I was skeptical, initially, about Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies. I've read so many novels in which a building, character, or geographical feature becomes a metaphor for the entire country/culture of India (or, in the case of Shalimar the Clown, Kashmir). Here, it seemed to me, was the same conceit, being recycled in the form of a ship: the Ibis, a former slaver now refitted to carry opium, progresses from the harbors of the sacred Ganges beyond the Black Water one season in 1838, transporting an unlikely group of convicts, coolies, lascars and officers toward the island of Mauritius. I was wary of another facile equation of a concept like "diversity" or "journey" or "flowing river" with the whole of India. I needn't have been concerned, though. Ghosh's novel may work along a familiar pattern, but it's executed in a convincing and original way, which quickly won me over and kept me fascinated throughout.
To me, the most exciting thing about Sea of Poppies is the use of language. Unlike many books involving "dialect," Ghosh's novel doesn't pit nonstandard against standard English, creating a simple, easily-evaluated contrast (for example, "backwoods" dialect used to betoken a character's lack of education, or "urban" dialect used to signal that a character is hard-boiled). Instead, Ghosh pays close attention to the subtleties of MANY separate lingual groups, and lets them all mingle with one another in a rich mélange of well-realized, consistent but flexible voices. Take this passage, in which we get the seagoing pidgin of Serang Ali (the commander of the native Indian or lascar crew), the Indie-fied Irish brogue of the ship's captain, and the lightly inflected cadence of Ghosh's narrator, which blends subtly into the voices of the different characters:
'No,' Zachary laughed. 'N'how bout you? Serang Ali catchi wife?'
'Serang Ali wife-o hab makee die,' came the answer. 'Go top-side, to hebbin. By'mby, Serang Ali catchi nother piece wife...'
A week later, Serang Ali accosted Zachary again: 'Malum Zikri! Captin-bugger blongi poo-shoo-foo. He hab got plenty sick! Need one piece dokto. No can chow-chow tiffin. Allo tim do chhee-chhee, pee-pee. Plenty smelly in Captin cabin.'
Zachary took himself off to the Captain's stateroom and was told that there was nothing wrong: just a touch of the back-door trots - not the flux, for there was no sign of blood, no spotting in the mustard. 'I know how to take care o' meself: not the first time I've had a run of the squitters and collywobbles.'
I loved reading Serang Ali's dialogue; my mother and her brothers grew up on Oahu, and I grew up hearing Hawaiian pidgin bandied about whenever my uncles were visiting (my mom never picked it up, for some reason). The lascar pidgin bears certain similarities to Hawaiian pidgin, and I wonder how much contact there was between the two regions while both languages were developing. In particular, the use of "plenty" as an intensifier is common to both ("He hab got plenty sick"), and something about "Go top-side, to hebbin" is very familiar. I don't know much at all about Indian and sea-faring languages and pidgins, but I got the impression that Ghosh has a very careful ear and a thorough understanding of how language functions in society, which was a joy to read. For example, certain people in the novel "code switch" - that is, speak differently according to the company in which they find themselves. Zachary, the light-skinned American son of a freed female slave and her former owner, comes to feel at his ease with Serang Ali, and they speak to each other in a way that shows they trust each other - a way that doesn't try to hide their respective backgrounds.
Three days later, exactly as promised, the twisted hills of Mauritius appeared on the jamma bow, with Port Louis nestled in the bay below.
'I'll be dickswiggered!' said Zachary, in grudging admiration. 'Don't that just beat the Dutch? You sure that the right place?'
'What I tell you no? Serang Ali Number One sabbi ship-pijjin.'
Yet in different company, such as the ship's white captain and belligerent lower-class first mate, Zachary speaks in standard English even when the other officers are speaking non-standard English - a subtle acknowledgment of his own inferior social position and/or respect for the other men. In the scene below, Zachary has a different motive for putting a high-class spin on his speech: he's conversing with Paulette Lambert, the daughter of a French botanist, who grew up speaking French and Bhojpuri, and whose English is at least as unorthodox as Zachary's own:
'Is something the matter?' Zachary said, alarmed by her pallor. 'Are you all right, Miss Lambert?'
'An idee came to my mind,' said Paulette, trying to make light of her sudden turn of thought. 'It struck me that I too would love to go to the Mauritius on the Ibis. Just like Jodu, working on a ship.'
Zachary laughed. 'Believe me, Miss Lambert, a schooner's no place for a woman - lady, I mean, begging your pardon. Especially not someone who is accustomed to living like this...' He made a gesture in the direction of the loaded table.
'Is that indeed so, Mr. Reid?' said Paulette, raising her eyebrows. 'So it is not possible, according to you, for a woman to be a marin?'
'Marine?' he said in surprise. 'No, Miss Lambert, there sure aren't any woman marines that I ever heard of.'
The plot of Sea of Poppies mixes a couple of standard plots - the "diverse people thrown together unexpectedly" with the "seagoing adventure" and a hefty pinch of the "political commentary" - but it's the manner of telling that I found particularly unique and engaging in this novel. Much like gender criticism that points out the ways in which every presentation of gender is performative and therefore involves aspects of drag, Ghosh emphasizes to his reader that there is no un-accented language, no manner of speaking that does not make claims, whether true or false, about the speaker. The range of lingual contexts Ghosh evokes here is staggering, and he is able to deal in subtle lingual differences as well as broad ones. In a smoking-room scene involving four white, middle-class Englishmen, for example, he expertly adjusts each man's level of good-old-boy bluster to indicate his position in the pecking order. (This same scene also features brain-boiling pieces of logic such as the British assertion that war with China is morally mandated: "We need only think of the poor Indian peasant - what will become of him if his opium can't be sold in China?") Not only that, but Ghosh has a similar sensitivity about quicksand nature of racial, religious, and sexual dynamics: Zachary's biracial background, for example, is something about which he's constantly on his guard. Much of the time, it's rendered surprisingly irrelevant and he comes off as a bit paranoid, but given the wrong set of circumstances it can erupt into unforeseen danger in a matter of moments.
Sea of Poppies is not a perfect novel - the exposition is sometimes fairly awkward, with one character leading a second into an information-dump about the back-story of a third. And there is a touch of so-called "Rushdie-itis" here and there - every time the narrative featured a flash-forward about different people who would, one day, end up in the character Deeti's shrine, I winced a little bit as I remembered Midnight's Children. Nevertheless, there was so much here that was unique and intriguing that I'm eager to pick up the next two books in this projected trilogy as soon as they become available. The originality of the language, the social insight, and the crafting of compelling characters make me eager to spend more time in Ghosh's world.
(Full disclosure: I received Sea of Poppies free through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.)