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Sea of Poppies 
by Amitav Ghosh.
Murray, 544 pp., £7.99, April 2009, 978 0 7195 6897 8
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For some time the Anglophone publishing industry has been keen on the fiction of the global south, at least when it takes the form of magical realism, where the paranormal is staged as the ordinary and the imagination is freed from the familiar laws of gravity. Here, in the (to us) remote corners of the undeveloped or developing world, the colours, smells and flavours are more intense, life is more meaningful and death less absolute than in the grey industrial or post-industrial landscapes of the north, the cradle of modernity and modern empires. Some have proposed Joyce’s Ulysses as an inspiration for magical realism, but in the second half of the 20th century the genre became more and more tropical in its associations. If the city is where readers of these books are most often to be found, the books themselves tend to be set in the village and the jungle, as in the exemplary magical-realist ‘world novel’, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), which was written in one ‘world’ language (Spanish) and translated into another, English, three years after its first appearance.

Franco Moretti has speculated that this novel and others like it speak to the world system from the periphery in ways that would be impossible if they were set in Europe or North America: they hold out the possibility of re-enchantment in our disenchanted world. Many of the hugely successful magical-realist novels that followed Márquez were written in English, often by multilingual South Asian authors. The complicated consequences of this were trenchantly addressed some time ago by Aijaz Ahmad: what does it mean when such books are designated as Third World masterpieces by British and American metropolitan publishers and repackaged for global distribution? What happens when none of the works written in native Indian languages has similar access to an international market? What is it to know India only by way of the prizewinning novels of Salman Rushdie and the like? The novelists themselves (Rushdie included) anticipated these questions, and have tried to find ways around the restrictive codes governing their own reproduction as flag-bearers of Third World writing. One option is to offset the magical imagination with the hard rub of history. Another is to miscegenate the language itself, to interrupt the clear flow of international English with unreadable words and untranslatable situations.

Amitav Ghosh has proved himself a master of both these strategies while hanging on to a conventionally appealing framework of erotic romance and exotic adventure, with a good dose of the quasi-magical. In The Circle of Reason (1986), his first novel, anything one might be tempted to romanticise in the experience of migration – other faces, other minds – is darkened by the depiction of the brutal conditions experienced by South Asian labourers in the Persian Gulf. The intimate Forsterian overtones of the Anglo-Indian relations described in The Shadow Lines (1988) are combined with a devastating account of the Calcutta riots of 1964, events that have been exorcised from the official memory of the response to the independence of Bangladesh, and which require strenuous efforts at recovery and ‘proof’ by the traumatised narrator. Official memory as the medium of nationalist propaganda is also the subject of In an Antique Land (1992), in which the fact that Jews, Muslims, Africans and Asians once peacefully coexisted is gradually uncovered by an Indian social anthropologist supposedly writing a dissertation on the peasant farmer culture of the Nile delta. Here the matter of language comes fully into view. Fragments preserved in Cairo and collected by British and American universities allow the narrator (who struggles with Arabic) to follow the trail of one of history’s unknowns, the Indian slave of a medieval Jewish merchant who operated partly in Judeo-Arabic, a lost dialect of Arabic written in Hebrew script. Translation and its failures and absence provide the impetus for the novel, from the serio-comic misunderstandings the Egyptian villagers have about India to the state-sanctioned ‘disappearing’ of information about the linguistic and cultural past (the shrines of the Tulu speakers of southwest India are overwritten by Hindu nationalists; the shrine of a Jewish ‘saint’ in Egypt is placed under armed guard by a vigilant military apparatus). Since ordinary people are effaced from or never included in the historical record, a long tradition of relative toleration and cohabitation disappears with them. There is violence in this tradition, but that violence has not yet become a component of nation-state political discipline. The Indian Ocean in the Middle Ages is depicted here as the site of a ‘global’ culture whose history is largely unknown in the popular imagination of the West, though it can be tracked in the vocabularies of world languages, for example in words like sugar and adobe. In Ghosh’s other books the modern history of global politics is seen from the periphery, and from below (from ‘the south’), as we learn of the predicament of Egyptian migrant workers caught in Iraq during the first Gulf War.

All of Ghosh’s books are informed by historical research, both political and scientific. The history of theories about malaria features in The Calcutta Chromosome (1995); the biology of the Irrawaddy dolphin figures in The Hungry Tide (2004), which also recovers the history of the Bangladesh War and of the Morichjhãpi massacre of 1979. Although Ghosh claims that The Glass Palace (2001) is unambiguously a work of fiction, it is sustained by a large-scale historical narrative of British-controlled Burma and Malaya from the late 19th century to the Japanese invasion of 1941 and then to the late 20th century. Along the way it brings to life the story of those Indian soldiers led by Subhas Chandra Bose who took up the nationalist cause, fighting with the Japanese against the British Empire: another piece of history little remembered in the West, or indeed by many citizens of modern India.

Ghosh’s most recent novel, Sea of Poppies, is the first in a promised trilogy about the 19th-century opium trade and its effects on the lives of a group of variously ordinary people: a young widow, an American sailor, a Krishna-worshipper who imagines himself as a woman, a heroic Untouchable, a Parsee-Chinese convict, an enigmatic lascar, a Francophone orphan, a boat boy, a rajah bilked by a ruthless British businessman – and many others. ‘Alternative’ history is again central: here the point of interest is the Ghazipur opium factory, details of whose workings Ghosh has scrupulously reassembled from the records kept by a former superintendent. The sordid story of the opium monoculture imposed in Bihar, responsible for some 20 per cent of the wealth of British India, has apparently been little studied; it’s gripping. One could say, and Ghosh does say elsewhere, that the British Empire was sustained by opium, and by setting this novel in the 1830s he is able to refer to the genesis of the war that was fought to force China to accept the import of opium.

Ghosh also tells a second unfamiliar story: that of the Indian coolies shipped to Mauritius in conditions that were as brutal as those of the middle passage in the Atlantic slave trade. The ship that carries this human cargo is a former slave ship that hardly needs refitting for its new career in the Indian Ocean. What is dramatised here – as it was in In an Antique Land – is a global economy centred not on the North Atlantic but on the Indian Ocean, with its own movements of commodities, money and people, its own brutalities and heroisms. Reading Ghosh is like hearing those amazing stories of Chinese navies in the Middle Ages: so important in world history, and so little known in North Atlantic countries. For those born into places ruled by and for the British, this is what history must have looked like – Ghosh’s books are subaltern history, written from below.

The sea of poppies is also a sea of languages, a mind-boggling array of – to me, to most of us – inscrutable words and phrases that various unremembered populations have devised to communicate effectively in complex circumstances. The novel starts out in Bihar, among characters who speak Bhojpuri. Ghosh doesn’t try to produce a literary amalgam of Bhojpuri and English, choosing instead to transcribe the occasional sentence phonetically, with a translation alongside it: ‘So late? she snapped. Where were you? Kám-o-káj na hoi?’ So too with Bengali, Hindi and Arabic at various points in the narrative. Bhojpuri, a language few outsiders have heard of, seems to have a contested status: some claim that it’s a dialect of Hindi, others that it is an independent language. The various websites devoted to it use phrases like ‘one of the popular languages of India’ or ‘an Indo-Aryan language’. One of the more scholarly sites speculates that it may indeed be more than one language, because its significant dia-lect variations have not yet been thoroughly analysed.

Ghosh’s separation of Bhojpuri from Hindustani has a polemical aspect, and sets it apart as a ‘minority’ language at one remove from the politics of Hindustani’s bifurcation into Hindi and Urdu scripts and vocabularies. And yet this ‘minority’ language, which has over time been written in several different scripts, is spoken by between 150 and 180 million people today: by Hindus, Muslims and Christians in India and Nepal, and also in South America, the Caribbean, Mauritius, Fiji and South Africa. It is, in other words, a dominant language of the 19th-century migration (if that is the word) of Indian indentured labour all over the world. Yet the existence of this major language is barely recognised because its spread resulted from the forced movements of unremembered people. Ghosh very deliberately calls his coolies girmitiyas, the Bhojpuri word many of them would have used to describe themselves, and the most educated man in the novel, who can read and write in English, Bengali, Persian and Urdu, finds himself transported back to childhood by the Bhojpuri songs he first heard sung by household servants in a language he was forbidden to speak. We know a good deal about the Irish emigration across the Atlantic, driven in part by the consequences of another monoculture, the potato. Ghosh’s novel makes it impossible to ignore the parallels with the effects of the opium industry on the Bhojpuri speakers of Bihar.

Bhojpuri is only one of the languages Ghosh is preoccupied with. Another is Laskari, ‘that motley tongue, spoken nowhere but on the water, whose words were as varied as the port’s traffic, an anarchic medley of Portuguese calaluzes and Kerala pattimars, Arab booms and Bengal paunchways, Malay proas and Tamil catamarans, Hindusthani pulwars and English snows’. For many writers the open seas have provided a compelling language of particularity (the parts of the ship and its routines) and demotic inventiveness: Fenimore Cooper, Melville and Conrad, along with more minor spinners of yarns. For Ghosh, Laskari is a language which comes from everywhere and unites everyone: ‘beneath the surface of this farrago of sound, meaning flowed as freely as the currents beneath the crowded press of boats.’ Free trade is merely a euphemism for its opposite: British dominance enforced by uninhibited violence. But the ocean currents and the currents of language can’t be so easily controlled. Ghosh showed a serious interest in words in In an Antique Land, and in The Circle of Reason he describes the career of the prodigious language-learner Alu Bose. In Sea of Poppies the preoccupation has become an obsession. Sometimes it’s a plot device, as when a character who’s in disguise gives herself away by translating word for word into Bengali a figure of speech that exists only in English. Words embody the records of politics and history, but are never just history written by the winners: they give expression to a possible future that can’t be disciplined. As Bakhtin recognised and celebrated, standards imposed on language are always falling apart.

Language, in this novel, stands for the possible openness of human relations, an openness that is rarely evident in the interactions of states and the rivalries of classes, castes and subcultures. Language is the medium of all sorts of histories; it’s also the prophet of possible futures. The American edition of Sea of Poppies includes a section not in the Indian edition: the 40-page ‘Ibis Chrestomathy’, which records the factual-fictional findings and speculations of one of the main characters, who is obsessed with ‘the destiny of words’. His series of field notes and hypotheses even incorporates into its genealogy ‘the present writer’.

This is a process that can never end. It builds on the labours of a number of 19th-century language experts, pays both serious and mocking homage to the OED, referred to here as ‘the Oracle’, and offers detailed and surprising etymologies of such now familiar terms as balti, bandanna and banyan. Some of the words listed here don’t appear in the OED at all – the not so respectable cunchunee, rawnee or pootly, for example. Some of the OED definitions are expanded or contested. The entry for balti is especially rich and detailed in comparison with the OED’s rather minimal notation (a first usage in 1982 and a location in Birmingham). To accept the case put forward in the ‘Chrestomathy’ that ‘giving a damn’ derives from giving a dam (a sum of money in Hindustani) is to open the door to a whole history of contacts and borrowings. The task of the now dominant language cultures is either to sentimentalise this history or to forget it completely. The OED calls the Hindustani derivation of dam an ‘ingenious’ conjecture with ‘no basis in fact’. But what is a fact and how would we go about confirming it? The OED’s first usage of ‘give a damn’ is Goldsmith’s in 1760 – just when British (East India Company) rule over India was being consolidated. So is it a ‘fact’ that there can be no derivation from dam? Nineteenth-century English was constantly exposed to such interlingual relations; many of Ghosh’s words can be found in the OED although they are now quite unfamiliar to modern speakers and readers. Buried in one of his etymologies is the ‘author’s’ condemnation of the celebrants of world English: ‘Now that you have the whole world in a stranglehold, your tongues are hardening, growing stiffer.’

Does the reader need to keep turning to the ‘Chrestomathy’ to follow the story, rather as one gropes for a dictionary to work through a poem by Paul Muldoon? As with Muldoon, the answer is yes and no: we should, and we often don’t. All reading – though poetry less so – allows for a high level of semantic redundancy: we can get the gist of a plot without understanding every word. We fill in the likely senses of unknown words by a kind of mental multiple-choice exercise, interpolating possible meanings which can sometimes carry us through even when they’re wrong. With romance and adventure as his narrative principles, Ghosh allows us to push on without fully understanding everything we’re reading, sometimes without understanding very much of what we’re reading. So we may well risk the comic miscomprehension that so many of the novel’s characters enact in their ordinary conversations. To stop at every word that needs glossing would be to read at a crawl. But Ghosh’s writing, while being massively entertaining and narratively compelling (he deploys all the tactics of the bestseller writer), never ceases to remind us that reading at a crawl is what we should be doing, if we’re committed to gaining a fuller understanding of the histories of ordinary lives and ordinary labours.

So is this after all a novel of magical realism? I don’t think so. There is one concession to the genre, and it is introduced right at the start, when one character, Deeti, has a vision of an ocean-going ship in full sail, something she has neither seen nor heard of. The ship is the Ibis, on which she will be a passenger at the end of the book. Ghosh otherwise manages his subaltern history without recourse to the paranormal. There is some narrative foreshadowing, especially around the future existence of Deeti’s shrine, and we know that some characters are going to live on; but this is after all the first volume of a trilogy, and it is no surprise that we are kept in mind of forthcoming episodes. Ghosh’s efforts to counteract the hegemonic silence of colonial history are partly embodied in the vigour, ingenuity and human loyalties of his characters, whose affiliations cross ethnic, religious and linguistic boundaries: they constitute a community of the dispossessed. We know that some of them will make good, survive and even prosper, and we hope (against the grain of any plausible history) for the survival of them all.

But Ghosh’s real work against silence is embodied in his etymological imagination, which uncovers strange words, works them into narrative, glosses them in an appendix which has a documentary life of its own, and makes a bid for a more capacious global ‘English’ than can be contained within standard dictionaries – which are, according to the author of the ‘Chrestomathy’, becoming more and more impoverished over time. Language can keep people apart, and has often done so. The violence of the shibboleth is arguably more evident in human history than the happier ethic of linguistic hospitality. Problems of translation and comprehension interfere with the romance motifs in The Hungry Tide and make things hard for the narrator of In an Antique Land. But here, in the first book of this trilogy, the romantic element is very much alive, suiting the novel’s comic and positive view of the consequences of language differences. Ghosh remarks elsewhere that ‘in the world of human beings, even defeat is a transaction.’ The rediscovery of lost words can produce intricacies and affiliations that seem almost magical. Ghosh’s faith in words is a writer’s faith, but one that bears up under the test of close observation, of reading at a crawl. Readers willing to crawl can find in these words a way to imagine histories that might otherwise remain secret. Those with less patience will still come away with a vividly imagined sense of the lives of others, and of their own ancestral complicities in their fates.

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