Afetid, swampy marshland, overrun with jungle and wild creatures, governed by heat, humidity and lassitude. Not, to the logical mind, the ideal setting for the capital of the jewel in the crown—yet, Calcutta (now Kolkata) was designated the second city of the empire, thanks largely to the river that ran through it. History likes to focus on the governors general and redcoats who ruled India from the city’s pillared mansions. But, along the banks of the Hooghly thrived the businessmen and the seamy underclass who made the empire possible.
It was trade that lubricated the wheels of the Empire; though often overlooked, like the adjuncts to the juggernaut, it changed the course of history. Not only of India, but of the world.
Sea of Poppies: Penguin, 512 pages, Rs599.
In a determinedly West-centric world, Amitav Ghosh’s point of view has always been refreshingly contrarian. It is Calcutta that is the heart of Ghosh’s world, but Sea of Poppies is not a Calcutta novel in the sense of Amit Chaudhuri’s oeuvre or even Ghosh’s own The Shadow Lines. Instead, Calcutta presides over an 1838 map —sepia-tinted, archaic-lettered—of the world that extends beyond the Bay of Bengal to the Indian Ocean islands in the west and the great land mass of China to the east. Calcutta is opportunity and escape, possibility and triumph, disgrace and despair.
But, more emphatically—straddling a metaphorical point of no-return between land, river and sea—the city symbolizes a cusp, an overlap between an end and a beginning, for the vast cast of characters in Sea of Poppies. There is Deeti, a Rajput widow, who has run away with Kalua, a Dalit ox-cart driver. There is Zachary Reid, mulatto son of a freed woman who, in the course of a Baltimore-to-Calcutta voyage with a load of cotton, graduates from ship handyman to de facto captain. There is Paulette Lambert, orphaned daughter of a French curator of the Botanical Gardens, and her childhood playmate Jodu, her ayah’s son. There is Neel Rattan Haldar, zamindar of Raskhali, and as effete and languid an example of Bengal’s liaison class as can be imagined. And, most unforgettably, there is Baboo Nob Kissin, the vividly drawn Vaishnavite gomusta who brings them all together on board the Ibis , a black slave ship refitted for human cargo.
Some years ago, Kazuo Ishiguro masterfully appropriated the classic crime novel format for When We Were Orphans, a dreamy, opium-hazed investigation of a lost childhood in Shanghai. Ghosh’s use of the Ibis is similar: Its wooden decks and multiple sails are the English manor house for the ragtag band of unfamiliars who come together to chart a course across the kala pani (literally, “black water”. Crossing the sea was considered taboo in those days) to a new world. But because this is Ghosh—rather immodestly, if not incorrectly, described as “one of the world’s finest novelists” on the front cover flap—the platform does not culminate in a cozy whodunit. Sea of Poppies is a meditation on colonialism in the guise of a novel, but such is the author’s meticulousness in matters of research, and so firm is his grasp of the unexplored (at least in historical fiction) underbelly of the British empire, that his work ends up as a page-turner for anyone with a modicum of interest in India.
Ghosh at his home in Aldona, Goa
It is a tactic Ghosh has used before—most notably in In An Antique Land and The Glass House—but Sea of Poppies is the author’s most ambitious work till date, and not only because it is the first of a trilogy and will, we know, climax with the Opium Wars. But Ghosh casts his net so wide—hinterland caste politics, shipboard shenanigans, the economics of the empire, the trafficking in indentured labour, the lethargy of the landowning classes—that the reader is occasionally left gasping for breath. Ghosh is not known to shy away from showcasing his knowledge, but in some sections, especially the river- or sea-faring ones, the detail seems almost show-offish. Sometimes one wishes there was a diagram of the Ibis, instead of such words as companionways, after-cabins and cuddy.
But that is perhaps an unfair demand, for one of the author’s obvious concerns in the novel is language and its evolution, etymology and application (Sea of Poppies even has its own downloadable chrestomathy). From the Bhojpuri songs remembered by Deeti to the lascar-speak used on board the ship, from Anglo-Indianese to Neel Rattan’s connect with “Mr Hume, Mr Locke and Mr Hobbes”, Sea of Poppies exhibits Ghosh’s fascination with the Indian contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary as much as the evocative power of the rural ditties of the unschooled. In the first part of the book, this preoccupation sometimes seems excessive: Over a few pages, Reid is introduced to dal, masala, alzbel (a corruption of all’s well), resum (for rations), malum (mate), champi and dumbcow. The last word comes up in this exchange:
“Malum Zikri one big piece pukka sahib now. Allo propa. If planter-bugger coming catch, must do dumbcow.”
“Dumbcow?” said Zachary. “What you talking about?”
“Must too muchi shout: planter-bugger, you go barnshoot sister. I one-piece pukka sahib, no can catch. You takee pistol in pocket; if bugger try shanghai, shoot in he face.”
The Indian patois is much less self-conscious, as in the snatches of songs and prayers of the girmitiyas, and even the Anglicization of local names: So, Madhu Kalua becomes Maddow Colver. A pithier explanation of the origin of familiar-yet-strange names such as Dhorasoo, Chanderpaul, Ramgoolam and Kallicharan would be hard to find.
Ghosh’s forte is breathing life into the records and statistics so meticulously maintained by the British-era clerks and “writers”; his genius is in creating fictional characters that are like quite no one we may know, yet can grow to care about. On the last page of Sea of Poppies, we leave the Ibis on the high seas, soon after a near-lynching, an almost-mutiny, a cold-blooded murder and at the scene of a dramatic escape. It is the old end-of-the-chapter cliffhanger routine, but Ghosh imbues it with the sense of something epochal, epical. The cusp, indeed, of the past and the possible.
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