Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Language variations in Sea of Poppies

I’ve been reading and enjoying Sea of Poppies, the first installment in Amitav Ghosh’s highly anticipated Ibis trilogy (the announcement of which caused lots of excitement in Indian publishing circles last year). There’s much to discuss about this book, which has many Ghosh trademarks – the depth of scholarship, the perpetually enquiring mind, his curiosity about races of people and their personal histories – but one thing I found especially interesting is the colourful speech patterns that occur throughout it.

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’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.


  1. Must buy and read immediately, then! Will post a more meaningful comment in four days! :)

  2. sounds like a definite read...chartering the chute is one of the funniest things i've heard!

  3. Hey Jai: apropos the linguistic mish-mash and the Indian diaspora, there is a (well-received) recent book by Peggy Mohan called Jahajin - perhaps you are aware of it? Don't remember seeing you review it, so if you check it out, would welcome your thoughts on it.

    Regarding the Indianised speech of the English expat - did they really absorb so much of Hindi? The excerpts you show sound much more khichdified than Zee TV's Hindi news, if you know what I mean. I'm sure the goras used Indian expressions (viz. Hobson-Jobson and all), but every other word in a sentence? What do you think?

  4. Hi Jai - Greatly enjoyed this piece, and thought it one of your best. The link between Ghosh's choices of language, spelling and pronunciation and his themes was brought out beautifully, and I totally agree with you on the point about the italicisation of Indian words in novels.

    I think those annoying glossaries, though, might often be a concept thought up be editors or publishers rather than writers.

  5. Good to read the positive review. Still undecided.....I liked Hungry Tide though it did seem at times to be drowned out by Ghosh's research notes (I think your review on the book mentioned this too) but I positively hated The Glass Palace. Its a honestly bad novel and I have since been apprehensive about Ghosh and his admixture of forced fiction grafted onto facts/research (which I think is where his real interest lies)...

    Shadow Lines is still his best IMHO.

  6. Hi,

    You mention in the article that no glossary has been provided. However upon visiting the books official site,
    I found this particular link which has something called a 'Chrestomathy'. Another fancy word for glossary I suppose, it contains the literal and contextual translations of all the words that seem difficult or new fangled, even the ones you have mentioned in your article, like Chute.
    Heres the direct download link for the pdf:
    Hope this helps. Am going to buy the book, thanks for the heads up.


  7. Very nice review . I don't read Much Fiction but I think i should read this .thanks

  8. Nice post - had to concentrate a bit to decipher the words! William Dalrymple's review of the book in Outlook makes similar points apropos the colonial language...

  9. "cunning linguistics" :):).

    Nice review , thanks.

  10. Feanor: I have Jahajin somewhere in the Ever-Growing Pile but don't know if I'll be able to read it anytime soon.

    I should clarify that most of the goras who speak Indianised English in the book are people who have to interact very closely and regularly with the natives, for professional reasons.

    I liked Hungry Tide though it did seem at times to be drowned out by Ghosh's research notes

    Shama: yes, that's true of many passages in Ghosh's fiction - one often senses the novelist struggling with the scholar - but I'm usually absorbed enough by the information and detail he provides to not think of it as a major flaw. Was reading The Glass Palace the other day, not one of his best-received books, but I enjoy the way he can take a sudden break from the fiction narrative to inform us, in encyclopaedic detail, about the symptoms and effects of elephant anthrax.

  11. Saurabh: thanks for the link, will take a look at it. The glossary was probably done just for the website, though it may well be there in the international editions of the book.

  12. FYI I saw a flyer yesterday advertising a book talk on Sea of Poppies by Ghosh at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library on the afternoon of June 18 - didn't catch exact time, perhaps 5? - I won't be in town then but y'all might want to attend.

  13. When is the online edition coming out???

  14. lovely post, jai. that cunning use of linguistic was a killer.

  15. 'Sea of Poppies' wouldn't be quite the same without the Hobson-Jobson language. And I am quite sure this is how the Englishmen in the novel (especially Mr Doughty) talked.

    And on the Ibis, with a crew comprising lascars from all over Asia, a common medium of communication would have been a necessity.

    Somehow I found 'Sea of Poppies' much more readable than 'The Hungry Tide'. The background on the opium trade gels well with the novel, never jarring (unlike the river dolphins).

    I wish someone makes a movie on the 'Sea of Poppies'. Lots of action, drama, a sati scene, romance, anti-British sentiment, a Frenchwoman masquerading as a migrant -- will be tough but it's a potential Oscar winner if the filmmaker can get it right.

    Desperately waiting for Part 2 of the trilogy but Ghosh says it might take some time.

  16. didnt circle of reason do this in miniature - people of different hues coming together and learning to co-exist and feed off each other?

  17. Great review. Never liked Amitav Ghosh. But am enjoying this one thoroughly. Maybe its time to revisit his other works.

  18. This book has been an eye-opener. I thought I lived in a world that was as different from colonial times as chalk is from cheese. It's been a rude shock to discover things are not so different when it comes to how powerful nations sacrifice humanity at the altar of their business interests. And how they vilify nations that stand against them.

    I'm shocked at the similarities between what the Brits did to India and China in the 19th century and what the Americans are doing in Iraq today - The East India Company got the British government to attack China to make money off opium; the Halliburtons, Bechtels and KBRs got Bush to destroy Iraq to satisfy their greed for oil. The Brits used "Free trade" and "bringing the lord to the heathens" arguments to fool the world and justify their acts of aggression; Bush used WMDs and "Saddam is a terrorist" argument to deceive the American public.

  19. I was disappointed by the Sea of Poppies - despite its grand scope and scale. I think in trying to create the atmosphere - Ghosh got too caught up in archaic vocabulary and a surfeit of historical details - both products of his copious research with which he over-burdens his readers, who stumble at every step with unknown words that take away the flow of the narrative. I have found this to be the bane of most of his books - therefore, personally, I wasn’t surprised that the Booker has eluded him so far - despite his considerable literary accomplishments.

    I find his language to be often uneven - rising at times like the waves of the ocean ( or the tide in the Sunderbans - as in his previous book) but often faling flat.

    But, that’s just my view. i ahve written about this at some length in 2 of my recent blogs:

    “In bed with Ghosh” @

    “Saling with priyanka on the Ibis” @



  20. I've just started reading Amitav Ghosh's _Sea of Poppies_ - I rarely read fiction, but I'm enjoying deciphering the lingo, which is sort of a bastard child of Gunga Din and A Clockwork Orange.

    Ghosh introduces a very large foreign vocabulary, but he nearly always writes his sentences so that you can figure out what they mean even if you don't know what the individual foreign words mean.

    More than one foreign language is in the mix. The Mediterranean sea-jargon called Sabir (or lingua franca) grades into a similar Indian Ocean sea jargon called Lascari - some of the characters speak one of these, some the other, and some speak a pidgin derived from both of them. Landlubbers speak Hindi/Urdu (usually referred to in the book as Hindusthani), Bengali, or a related local language, and assimilated Englishmen use numerous Hindi loan-words in their Anglo-Indian English.

    I'm perfectly fascinated by the book, but I have a very large vocabulary of weird words. I can see where somebody who didn't would be put off.

    Bob Richmond

  21. I'm glad you got into the language angle. I avoided talking about it in my review. Would you mind if I include a link to your review with my post?

  22. Shashank Krishnan7:01 PM, August 19, 2010

    Two years after the launch, I've finally managed some time to read it... and I'm thoroughly fascinated by it. The last line of your blog post, "More on the book soon", hasn't been posted though. Please spare some time and fulfill your promise. :-)

  23. Shashank: I take it you read the long interview I did with Amitav Ghosh about the book? I think I did a full-length review for some publication but didn't out it on the blog because I had covered most bases in these two posts.

  24. Thanks Jai! I'd forgotten about this post. This gives me all the info I need.

    P.S. I expected some kind of email notification if/when you replied and never checked back, until today that is. Duh! Silly me.

  25. Thank you so much for this post!

    I am reading Sea of Poppies at the moment and I am enjoing it a lot. But having no knowledge what so ever of Hindi/Bengali/Urdu or any other language of the region, and not even being native English-speaker(I am from Sweden)it is at times quite challenging! Most of the time it is easy to guess from the circumstance what is meant, but sometimes I really whish I could understand more, this post however inspired me to continue reading and I will check the link above.
    Thank you!

  26. Thank you so much for this post!

    I am reading Sea of Poppies right now and enjoying it a lot.

    But having no knowledge whatsoever of Hindi/Bengali/Urdu or any other language of the region and not even being native English-speaker (I am from Sweden) it is at times quite challenging.
    Most of the time it is quite easy to understand what is meant, from the circumstance, but at times I really whish I understood more. This post however inspired me to continue reading and appreciate it further. I will also check the link mentioned above
    Thank you!

  27. Shashank Krishnan9:42 AM, August 26, 2011

    River of Smoke is out. Review anticipated with bated breath :-)

  28. Shashank: yes, River of Smoke has been out for several weeks. But doubt I'll be able to read it anytime soon - too many reviewing commitments, and I won't be officially reviewing this one now, it's already too late...

  29. Thanks for your help with some of the "weird words." I, for one, would have appreciated a glossary; but, then, if there had been one, I wouldn't have found your site!

  30. Thanks for your comments. I am a teacher of English in Spain, currently reading Sea of Poppies.Find the language in the book beautiful but bewildering. Thanks for your insight and your blog, which I have just joined

  31. I read the Glass Palace when I was living in Mumbai and was hooked. Found the Sea of Poppies in an Oxfam shop in Liverpool - a superb read. I believed I was there rooling about with the ship and getting sea sick. The language, if you took it slow, was very entertaining

  32. I'm reading this book, I'm surprised to see that so many Indian words are the same as Persian with a slight difference of pronunciation e.g. harumzadeh, dafter,...

  33. Any lexicon of the ibis trilogy words?