This is what novels can do: take us away from what we know and set us down in other worlds, at other times, to see the universe from another angle and hopefully reassess our choices and privilege. Yet, we still, usually – well, I do – continue to read books about and written by, English-speaking muddle-class whities.
What is most remarkable about Sea of Poppies (2008) is the language:
A quartermaster lured the boy into the ship’s store with a mind to trying a bit of udlee-budlee. But chota as he was, young Benjamin didn’t lack for bawhawdery – set upon the old launderbuzz with a belaying-pin and beat him with such a will that his life-line was all but unrove.
He also assigns formal speech peppered with malapropisms to paint an innocent, although well-meaning, young Caucasian character through her attempt at what she thinks to be proper conversation.
Also the wonderfully colourful Indian-English of yesteryear full of jangled word-order and inappropriate gerunds “too much not time to be arousing and uprising…’ juggling accents and idiolects from the lowest poverty-stricken rice farmer to a Zamindar, the Rajah of Raskhali who looses everything to indignant hubris.
And it isn’t just his wild, wonderful, and inventive lexicon but it’s also the exotic time and place full of words for staff, house geography, clothes, food, ship-craft, and colloquialisms.
You would think all this verbal unfamiliarity would send you rushing to the dictionary; a tiresome task if all too necessary – although reading it as an eBook allows this to be less so. But no. The overall meaning of a sentence, conversation, or paragraph is always clear even if some individual words are not.
One of the joys of the writing here is it’s inventiveness and possible authenticity. Ghosh acknowledges his debt to several publications, including Thomas Roebuck’s An English And Hindoostanee Naval Dictionary Of Technical Terms And Sea Phrases As Also The Various Words of Command Given In Working A Ship, &C. With Many Sentences of Great Use at Sea; To Which Is Prefixed A Short Grammar Of The Hindoostani Language (1813).
However, whether it is authentic or inventive doesn’t matter, it’s a joy to read, and reading some sections out loud is a very pleasurable thing to do.
The book, and it’s a big one, the first of a trilogy, is set prior to the first Opium War (1839-1842) when the British successfully came to the aid of the opium merchants when the Qing Dynasty of China banned the drug from its shores. It is divided into three sections: Land, River, Sea and centres around a schooner, the Ibis, and the exotic collection of humanity that find themselves on and below its decks as it sails from Calcutta to Mauritius.
The characters are varied, three-dimensional, and extraordinary. There is Deeti, a widowed poppy farmer saved from her husband’s funeral pyre by a handsome ‘untouchable’, Kalua; Zachary Reid, a mixed race American sailor; Serang Ali, the leader of the lascars and colourfully mangles the English language along with various other tongues; Neel Rattan Halder, a Raja convicted of forgery; Ah Fatt, a Parsi-Chinese opium addict; Paulette, a French orphan raised in India; Jodu, her childhood friend; and the extraordinary Nob Kissin Baboo, a would-be priest. All of these major characters, and many minor ones, have colourful backstories, some comic, some tragic, some heart-thumping, some tear-jerking but by part three of the novel they are all on board the Ibis, bound for Mauritius and their various destinies.
As well as all the above there is Ghosh’s descriptive, rich, and luminescent prose: describing the love in a young girl’s heart along with its negative opposite, not hate but cowardice for saying nothing for fear of rejection; describing the effect of the first lungful of opium smoke in a man’s breast, nulling the gravity in his limbs and creating delusions clean of doubt; to untying a knot on a bowsprit as it plunges a sailor into a mighty wave and out the other side, like threading a needle with courage.
It’s a great read and reinforces what novels do best: carry us away.
Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, 2008.
The epic story, The Ibis Trilogy, continues with River of Smoke (2011), and Flood of Fire (2015).
You can buy the book in various formats here.
Here you can watch an interview with Amitav Ghosh as he explains his sentiments behind Sea of Poppies.
And here is a little documentary with Ghosh as he talks about the background to his iconic Ibis Trilogy.