Thursday, 28 October 2010

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

The rambling start to what is threatened to be a trilogy, Sea of Poppies is the colourful saga of the crew, passengers and prisoners aboard an old slaving ship, the Ibis, as it journeys from India to the Seychelles.

Beginning in British India at the start of the Opium Wars, the cast of Ghosh’s wide and diverse novel include Zachary Reid, the ship’s American second mate, a ruined raja, a cross-dressing secretary and the widow of an opium worker. I felt, however, that his minor characters were much more fun, especially that of the Doughty, the pilot sent to navigate the Hooghly as the Ibis sails up to Calcutta from the Bay of Bengal.

Doughty certainly makes an impression on his arrival onboard, a stout, irate Englishman pounding the deck with a Malacca cane:

He waved airily at the lascar who was standing behind the wheel. “That’s my sea-cunny over there; knows exactly what to do – could take you up the Burrempooter with his eyes closed. What’d you say we leave the steering to that badmash and find ourselves a drop of loll-shrub?” “Loll-shrub?” Zachary scratched his chin. “I’m sorry, Mr Doughty, but I don’t know what that is.” “Claret, my boy,” the pilot said airily, “Wouldn’t happen to have a drop on board, would you? If not, a brandy-pawnee will do just as well.”

It soon transpires that Doughty likes a drink. An invitation to dine on the barge of doomed raja Neel Rattan Halder starts off well enough with a bottle of fizz, although Neel notes that it’s only the sauce that makes these interactions bearable:

Back in the sheeshmahal, a bottle of champagne was waiting in a balty of muddy river water. Mr Doughty fell upon the wine with an expression of delight. “Simkin! Shahbash – just the thing.” Pouring himself a glass, he gave Neel a broad wink. “My father used to say, ‘Hold a bottle by the neck and a woman by the waist. Never the other way around.’ I’lll wager that would have rung a gunta or two with your own father, eh, Roger Nil-Rotten – now he was quite the rascal , wasn’t he, your father?” Neel gave a chilly smile: repelled as he was by the pilot’s manner, he couldn’t help reflecting on what a mercy it was that his ancestors had excluded wine and liquor from the list of things that could not be shared with unclean foreigners – it would be all but impossible, surely, to deal with them, if not for their drink?

Unfortunately, Doughty, well in his cups, overhears something said by Neel’s mistress halfway through the dinner and gets in a terrible rage. Zachary and his employer shovel him off Neel’s barge and into the capable hands of their lascars:

“Catchi too muchi shamshoo,” said Serang Ali matter-of-factly, as he took hold of the pilot’s ankles. “More better go sleep chop-chop.”

After a long period spent in Calcutta while the characters assemble for the voyage, Doughty is given little to do, although he’s brought in to write the register of indentured labourers as they pass through the company’s holding camp on their way to the ship. Sadly his clerical skills are a little compromised:

Mr Doughty had just half an hour before left the table of a district magistrate, where he had been served a heavy lunch, copiously lubricated with many brimming beakers of porter and ale. Now, between the heat and the beer, his eyes were gummed together with sleep, so that a good few minutes followed between the opening of his right eye and then the left.

In a nod to future books, the names of two of the protagonists are written down incorrectly, the blame given to the faulty hearing of an English pilot who was more than half-seas over:

Zachary later says goodbye to the man in this walk-on-part with much greater regret than he anticipated, and I have to say that I did too...

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