Monday, April 13, 2009

Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies - The Ibis Chrestomathy

As I’m on holiday for a few days I decided to reread Amitav Ghosh’s fantastic Sea of Poppies from last year. When I first got a copy I raced through it knowing that I’d very much liked his major Asian saga The Glass Palace that roamed from Burma up to India and down to Malaysia. Sea of Poppies is the first in a planned trilogy about the China-India opium trade with a magnificent cast of characters. But what sets it apart and makes it brilliant is Ghosh’s use of pidgin English and nautical slang throughout the book – a quite bewildering array of terminology and words to make any lover of the Hobson-Jobson swoon.

So it requires a second reading to really relish the language. To get an idea of the plot, here’s the publisher’s synopsis:

“…set just before the Opium Wars, is an old slaving-ship, The Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean, its crew a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt Raja to a widowed villager, from an evangelical English opium trader to a mulatto American freedman. As their old family ties are washed away they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais or ship-brothers. An unlikely dynasty is born, which will span continents, races and generations. The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the exotic backstreets of China.”

The point of this post however is to highlight the web site that goes with Sea of On that site there is a downloadable pdf called The Ibis Chrestomathy (The Ibis being the ship at the centre of Sea of Poppies and a chrestomathy being a collection of choice literary passages, used especially as an aid in learning a foreign language) a most useful dictionary of the pidgin and slang used in the book and a great read in and of itself – if you have the slightest interest in pidgin English (Indian or China Coast), Lascar sailing terminology or Hobson-Jobson like Anglo-India words it’s must read – click here.

I eagerly await the second part of the trilogy.

BTW: I posted once before about Ghosh, Sea of Poppies and Lascars in particular in case you’re interested.


mohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

Biber said...

I came across a nice quote while re-reading Randall Gould's great China memoir China in the Sun the other day. Gould was a veteran member of the old China press corps before the war.

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