Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008)
The best novelists are generalists and omnivores, whose books consume lives, histories, worlds by the sphereful. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (recently longlisted for the Booker Prize) casts a wide enough shadow across the colonial world and its people to genuinely impress. A Calcutta-born scholar skilled in multiple languages, Ghosh’s first person reportage has found him in Burma, Cambodia, Colorado, and Cairo, as documented in his fine collection Incendiary Circumstances and his memoir In an Antique Land. Ghosh’s pet subjects, throughout novels and essays, are the languages and people caught up in empires’ gears—in this case, a multifarious crew on their way from India to China where, in 1839, the Opium Wars are about to commence. Sea of Poppies exhibits Ghosh’s special facility for cracking open the shell of an anonymous, sprawling history by way of the intermingling languages spoken along the way.
The book takes place within the confines of international commerce, vectors across the ocean that lead, by the story’s end, toward Mauritius, where the ship Ibis will discharge a load of Girmityas, Indians who have given up their former lives and sold themselves into indentured servitude. Among the ship’s cargo are Deeti, the high-caste widow of an opium addict; her new, lower-caste husband, the musclebound Kalua; a French stowaway named Paulette, who seeks escape from dreary Euro-Indian expat splendor; and a convicted forger, the former Rajah of Raskhali, Neel Rattan Halder, stripped by English courts of his lands, title, family, and freedom. Of the crew, most central is Zachary Reid, a mulatto American passing as white, as well as a team of Lascars—a blanket term encompassing a medley of races, speaking mutually incomprehensible languages drawn together only by their affinity for living and working on ships.
Truth be told, the book’s biggest red herring is the opium of the title, the livelihood of just about everyone involved. Drugs are just material, in the same way that caste, customs, empire, war, and commerce are all material for Ghosh. Each enacts its own magnetism on the characters’ destiny, for everyone in this book bears the imprimatur of an inescapable fate. What’s exciting in Ghosh’s telling is his spurning of these very imprimaturs. In an early aside, lucubrating on the Halders, kite-flying connoisseurs with a specialized vocabulary classifying different winds and breezes, Ghosh remarks:
The squalls that brought the Ibis…were winds of a kind which the Halders were accustomed to speak of as ‘suqlat’—a shade of scarlet that they associated with sudden reversals of fortune.
Virtually every character in the book undergoes a dramatic, earth-shaking, identity-changing transformation—Zachary going from black to white, Paulette from French to Bengali, Deeti from suttee to new life, Neel from riches to incarceration. Most peculiarly of all, feeling maternal instincts stirring inside him, one character even begins to transform into a woman.
Ghosh’s particular method is to be found in his making these characters’ transformations not the sum total of their struggle, but the jumping-off point. The ways and means of their becoming completely new, unencumbered world citizens are neither the subject of this book, nor even of their own life stories. They are windows into the action—transformation is the ticket to ride.
To take this in a notably un-postcolonial direction, the late historian Daniel Boorstin once observed that the American landscape could only be settled once a cartographer set down a grid by which the land could be parceled. An entire continent only becomes palatable, even accessible, if it comes pre-packaged. This approach has led to latter-day geographical horrors like the four corners of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. Unsurprisingly, Ghosh himself has written evocatively (in Incendiary Circumstances) on the intersection of these four lines in the sand: “It springs up out of nowhere, perched atop nothing, framed by the only stretch of dull country in the region.For the Four Corners monument the landscape does not exist; it sits squatly on the scrub like a thumbtack in a map, unbudging in its secular disenchantedness.”
Geographically speaking, notional lines and borders are an article of fascination for Ghosh, as are the contingent, ever-straining boundaries between ethnicities, castes, and classes—the inherited, untamed enchantments that oppose man’s artificial charms. In an Antique Land concerns Ghosh’s research into the correspondence of a 10th-century merchant, Abraham Ben Yiju, and his Indian slave Bomma. Yiju’s letters are interesting to Ghosh, on a very fundamental level, for his writing them in Judaeo-Arabic, a colloquial Arabic dialect transliterated, mystifyingly, into Hebrew script. And these kinds of border crossings occur as easily across culture and language as they do across time—discussing the second appearance in print of a letter concerning Yiju’s slave: “in the thirty-one years that have passed between the publication of the one and the other, the Slave has slipped backwards in time, like an awkward package on a conveyor belt. He is nine years younger.” An offhand simile, this mechanical slippage, but one still close to the heart of Ghosh’s matter and thought.
For if transformation is the leitmotif of Sea of Poppies, it is the slippage of identify, between notional and cultural lines, that supports much of the rest of Ghosh’s writing. His essay, The Town by the Sea, on the tsunami of December 26th 2004, limns a refugee populace whose every item of identification has been wiped clean by the rising water. Seeing Ghosh in their midst, a writer with his notepad, they queue up just to have their names written down. This is the same void into which Ghosh’s fictive characters inexorably plunge, on their way to becoming something unknowably new.
But if there is a force that pushes them onward, it is language—and not one language, but all of them at once. The dialects of the Lascars, mingling nautical terminology with Arabic, Mandarin, Portuguese, and whatever else comes to hand; the conversations of the Bhojpuri-speaking villager, or Bengali boatman; or the slang and pidgin-smattered denunciations uttered by the Englishmen themselves, half-absorbed by and otherwise absorbing every new language they confront. In many cases, characters can barely even understand one another. In all, the words are clashing, outdoing one another, italicized, transliterated, or even stuck, untranslated, on the page. If Ghosh’s writing has a glaring error it is the awkwardness of certain terms in his narrative mouth—to speak of “a hell-afloat with pinch-gut pay” smacks of trying too hard, but there is a certain verisimilitude even in failing to master the lingo.
Through all, for the characters of Sea of Poppies a systematic crossing of cultural lines and interbreeding of languages leads the transforming characters deeper into the unknown. This trilogy will lead us into the fearsome heart of 19th -century empire, but Ghosh’s restorative, irrepressibly modern touch is to see that it is done in the tongues of empire’s subjects, and that none whom the story touches leaves unchanged.