Splendid novel

Published : Dec 05, 2008 00:00 IST

Even more than a fine plot and rich historical detail, it is the language that carries Amitav Ghoshs new novel through 500-odd pages.

AMITAV GHOSHS new novel, Sea of Poppies,moves slowly and with a certain rugged grandeur, like the great ship that is in many ways the sutradhar of this tale: Ibis, the tall-masted jahaj that looked like a great bird and had indeed once been a blackbirder in its terrible past, transporting generations of slaves from western Africa.

In 1837, Ibis is acquired by new masters for the opium trade, now that the slave trade has formally been abolished, and the ship sets sail from Baltimore to Calcutta (now Kolkata) with a scruffy crew and a cargo of cotton to defray part of the expenses of its year-long journey. But the ships human cargo have left their mark in the form of innumerable peep-holes and air-ducts bored into the tween-deck, holes that now make the timbers weep in the heavier seas, drenching the bales of cotton so thoroughly that they have to be jettisoned.

It is the vision of this ship, which in March 1838 touches the waters of the Ganga where they meet the Bay of Bengal, that comes like a sign of destiny to Deeti, the opium widow who will leave her tiny village in northern Bihar, leaving behind everything familiar to her, not only the poppy-seed paste with which she cooked and the poppy-seed oil with which she massaged her daughter Kabutris hair, but also the little daughter to travel in this vessel to the distant island of Mareech, or Mauritius.

Tensions between the British and China are building up, and there is talk of waging a war for opium. In India, East India Company officials force the struggling farmers to plant poppy on more and more land instead of the old winter crops of wheat, masoor dal, and vegetables with which they could feed their families. A huge opium-processing factory at Ghazipur, near Deetis village, processes and sends out the opium to the rest of the world controlled by the British empire. The factory is among the most precious jewels in Queen Victorias crown, for its godowns hold a substantial portion of the wealth upon which the British empire was built.

Meanwhile, plantation owners desperately need indentured labourers to work in their fields. One such plantation owner in Mauritius sends word with Zachary Reid, the mulatto carpenter, a freed son of a slave, who signed on as a crew member of Ibis in Baltimore and who suddenly, after a series of events, finds himself having to take charge of the ship. In this task, he has the assistance of a strange group of lascars who address him as Malum Zikri and regard him as one of their kind who can nevertheless pass off as a gentleman.

Zacharys is not the only sudden transformation in these turbulent times: barriers of caste, class, religion and language are all eventually broken down on board the ship. Deeti, the high-caste widow, and her low-caste lover Kalua come on board the ship to escape persecution; a young Frenchwoman born and brought up in Calcutta comes aboard dressed as a Brahmin woman; a former zamindar finds a friend in a recovering opium addict from China; a hill man finds his life partner in a woman from the plains. Old identities begin to dissolve on board Ibis. It is also generally a period of upheaval all over the world. Even Benjamin Burnham, the owner of Ibis, became an opium nabob and made his fortunes profiting on the currents of global trade.

It is an exciting tale about a part of history that has rarely been looked at so closely and with so much sensitivity. The story is beautifully plotted and affectingly told, with a vividly pictured cast. It is a measure of success for a historical novel of such sweeping scope that we are soon drawn into the lives of individual characters, caring for them and wondering about their destinies even the most marginal ones, those who are curled up in a corner of the ships hold, even those who we know are destined to do little other than fall sick, shrivel up, die and be thrown overboard to float as corpses in the ships wake.

Ghoshs careful research brings alive the atmosphere of early nineteenth-century India, from the opium factory whose sixteen godowns store so much of the Empires treasures, to the sights and sounds of Calcuttas Lal bazaar; from the treatment of the girmitiyas, or those who have signed the agreements to be transported to Mauritius as indentured labourers, to life on board the ship as it leaves India, pulling out towards the Black Water and taking with it hundreds of men and women, jahaj bhais and behens who will never return to the shores of their homeland:

Slowly, as the vessels motion made itself felt in the pit of every stomach, the noise yielded to a pregnant, fearful stillness. Now the migrants began to absorb the finality of what was under way: yes, they were moving, they were afloat, heading towards the void of the Black Water: neither death nor birth was as fearsome a passage as this, neither being experienced in full consciousness... Somewhere in the darkness, a voice, trembling in awe, uttered the first syllables of the Gayatri Mantra and Neel, who had been made to learn the words almost as soon as he could speak, now found himself saying them, as if for the first time: Om, bhur bhuvah swah, tatsavitur varenyam... O giver of life, remover of pain and sorrow...

Sea of Poppies is the first of a planned trilogy, and this is a good thing because the novel ends rather dramatically. Despite the sprawling canvas, the pace never slackens for a moment in this most well-crafted of Ghoshs novels since The Shadow Lines and The Calcutta Chromosome. Even more than a fine plot and rich historical detail, it is the language that carries the novel through more than 500 pages a spirited, playful, passionate and fiercely, gloriously living language that throbs and thrives with every encounter between people and cultures, a language that turns and moves as naturally as the waters upon which the travellers sail.

And whered you learn that kind of talk? Zachary asks Serang Ali, the leader of the lascars. Afeem ship, replies the lascar. China-side, Yankee genlum allotim tok so-fashion.

And just so, the novels prose reflects the quicksilver nature of this language: jamna is introduced to us within quotation marks on page 16, soon after the lascars have come aboard, as the lascar word for fore; on page 17, we are told that Mauritius has appeared on the jamna bow, and jamna is already a part of the novels language.

The language of the novel changes subtly to suit the moods of the stories that it weaves together. The rajas of Raskhali have their own words to describe the colours of the breeze a strong, steady breeze was neel, blue; a violent nor-easter was purple, and a listless puff was yellow. The squalls that brought the Ibis to Hooghly Point were of none of these colours: they 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.

As for Deeti, the stray wisps of song that she murmurs contain some of the loveliest poetry of the novel: Kaise kate ab / Biraha ki ratiya?/ How will it pass / This night of parting?

There is also the language of the Burnham household, one of colonial extravagance and pompousness, where a huge staff consisting of bobachees, consumahs, khidmutgars, farrashes, bichawnadars, matarnis and harry-maids scurry around to keep the Burnhams in comfort. And when the gentlemen gather to discuss the prospects of a war with China in the environment of a crackdown on opium trading, we hear the pious rationalisations of wartime.

No one dislikes war more than I do, declares Mr. Burnham virtuously. Indeed I abhor it. But it cannot be denied that there are times when war is not merely just and necessary, but also humane. In China that time has come: nothing else will do. His statements meet with approval and support.

There is no other recourse, exclaims one of the dinner guests. Indeed, humanity demands it. We need only think of the poor Indian peasant what will become of him if his opium cant be sold in China? Bloody hurremzads can hardly eat now; theyll perish by the score. Another dinner guest piously offers up yet another reason to go to war: evangelism. My friends in the Mission are agreed that a war is necessary if China is to be opened up to Gods word.

Coming at a time when parts of the world are still engaged in conflict, where language is still used to justify a war of aggression, where new forms of exploitation are devised to retain old divides, this deeply thoughtful novel asks the reader to look into the pages of history, and at individual life stories, for answers. Sea of Poppies is a splendid novel from one of our most elegant storytellers.

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