A Multilingual Voyage, Buoyed By A 'Sea Of Poppies'

Amitav Ghosh's 'Sea of Poppies'
Sea of Poppies
By Amitav Ghosh
Hardcover, 528 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $26
Author Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies was short listed for the prestigious Man Booker prize earlier this year. Dayanita Singh hide caption

itoggle caption Dayanita Singh

Imagine if Charles Dickens had signed on for a voyage with the Pequod, and you get some idea of what Amitav Ghosh's sprawling new historical novel Sea of Poppies has in store. Ghosh conjures up a former slave ship called the Ibis, which is sailing to the island of Mauritius in 1838 and is somehow involved with the British war to open up China to the opium trade.

The ship is packed with a multitude of characters both high and low, including a mixed-race novice sailor from Baltimore, a Rajah in debt to a British businessman, a Chinese criminal, a French stowaway, Malay crewman, farmers, soldiers and a mob of indentured Indian peasants (including a woman named Deeti and her giant of a paramour Kalua, both important to the plot).

Ghosh tells the story of how all these characters end up on this voyage in an appealing, somewhat modified, lingo of the period — when British English mingled with Indian Englishes and dallied with dozens of other dialects. The tale itself is infused with ship's lore, pirate talk, Lascar pidgin and all the other verbal music of the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

Beneath it all, like the endless rolling sea, Ghosh's own beautifully made sentences and paragraphs buoy up ship, plot, characters and the setting itself, with a natural ease and beauty. His craft is particularly evident in this passage when the ship — most of whose indentured passengers have never seen the ocean — anchors for one last night in Indian waters,

... the last place from which the migrants would be able to view their native shore: this was Saugor Roads, a much-trafficked anchorage in the lee of Ganga-Sagar, the island that stands between the sea and the holy river... the very name Ganga-Sagar, joining, as it did, river and sea, clear and dark, known and hidden, served to remind the migrants of the yawning chasm ahead; it was if they were sitting balanced on the edge of a precipice, and the island were an outstretched limb of sacred Jambudvipa, their homeland, reaching out to keep them from tumbling into the void.

Reading Sea of Poppies over a number of days, I came to understand that all good books are doing just that — reaching out, helping to keep us from tumbling into the void.

Excerpt: 'Sea Of Poppies'

Sea of Poppies
By Amitav Ghosh
Hardcover, 528 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $26
'Sea of Poppies'

PART I

The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the apparition was a sign of destiny, for she had never seen such a vessel before, not even in a dream: how could she have, living as she did in northern Bihar, four hundred miles from the coast? Her village was so far inland that the sea seemed as distant as the netherworld: it was the chasm of darkness where the holy Ganga disappeared into the Kala-Pani, 'the Black Water'.

It happened at the end of winter, in a year when the poppies were strangely slow to shed their petals: for mile after mile, from Benares onwards, the Ganga seemed to be flowing between twin glaciers, both its banks being blanketed by thick drifts of white-petalled flowers. It was as if the snows of the high Himalayas had descended on the plains to await the arrival of Holi and its springtime profusion of colour.

The village in which Deeti lived was on the outskirts of the town of Ghazipur, some fifty miles east of Benares. Like all her neighbours, Deeti was preoccupied with the lateness of her poppy crop: that day, she rose early and went through the motions of her daily routine, laying out a freshly washed dhoti and kameez for Hukam Singh, her husband, and preparing the rotis and achar he would eat at midday. Once his meal had been wrapped and packed, she broke off to pay a quick visit to her shrine room: later, after she'd bathed and changed, Deeti would do a proper puja, with flowers and offerings; now, being clothed still in her night-time sari, she merely stopped at the door, to join her hands in a brief genuflection.

Soon a squeaking wheel announced the arrival of the ox-cart that would take Hukam Singh to the factory where he worked, in Ghazipur, three miles away. Although not far, the distance was too great for Hukam Singh to cover on foot, for he had been wounded in the leg while serving as a sepoy in a British regiment. The disability was not so severe as to require crutches, however, and Hukam Singh was able to make his way to the cart without assistance. Deeti followed a step behind, carrying his food and water, handing the cloth-wrapped package to him after he had climbed in.

Kalua, the driver of the ox-cart, was a giant of a man, but he made no move to help his passenger and was careful to keep his face hidden from him: he was of the leather-workers' caste and Hukam Singh, as a high-caste Rajput, believed that the sight of his face would bode ill for the day ahead. Now, on climbing into the back of the cart, the former sepoy sat facing to the rear, with his bundle balanced on his lap, to prevent its coming into direct contact with any of the driver's belongings. Thus they would sit, driver and passenger, as the cart creaked along the road to Ghazipur – conversing amicably enough, but never exchanging glances.

Excerpted from Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. Copyright © 2008 by Amitav Ghosh. Published in October 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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