Some background: Sea of Poppies is set in 1838, near the start of the Opium Wars between Britain and China, and its cast of characters include a strong-willed young widow from a village in northern Bihar, an American freedman born of a white father and a Negro slavewoman, a gomusta/agent who believes that his life’s work is to build a temple to a mother-goddess, a dispossessed Raja wrongly convicted of forgery, and a feisty orphan of European origin. These characters and others are thrown together on a large ship sailing from the eastern shores of India, across the Indian Ocean, towards the Mauritius (“Mareech”) Islands, and a running theme is that this ship, often likened to a giant womb, becomes a vessel for rebirth. On land, some of these people had led such parochial lives, and had been so bound to strictures of community or religion, that they would shrink in horror at the thought of even touching food prepared by someone of a different caste; but now, personal compulsions drive them to cross the Black Water (itself proscribed under many social or religious laws) to an entirely unknown land, in the intimate company of strangers.
As one migrant wisely puts it, “On a boat of pilgrims, no one can lose caste and everyone is the same. From now on and forever afterwards, we will all be ship-siblings - jahaz-bhais and jahaz bahens – to each other. There’ll be no differences between us.” But many fears and prejudices have to be overcome. The women on the ship are bewildered, then amused, to discover that they each had different methods of picking fruit or cooking spices, meticulously practiced “in the belief that none other could possibly exist”. The exiled Raja contends with severe revulsion while cleaning up after an ailing, incontinent cellmate of foreign origin. When an impromptu wedding has to be organised on board during the voyage, everyone is puzzled, because “with no parents or elders to decide on these matters, who knew what was the right way to make a marriage?” Fear of the unknown leads some travelers to recall descriptions of Lanka in the Ramayana and imagine that they are being taken to an island inhabited by carnivorous demons.
But long before the ship sets sail, the narrative has explored situations where people from different cultures must interact on a daily basis and find some common ground, and to read this novel is to experience the fluidity of language in such situations – how it shifts and adapts over time, colliding with and forming nervous alliances with other tongues.
Early on, we are introduced to the species of sailor known as the lascar, who “came from places that were far apart and had nothing in common, except the Indian Ocean; among them were Chinese and East Africans, Arabs and Malays, Bengalis and Goans, Tamils and Arakanese”. Many of these lascars, having been separated from family as children and employed in the trade since as long as they can remember, don’t even know which country they originally hail from; it can truly be said of them that the sea is their only nation. Their speech too is an odd hybrid of words, phrases and slang that have been picked up and assimilated over time from different places; some of the lascar talk in Sea of Poppies can have a dizzying effect on a reader.
Serang Ali wife-o hab makee die. Go topside, to hebbin. By’mby, Serang Ali catchi nother piece wife.
What for Malum Zikri make big dam bobbery’n so muchee bukbuk and big-big hookuming? Malum Zikri still learn-pijjin. No sabbi ship-pijjin. No can see Serang Ali too muchi smart-bugger inside? Takee ship Por’Lwee-side three days, look-see.(Note: in this piece written for the Hindustan Times a few days ago, Ghosh mentions learning about lascars for the first time as a young man in Egypt, and discovering something of their language from a 19th century dictionary.)
As the story progresses, we also meet a cross-section of Europeans who have been living or trading in India for decades, and who now speak a highly diluted form of English that incorporates Hindi or Bengali words. Ghosh simply presents their speech as it is, without italicising the Indian bits or providing a glossary at the end (something that is frequently done – and overdone – in Indian novels written in English). Further, he spells the local words not as an Indian reader would recognize them but to reflect the European accents with which they are spoken. The result is that even for an reader who knows the words and their meanings, some of these passages require constant interpretation or extrapolation. (In some cases, I had to say the words aloud, or try pronouncing them first one way then another, before I could understand. I wonder how much sense these passages would make to a reader who doesn’t know Hindi.)
As illustration, here’s a short list of some of these words and phrases in the form that they appear in the book (spelt according to the foreign pronunciation). In parentheses, I’ve included the spellings that an Indian reader would be more familiar with.
- “Zubben” (zubaan), described as “the flash lingo of the East. Just a little peppering of nigger-talk mixed with a few girleys”. (I think the “girleys” is gaalis, or insults.)
- “Hoga” and “chawbuck’d”, in the sentence “Just won’t ho-ga; that kind of thing could get a man chawbuck’d with a horsewhip!”
- “Pollock-sawg” (paalak-saag) for a spinach dish
- “Chitty” and “dawk” (for chithi and daak, or letter and postbox) “So tiresome to have to run outside every time you have to drop a chitty in the dawk.”
- “Shishmull” (sheesh mahal, mirror palace)
- “Dufter” (daftar, office)
- “Balty” (baalti, bucket)
- “Hurremzads” (haraamzadas, bastards)
- “Jildee” (jaldi, quick)
- “Chupowing” (from chupna or hide)
- “Gantas (bells) in a clock-tower”
- “Tuncaw” (tankha, salary)
- “Tumasher” (tamasha, fuss, used here to mean a large celebration)
- “Oolter-poolter” (ulta-pulta or upside-down), as used in one of my favourite sentences: “He turned a ship oolter-poolter in the Spratlys, which is considered a great piece of silliness amongst sailing men.”
“Charter your chute” – which I’ll discreetly avoid explaining, except to say that it involves, um, cunning linguistics. It occurs at the end of a very funny dinner scene: an excitable Englishman overhears a dancing girl whispering to her companions about his sexual whimsies, whereupon he leaps to his feet and delivers this salty monologue:
Damned badzat pootlies. You think I don’t samjo your bloody bucking? There’s not a word of your black babble I don’t understand. Call me a cunnylapper, would you? I’d rather bang the bishop than charter your chute.- “Quoddie” (qaidi, prisoner), as in “Shut yer gob, quoddie!”
- “Bawhawdery” (bahaduri, courage)
- “Coorsy” (kursi, chair) and “kubber” (khabbar, news), as in: “It would never do to be warming the coorsy when there’s kubber like this to be heard.” Later, “kibber” is used instead of “kubber”: “I don’t think the skipper needs to be jibbering the kibber with you.”
In this context, some of the most entertaining passages are the conversations between Mrs Burnham, the wife of a shipping merchant, and an orphan named Paulette, who has been living under her care in their Calcutta mansion. In Mrs Burham’s manner of talking, we get the full measure of how deeply the local language has altered the speech patterns of the Europeans who have been living here for years or decades. She says things like “Don’t you samjo, Paulette?” and “Where have you been chupowing yourself? I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” On one occasion she asks Paulette if “little chinties” had got into her clothes. On another, explaining that Paulette is lucky to have received a proposal of marriage from a judge, she says:
I can tell you, dear, there’s a paltan of mems who’d give their last anna to be in your jooties...you’re lucky to have a judge in your sights and you mustn’t let your bunduk waver.And when she mistakenly thinks that Paulette is with child, the phrase she uses is a local variation on “bun in the oven”: “There isn’t a rootie in the choola, is there?”
Naturally, names undergo changes as well: one of the principal characters, Babu Nobokrishno Panda, likes being addressed by the Anglicised version of his name, Nob Kissin Pander or Nob Kissin Baboo (which in turn leads an Englishman to refer to him as a “nut-kissing baboon”).
In another novel, some of this might have become tiresome after some time, or begun to seem affected. But it’s very appropriate to Ghosh’s book, which is after all a panorama of different cultures, attitudes and belief systems colliding with each other, or at least circling suspiciously around each other – more than a century and a half ago, when concepts like “globalisation” didn’t exist in the sense that we understand them today, and the world was still a very, very large and frightening place. More on the book soon.