I don’t claim myself to be well read so far as fiction is concerned but I must also confess that I have got into the habit of reading ‘good’ fiction, based on the recommendations by friends or book reviews. That’s how I came to read ‘Sea of Poppies’ by Amitav Ghosh. I wouldn’t have read on my own but it was strongly recommended, perhaps, knowing that my roots are in Bihar and that I may like the theme.
And it turns out to be one of the best novels I have ever read so far. Amitav Ghosh makes it look so real- the characters, places, theme, language and the historical perspective that one often wonders whether it actually never happened. Its richly textured and minutely researched. For like the opium that forms its subject, the narrative becomes increasingly powerful and addictive as it takes hold. I remember telling my father that I would like to visit Ghazipur (the novel describes an opium factory in Ghazipur, being managed by the Britishers in mid nineteenth century) and he informed that there’s actually an opium factory existing in Ghazipur! Amitav is brilliant in capturing the history, feudal structure as prevalent in eastern part of India, language (Bhojpuri), excellent usage of simple and yet very effective English ( “guilty vividness”, ‘a lamb’s wool sky”) and all the while maintaining the basic theme of the story in a very gripping manner. I almost cried the way he describes the relation between Deeti and her six year old daughter Kabutari esp. when Deeti meets Kabutari, for the last time and the way Kabutari tells her “hamre khatir churi lelaiya?” (please get bangles for me).
I enjoyed this particular paragraph thoroughly when ladies, on board of Ibis, are discussing about how they make pickles – “It was astonishing, for example, to discover that in making mango-achar, some were accustomed to using fallen fruit while others would use none that were not freshly picked; no less was it surprising to learn that Heeru included heeng among the pickling spices and that Sarju omitted so essential an ingredient as kalonji. Each woman had always practised her own method in the belief that none other could possibly exist: it was bewildering at first, then funny, then exciting, to discover that the recipes varied with every household, family and village, and that each was considered unquestionable by its adherents.”
Or when he describes the mixed emotions of Paulette (Putli or Pagli) towards Zacchary as she washes her clothes ”It was not unusual for Paulette, when going through her washing, to come upon a shirt, banyan, or pair of trowsers that she recognized as Zachary’s. Almost unconsciously, she would slip these garments to the bottom of her pile, saving them for the last. When she came to them, depending on her mood, she would sometimes subject them to an angry scrubbing, even beating them upon the deck-planks, with all the vigour of a washerwoman at a dhobi-ghat. But there were times also when she would linger over their collars and cuffs and seams, going to great lengths to scrub them clean. It was in this fashion that she was cleaning a shirt of his one day".
Sea of Poppies is bathed in rich vernacular. The usage of Bhojpuri is just perfect. I have never stayed in Bihar but have heard my parents speaking it while conversing it our relatives. Words such as “...” are sweet and near perfect in expressing the emotions of characters. I also never knew that little couplets in Bhojpuri can be so erotic. Notice this one
“...uthle ba chhati ke jobanwa,
Piya ke khelawna re hoi....”
(‘her budding breasts are ready, to be her lover’s toys’)
“aag mor lagal ba,
are sagaro badania...
tas-mas choli karai,
barhala johanawa” ..”
(i’m on fire, my body burns, my choli strains, against my waking breasts”)
Ghosh also makes powerful psychological observations such as “power made its bearers act in inexplicable ways –no matter what” or “when we kill people (or export opium to China and wage a war against its protection in the name of free trade) we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. it is the pretence of virtue that will never be forgiven by the history” .
Ghosh has turned out a novel of intoxicating stuff, sombre brilliance, offering an amazing blend of sympathy (kabutari, Deeti, Neel) and cynicism, irony and joviality. Sea of poppies is the first in 'Ibis triology', a great narrative that gently unfolds the history and I am already onto "River of smoke", the second in the series.