Can you be trusted to finish a series? My track record with them is spotty, at best. But I’m working hard to improve my reputation. This year, I started and finished reading Amitav Ghosh’s trilogy, each volume over 500 pages (but the page-turning sort of pages). Hopefully the other series are gaining confidence in me as a reader, but I’ve got years of “making-up” to do.
In Sea of Poppies (2008), readers first meet Deeti, who lives on the outskirts of Ghazipur, fifty miles east of Benares. She keeps house and assists with the poppy crop, while her husband works in Ghazipur’s opium factory.
“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?
The ship which appears in her vision is the Ibis, on which Zachary Reid is travelling, his first sea voyage, to India in 1838. Zachary was eager to try sailing, having worked for eight years in the Baltimore shipyards, and the Ibis has a new English owner, who is eager to refurbish the old slave transport vessel for use in the opium trade. (Slavery has been abolished and the Ibis is not a fast enough runner to escape the boats which patrol to enforce the legislation.)
Zachary has remarkable opportunities in this new owner’s rush to assemble a skeleton crew. Shorthanded and troubled, the crew flounders and Zachary moves quickly through the ranks, even more easily when the ship reaches its destination where it is forgotten that Zachary was registered ‘black’ on the manifest, for here he possesses a skin colour light enough to command some authority.
This is the kind of story which truly unfolds. It feels simultaneously old-fashioned (in sentence structure and time period) but contemporary (in its use of humour and scenic displays).
Not only do readers experience life on-board but we have glimpses, also, of life in prison, on a colonial estate, on the waterfront, and in an opium factory.
Although Deeti and Zachary play significant roles throughout the novel, other characters move into the heart of the narrative as well. Including the man who will eventually construct the glossary which is included as the back of the novel.
How fitting, for language plays a crucial role in drawing readers into Sea of Poppies. The glossary is ostensibly assembled from scraps of paper accumulated over a man’s lifelong curiosity about words.
The glossary is not necessary for readers to enjoy the story, but it does offer another opportunity for insight, not only into this man’s character but also in terms of the novel’s preoccupations. In the most obvious sense, in a quest for understanding (between individuals, between cultures):
“To set sail is to find oneself foundering not just in a new element, but also in an unknown ocean of words. When one listens to the speech of sailors, no matter whether they be speaking English or Hind. one is always at sea: not for nothing is the English argot of sail known as a ‘sea-language’, for it has long slipped its moorings from the English one learns in books.”
The definitions frequently include explanations of caste and social status, both on- and off-ship. Sometimes the definition is more about the character than the word’s etymology. For instance, the definition of ‘sahib’, which also reveals the novel’s preoccupation with class and status:
Sahib – This word was a source of bafflement to Neel: ‘How did it happen that the Arabic for ‘friend’ became, in Hind. and English, a word meaning ‘master’? The question was answered by a grandson who had visited the Society Union; on the margins of Neel’s note he scribbled: ‘Sahib’ was to the Raj what ‘comrade’ is to Communists – a mask for mastery.
Language continues to play an important role in the trilogy’s second volume, River of Smoke (2011). And not only because of the ways in which it supports the underlying themes of exploitation and profit. “Really, there was no language like English for turning lies into legalisms.”
Even though there is no glossary in this volume, one of the secondary characters from the first volume moves to the heart of the action now, because of a remarkable ability to communicate. This leads to administrative work which affords readers an inside-scoop, inviting them into corners of the story which would, otherwise, remain unobserved.
The character’s “job was further complicated by the Seth’s habits of dictation: he always composed on his feet and his restless pacing seemed to add to the turbulence of his words, which often came pouring out in braided torrents of speech, each rushing stream being silted with the sediment of many tongues – Gujarati, Hindusthani, English, pidgin, Cantonese.”
This gives a hint of the continued richness of the story’s setting, which moves from India to China. An outline of the plot could suggest that the action here is land-based, but that’s not accurate either.
“In a way, Fanqui-town is like a ship at sea, with hundreds – no, thousands – of men living crammed together in a little sliver of a space. I do believe there is no place like it on earth so small and yet so varied, where people from the far corners of the earth must live, elbow to elbow, for six months of the year. […] threshold of the last and greatest of all the world’s caravanserais.”
Here, again, we gather in a confined space and matters of legality impact business decisions for several main characters, some new and some familiar. What is certainly familiar is the continuing controversy surrounding the production and sale of opium, which the Chinese government has vehemently prohibited and which the colonial powers are determined to continue distributing, legally or otherwise.
In the third volume, Flood of Fire (2015), the parallels between an outlawed-but-still-ongoing slave trade and an outlawed-but-still-ongoing opium trade are undeniable. Despite its firm rooting in 1839-1841, the ideas and preoccupations of this trilogy are startlingly contemporary. And, throughout, the themes of language and status, passion and ambition are also ongoing.
“Thinking about this I realized that I too would protest if Sanskrit or Bangla words like yavana or joban were translated as ‘barbarian’. I think that Compton is right when he says that the reason the English use this word is because it is they who think of us as ‘barbarians’. They want war, so they are looking for excuses and even a word will do.”
The kaleidoscope of voices is every bit as rich and varied in this volume. Even without a glossary, readers can situate themselves easily and find the exchanges as fascinating as young Raju (a recurring character, although one you might have expected to meet again):
“The banjee-boys were a high-spirited lot; to Raju even their quarrels were interesting – not least because of the way they spoke. Their argot was like some brightly coloured kedgeree, studded with nuts and raisins, but also filled with grit: chummy expressions like ‘yaar’ and ‘men’ rolled off their tongues almost as often as swear words like ‘bahenchod’ and ‘chootiya’; ‘motherfucker’ and ‘arse-hole’.”
In this volume, there are (once more) two significant female characters and their roles change, too, in unexpected ways: “The very textures and colours of the world around her seemed to change and things that had been of little concern to her before – like business, finance and politics – suddenly seemed to be of absorbing interest. It was as if a gale had parted the purdahs that curtained her world, blowing away many decades’ worth of dust and cobwebs.”
Amitav Ghosh’s female characters are as fully realized as his males and the cast truly feels like an ensemble; even the selfish and ornery characters are credible and complex, but the overarching sense is of compassion, and this is reflected in the resolutions offered as well. Some of the characters’ roles and positions, motivations and inclinations, alter substantially throughout, so it makes a very satisfying read over a few months, over a time span in which one can feel immersed in that world; however, having said that, I wonder if the books wouldn’t satisfy on an individual basis as well, so rich is the storytelling therein.