not truly end. Often at the close of a satisfactory story, the reader is content to feel that “alzbelthat ends well,” but with Sea of Poppies, one looks forward to Amitav Ghosh continuing the journey of the Ibis.

Although a teetotaler who looks askance at drug usage, RCO is moved by the delirious opiate of literary writing that transports him to distant shores.

After a long run in the corporate world, Rajesh C. Oza now balances his life between family and friends, organizational alignment and consulting, reading and writing, India and America. He has published fiction and nonfiction and is presently writing a memoir about his childhood in India, Canada, and the United States. Raj can be reached at raj_oza@hotmail.com

 

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