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A Sea change into something rich and strange

Polyglot seafarers and concerned landlubbers all play their roles in this epic story about an overpowering addiction to power and the poppy, writes Sanjay Sipahimalani.

india Updated: Jun 16, 2008 17:16 IST
Sanjay Sipahimalani

Sea of Poppies
Amitav Ghosh
Penguin Rs 599 PP 515

The alkaloid that seduced Baudelaire and a subsequent generation of Romantic poets was also the dirty little secret at the heart of Britain's Indian empire.

Profits accruing from the trade in opium derived from Indian poppy fields gave rise to powerful dynasties, glittering palaces and unjust wars. And it is this that animates Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, the first novel in a proposed trilogy.

As is his wont, Ghosh weaves together the separate destinies of disparate characters; from these interactions arise the pressure points of plot. There's Zachary, a principled mulatto freedman from Baltimore; Deeti, an impecunious widow fleeing the depredations that follow her husband's death in an opium factory; Neel Rattan, a fastidious Bengal potentate convicted of forgery; Paulette, a recently orphaned and headstrong young European; and Baboo Nob Kissin, an agent for indentured labourers, in the midst of a transformation wrought by a relativeturned-goddess.

It is 1838. The Opium Wars are about to begin. And all of these, with a colourful supporting cast of lascars, labourers and overlords, find themselves on board the Ibis, a "topsail schooner" that sets sail from Calcutta across the kala pani to Mauritius.

The novel isn't just a seafaring yarn from first to last. Ghosh takes his time in building up the characters, filling in their backgrounds and the circumstances leading to their current predicament.

In characteristically limpid prose and with the eye of a social anthropologist "a discipline in which he's well-versed" he details the customs, diet, clothes and social restrictions of these individuals who are to be thrown together on the Ibis to become "jahaj-bhais".

As is the case with other novels of the sea by Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, and more recently Barry Unsworth, there is much nautical terminology. We're introduced to tween decks, foretopmen and ratlines, with sailors eating hardtack and playing ablewhackets while "heaven forbid" the jib and the martingale run afoul of the dolphin-striker.

Most of this builds verisimilitude (along with other striking passages that tell of the intricacies of poppy cultivation and the inner workings of an opium factory). But it is Ghosh's use of polyglot dialogue that takes us into choppy waters.

The tower of Babel he attempts to construct teeters under its own weight. Among other volumes, he's obviously studied his Hobson-Jobson obsessively for characters such as Mr Doughty, the ship's pilot, spout Anglo-Indian dialect to the point of absurdity: "Where's the mate? Has he been given the kubber that my bunder-boat has lagowed... Hop to it before I give your ganders a taste of my lattee."

(You just know that before too long, this man is going to ask for a "brandy-pawnee".) The lascars on board the Ibis, too, have their own argot: "Catchi too muchi shamshoo. More better go sleep chop-chop."

And the turn of phrase employed by Baboo Nob Kissen puts one in mind of Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, Billy Bunter's schoolmate. Not to sound tendentious, but when so much patois is stuffed into so few sentences, it makes characters teeter dangerously close to caricature.

Elsewhere, when characters speak in their non-English native tongue (such as Bhojpuri) Ghosh uses the more agreeable expedient of reporting their dialogue in English, without the use of quotation marks and with the occasional vernacular expression thrown in for good measure.

Unfortunately, the streak of latter-day Romanticism prevalent in Ghosh's The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide resurfaces again here, leading him to imbue some of the characters with an exaggerated sense of idealism and occasional naivet.

This is the case especially with Paulette, and with others such as Jodu, her childhood friend. Allied to this are moments tinged with melodrama involving those on the other side of the fence principally sadistic or insensitive Englishmen such as Mr Burnham, the Ibis owner, whose pastimes include filching property and being spanked.

Such juxtapositions at times approach the level of the simplistic. Despite this, the novel never comes across as slick or pat, a testimony to Ghosh's way with narrative. He doesn't let scholarship come in the way of storytelling, and his fascination for describing lives uprooted by history is evident. It's not all smooth sailing, then, on this Sea of Poppies. But it's a voyage of many charms.

Sanjay Sipahimalani writes on the literary blog www.antiblurbs.blogspot.com