Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reclamation: Sea of Poppies

Warning: this review is highly coloured by circumstances. I went for the book release by the man himself before I read the book. One remark he made put all other ideas I may have had about the book (right) out of my head. While talking about what made him want to write this book, he said how, when he was a kid, he enjoyed reading all these stories at sea – all that Melville and all those Sabatinis.

That was, as you can imagine, enough.

One of the great joys of reading good historical fiction is knowing that while what you are reading is a good yarn in its own right, it is also a careful and often very political selection of the past that is in dialogue with the present. What a writer chooses to present as the past is often a function of what it is about the present that most preoccupies him or her.

Historical fiction is also characterised by more description, more ‘local colour’ than the fiction that was produced at the time; it sometimes has a fictional character responsible for historical shifts of varying magnitude that may be familiar to us who stand at the end of history – think of Andre-Louis Moreau’s speech at Nantes; of the comfort provided by the Persian Boy to Alexander that may have had small but important influences on the course of his campaigns.

Such narratives remind us that the locus of power in stories often lie not only with the characters, but with the author of these narratives. This is a very 19th century perspective, one that refuses to acknowledge the Death of the Author, while still retaining a very 20th century self-consciousness in the act of writing historical fiction.

Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (the first of what he says is a trilogy, though he does not rule out the possibility of it being two trilogies) is good historical fiction. It reads easily, involves you in its characters while drawing you successfully into another world for a brief while. The world of the book is the mid-19th century, with its opium factories, slave ships that will now carry indentured labourers and later opium, the supporting Indian classes with their gomustas and khidmatgars, and those who want to or have to exchange the world they know for a place across the kalapani.

The book follows the stories of motley characters who will find their way on the Ibis: Deeti (whose shrine contains her sketches of relatives and will later contain every one of the main characters on board the Ibis) who, when her opium-addict husband dies, escapes with Kalua, the outcaste strongman; Zachary Reid, a half-black American, who brings the Ibis to India after rising improbably early to the rank of second mate; his lascar mentor, Serang Ali; Neel Ratan, the Maharaja of Raskhali, dispossessed by the owner of the Ibis, Mr. Burnham; Paulette, the daughter of a French naturalist and her almost-brother, Jodu (whose mother was Paulette’s wet nurse); and Baboo Nob Kissin, the gomusta who thinks he is undergoing a spiritual transformation that will end with his finding the Lord Krishna.

But beyond the fun that is to be had in the curious melange of languages and comic situations involving the navigator Mr. Doughty, or Baboo Nob Kissin is the knowledge that here is a story that speaks directly to the present in its engagement with the themes of displacement and belonging and in the politics of enterprise.

At one point during a dinner that Neel Ratan gives on board the Raskhali budgerow, Mr. Burnham says:

The war, when it comes, will not be for opium. It will be for a principle: for freedom—for the freedom of trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people. Free Trade is a right conferred on Man by God, and its principles apply as much to opium as to any other article of trade. More so perhaps, since in its absence many millions of natives would be denied the lasting advantages of British influence.

The hawkishness of powerful governments is familiar to us, as are its tactics. Ghosh takes care, though, to avoid the pitfalls of polemics. This conversation takes place during what is essentially a rather hilarious social situation, one of many that punctuate the book.

Reading this book, it occurred to me that, just as an experiment, Ghosh is trying to find out what it is about the 19th century that makes it so adaptable to the novel. The enterprise of Empire certainly looms large thematically; but because this is Ghosh, the area of maximum interest is at the estuary where language meets language, and displacement or belonging is as much a function of speech as it is of space. This is why the reclamation I speak of in the title is primarily one of language.

Ghosh has said often in interviews and at readings, that the language of 19th century English in India was richer than it is now; that it absorbed a variety of influences that are now lost to us. As an example, he talks about writing about sailing. Most of the terms are unfamiliar to us anyway, he says, and a lascar term or a Bengali one would do just as well as an English one. That he chooses the lascar over the English is not just deliberate but a way of stating a perspective that is ‘native’ or at any rate not colonial.

In other words, though this is historical fiction of the kind that is familiar, it at the same time one that consciously situates itself in the subcontinent, with subcontinental perspectives. If I was an academic, I would say that Ghosh is retroactively attempting to write back to the Empire. But I’m not, so I will say, instead, that the choice of historical fiction is significant because from a peripheral perspective, there weren’t enough stories told that we know.

The book ends dramatically and you can’t help considering what it must have felt like back then, to await the next instalment of a Dickens. Then you remember that bhasha magazines in India still routinely serialise novels in Puja and Diwali issues and you realise that the novel is not just a hybrid of 19th century practices but a very contemporary and ongoing enterprise, whatever the genre.

[Part of The 2008 Booker Mela]


Banno said...

Good review. I've been dithering about picking up the book. You've made up my mind for me.

Which Main? What Cross? said...

I would like to recommend a nice sea story that I picked up recently. I have a feeling that you will love it.

In the heart of the sea - By Nathaniel Philbrick


Extempore said...

Excellent review! I went for the launch here in Bombay where I first listened to Rahul Bose kill some sections of the book. Ghosh made some very interesting observations on language and linguistic influences there as well. Yup, I'm starting it asap.

Strangely/interestingly, I also listened to an idiot interviewer asking Ghosh if Sea of Poppies can be called a 9/11 novel since he started working on it during that time. The things you get to hear, I tell you!

swar said...

My library still doesn't have Sea of Poppies. For an unfathomable reason, I am unable to finish The Enchantress of Florence even though whatever I have read till now has been quite rollicking.

Re your first paragraph: How and when does a writer critically confront her/his own political and identity issues to come up with a good historical fiction and not a department of circumscribed corrections? This is a question I have been asking myself while trying to understand (and not liking) Half of a yellow sun.

From the Outlook extract, this paragraph has such a consummate timing: "Reaching down, Deeti snapped off a poppy pod and held it to her nose: the smell of the drying sap was like wet straw, vaguely reminiscent of the rich, earthy perfume of a newly thatched roof after a shower of rain."

Space Bar said...

Banno: I hope not! I liked it but you might not and then what will happen?!

which main? what cross?: It sounds interesting....You should write about it!

extempore: You know, I'm glad he read the extract himself. He did it well, and I'm more thankful than I can say that The Little Theatre was not called upon to read.

That said, those who'd read the Outlook extract knew what to expect and were kind of waiting with bated breath to see if he'd read all the exciting bits. Most of them couldn't decide whether to be shocked or delighted when he did. At any rate, it made for much conversation with the cocktails.

swar: That's a very interesting question and one that I'm sure every writer of historical fiction has to answer. I imagine it's like a sportsperson who trains and trains but has to discard every scrap of acquired knowledge of technique when the time comes to perform.

As I see it, the chief attraction of historical fiction is not in the history - which has always been dry and factual - is in the psychological understanding we have of the characters through whom we absorb the history. When we care about the people, we care about the times they lived in.

And I agree with you entirely about the Adichie. I discarded it after two or three chapters after struggling with it for a couple of months.

Smoke Screen said...

De-lurking to say I hadn't realized you were back. And blogging!

Completely with you on "the book is significant because there weren’t enough stories told that we know [of the period]." That's how I look at it, too.
However, if you've heard Ghosh's reactions to Dalrymple's review - there are two slightly different lines he's taken. One, that all the characters are flawed and that's the sense in which the flatness of the British characters should be seen. Second, the flatness of the British characters characters is a portrayal of the truth, i.e., that the colonizers were brutal exploiters. Seems to me the book walks the tight rope of writing back AND telling untold stories. There's a bit of both.

Space Bar said...

smoke screen: thank you for delurking! yes, i just snuck back in with no announcements.

i agree with you, and i have read his response to dalrymple in the hindu. my sense was that there was an element of detachment to most of his characters - with the possible exception of deeti, the reasons for which will probably become apparent in the books to follow.

one other reason for the apparent 'flatness' of the british characters is that from a subcontinental perspective, they are the exotics. (I read a review in the Telegraph, UK, where the reviewer listed out a number of words he said were incomprehensible, all on one page. You and I would have understood some of them, just as a westerner of a different generation would have understood the latin that we would not have.) it's a subtle reversal, but one that i think ghosh has pulled off successfully.