Everyday Semiotics

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sea of Poppies

Just through with reading "Sea of Poppies," the eighth novel by Indian-American writer Amitav Ghosh. I can't think of the last time I read a contemporary book; but my interest was well piqued after hearing about "Sea of Poppies" twice on NPR, here and here.

Specifically what interested me was the book's multicultural and multilinguistic texture.

This is best and most delightfully captured in the dialog of James Doughty, an English river pilot who's absorbed and adapted some native verbiage into his speech:
Now there was a lordly nigger if ever you saw one! Best kind of native -- kept himself busy with his shrub and his nautch-girls and his tumashers. Wasn't a man in town who could put on a burra-khana like he did. Sheeshmull blazig with shammers and candles. Paltans of bearers and khidmutgars. Demijohns of French loll-shrub and carboys of iced simkin. And the karibat! In the old days the Rascally bobachee-connah was the best in the city. 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 sat 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. Chunchunees whirling and tickytaw boys beating their tobblers. Oh, that old loocher knew how to put on a nautch all right!
Where for Doughty Hindusthani seems to take the place of every noun and adjective, for the much higher-stationed Mrs Burnham the language becomes a sidestreet for the discussion of things taboo to English tongues. Convinced a girl in her charge is pregnant, she reformulates the "bun in the oven" metaphor: "Puggly, tell me the truth, I conjure you: there isn't a rootie in the choola, is there?"

Writing a bit of postcolonial literature, Ghosh is able to evoke jaw-dropping expressions of imperialism that today ring absurd; yet these scenes never teeter over into something like satire or comedy. One gets the sense that British sahibs did in fact utter such nonsense circa 1838. Take for example this paraphrase of Justice Kendalbushe as he sentences Raja Neel Rattan Halder for forgery:
... since it was said, and rightly, that a parent who failed to chasten a child was thereby guilty of shirking the responsibilities of guardianship, then might it not also be said, in the same spirit, that in the affairs of men, there was a similar obligation, imposed by the Almighty himself, on those whom he had chosen to burden with the welfare of such races as were still in the infancy of civilisation? Could it not equally be said that the nations that had been appointed to this divine mission would be guilty of neglecting their sacred trust, were they to be insufficiently rigorous in the chastisement of such people as were incapable of the proper conduct of their own affairs?
Another delight of the book: At the very end of the book is a glossary, useful especially for parsing Doughty's cant. It is not called a glossary, though, but rather a "chrestomathy" (from the Greek khrestos, useful, and mathein, to know).

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