The Group’s December meeting picked Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light for the next title, but word of that decision didn’t go out until a week before the February meeting, so those who, like me, had missed December had no chance of reading it. Instead, in February we each brought along a selection of our summer reading and had fun comparing and contrasting, recommending and lending. Those who had read or partly read the Moorhouse were having second thoughts, someone had an alternative in his briefcase, and the coup was complete.
Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (John Murray 2008)
Before the meeting: While waiting for my library copy I asked another Grouper how he was enjoying the book. ‘A lot,’ he said, ‘and I’ve stopped looking up the meanings of words.’ That remark is a lot funnier than you might think. There could be very few readers of this book who wouldn’t stop looking up unfamiliar words – unless you’re extraordinarily knowledgeable, you either ride the language like unruly surf or give up the book altogether.
It’s a wonderful book. I came across a tweet that said it well:It’s the first instalment in a trilogy, of which the second – River of Smoke – was published last year. Set mainly in northern India, with the impending English-Chinese Opium War and the English outlawing of slavery as backdrop, it’s a riproaring adventure–romance with an extraordinarily diverse cast of characters: a peasant wife forced into dependency on the East India Company, a young Frenchwoman adopted by a wealthy English family after the death of her enlightened parents, a young Indian man who makes a living as a boatman on the Ganga and yearns to be a sailor on the open sea, a Hindu mystic who believes himself to be possessed by the spirit of his deceased female guru, a freeborn Black American sailor who passes for white, a rajah whose life is ruled by ceremony but who finds himself suddenly and humiliatingly deprived of his status, a ship’s crew of lascars. As the book progresses we realise that the disparate paths of all these characters are converging – from desire, necessity, ambition or coercion, they are all to board a former slave ship, the Ibis, which is to take a cargo of indentured workers to Mauritius. The first half is like a pool above a waterfall: it takes a while, but you realise that all the narratives are moving inexorably towards the same point, and they’re picking up speed. When the ship sails you can almost hear the roar of the falls in the trilingual prayers of those on board, and then there’s another hundred pages of churning and roiling, and just as you think perhaps it will all settle down (with a shipboard wedding here, a comic-mystic revelation there) we’re plunged into a new tumult – not so much a cliff-hanger as an over-a-new-cliff ending.
All that is marvellous, but it’s the language(s) that make the book sing: not just the sometimes familiar bits of Indian English like the dhoti, kameez and puja that occur on the first page, but the lascar lingo and the garbled slang of the English in India, the French- or Bengali-inflected dialogue of particular individuals, the technical terms of the opium and sailing trades, the traditional languages of Islamic, Hindu and Catholic prayer, botanical nomenclature … It’s a written equivalent of the spectacle that assails the senses in the streets of India. I’d love to quote lots, but will content myself with a scrap from an Englishman’s description of the hospitality of the Raja of Raskhali :
No fear of pishpash and cobbily-mash at the Rascally table. The dumbpokes and pillaus were good enough, but we old hands, we’d wait for the curry of cockup and the chitchky of pollock-saug. Oh he set a rankin table I can tell you – and mind you, supper was just the start: the real tumasher came later, in the nautch-connah. Now there was another chuckmuck sight for you! Rows of cursies for the sahibs and mems to sit on. Sittringies and tuckiers for the natives. The baboos puffing at their hubble-bubbles and the sahibs lighting their Sumatra buncuses. Cunchunees whirling and the ticky-taw boys beating their tobblers. Oh, that old loocher knew how to put on a nautch all right!
That tobbler, recognisably a bastardisation of tabla, makes me think that the more linguistically adept you are the more you will enjoy this and the book’s many other passages like it.
I happened to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel while I was reading Sea of Poppies. It’s not by any means a vicious film, but in part it presents modern Rajasthan as a kind of decayed remnant of the splendours of the Raj. Well, it will be hard ever again to think of the Raj as splendid after reading the account here of the East India Company: you’d be closer to the mark with vicious, hypocritical, callous, smug, treacherous. Another word whose meaning has been permanently deepened for me is indentured. The viciousness that lies beneath that economistic sounding word has been laid permanently bare. (My great-grandfather had indentured labourers from the Pacific Islands (Kanakas) on his Queensland farm.)
After the meeting: Our host for the evening hadn’t had time to make an Indian meal, though we did start out with bhajis. Not everyone was as enthusiastic as I was. One guy said that although he learned a lot of history and enjoyed the ripping yarn, he wasn’t swept away by the language. But we had all clearly read the same book, which isn’t always the case.