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Kinshuk Majumdar

Kinshuk Majumdar: Amitav Ghosh

The Appropriation of Language in Sea of Poppies

The English language became a potent weapon to assert colonial culture and brainwash the natives into their ideology. The British were most successful in that as they held on to their colonies for a long time. When Macaulay advocated Western education in India in his “Minute on Indian Education” (1835) his motivation is clear.He says:

It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population. (430)

As a result, the English government decided to introduce English as a language with a view to destroying the so-called ‘inferior’ native culture. Some broad-minded English poets and writers attacked the use of English language tailor-made to satisfy the Englishman’s ego. A liberal minded poet like Robert Southey criticised his own mother tongue or at least the way the language is used.Homi Bhabha in an essay “Signs Taken for Wonders” begins by quoting Southey in his “Letters from England” where he has said:

A remarkable peculiarity is that they (the English) always write the personal pronoun I with a capital letter. May we not consider this Great I as an unintended proof of how much an Englishman thinks of his own consequence? (29)

However, English language has been used by the writers of erstwhile colonies to challenge the domination of European hegemony. An author like Amitav Ghosh in Sea of Poppies uses English language to challenge colonial ideology. In an interview to Amrita Dutta he says:

We know what a huge influence English has had on Bengali or Hindi--machis, for instance. I think what is not recognised is how English has been influenced by Asian or African languages. Okay is an African word. Dude, a word my children use every second minute, is an 18th century African word. What has happened in English in the last 100 years or so is that it began to systematically rid itself of its Asian influences. If you google the words which seem unfamiliar in my book--gomusta, mutsuddi--you'll see that almost all the words are in the Oxford English Dictionary. And I feel if I'm stuck writing this damn language, why should I not reclaim it as it properly exists?
Look, my head is a mish-mash of languages--Hindi, Bengali, Arabic, at least some French. If I hear a sound, which somehow creates connections for me, I want to use it. If you know several languages, you realise it's hard to draw lines between them. Languages seep into each other, form each other. They are like people.

Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies is loaded with passages where a number of languages like Bhojpuri, English, Hindi, and Bengali are all mixed to create the effect of cross cultures. The ship called Ibis has a number of passengers from England, Portugal, lascars, etc who are from different parts of the world and they speak different languages. The illicit love between Neel and Elokeshi is described in the following words: “Now Elokeshi lowered her voice, and despite himself, Neel strained to follow: No really… (sic) made me sit on his face … (sic) chhi, chhi! … (sic) and then licked there with his tongue … (sic) no silly, right there, yes … sheje ki chatachati! … (sic) Oh what a licking! You’d think he was tasting a chutney ….” (sic) (Sea of Poppies, 119) It’s obvious that the licentious nature of the relationship is being described in Bengali to show how the low levels of morality have the zamindars of Raskhali stooped to. Neel’s wife is ill and he finds pleasure in Elokeshi. The use of the word ‘chatachati’ reminds the fact that Ghosh is conscious of his Bengali identity and has rejected the “King’s English” or “Queen’s English” for good.
After the British conquered India, they employed a certain class of Indians as munshis and clerks, and they were appointed for doing petty jobs. These classes remained loyal to the British, and were by and large indifferent to the sufferings of their fellow brothers. One such character in Sea of Poppies is Baboo Nob Kissin. He is an educated man and works as an agent or gomusta in charge of the indentured labourers in the ship. He would go to any extent to flatter his boss, Benjamin Burnham who addresses him as “Baboon”.  The very term “Baboon” is dehumanising but Nob Kissin does not protest about it.  There is hardly anything manly about him. The conversation between the two is presented with a touch of humour by Ghosh:

My good Baboon!’ he cried, as he took in the sight of the gomusta’s oiled, shoulder-length hair and the necklace that was hanging around his neck. ‘What on earth has become of you? You look so....[sic]’(Sea of Poppies, 212)

There is definitely a pun on the word “Baboon.” It shows that the English find it difficult to address Babu Nob Kissin in his original Bengali accent. They are new in India and not familiar with their language. But the word “Baboon” definitely has racial connotations. Howsoever the Babus might flatter the Englishmen, they would never forget that the Indians are inferior and equate them with baboons.
The major colonial forces like England, France and Germany had a strong superiority complex and considered themselves as carriers of culture, and learning. The Africans and Asians are clubbed together as uncivilised and barbaric. As Fanon in his Black Skins, White Masks observes:

I meet a Russian or a German who speaks French badly.With gestures I try to give him the information that he requests, but at the same time I can hardly forget that he has a language of his own, a country and that perhaps he is a lawyer or an engineer there.In any case, he is foreign to my group, and his standards must be different.When it comes to the case of the Negro, nothing of the kind. He has no culture, no civilisation, no “long historical past.” This may be the reason for the strivings of contemporary Negroes: to prove the existence of a black civilisation to the white world at all costs. (34)

Fanon makes it very clear that the Frenchmen in Algeria maltreat the locals and the same observation holds true in the British treatment of Indians whose culture, tradition and heritage has been deliberately eroded by the Englishmen and so much inferiority complex has been induced that people who occupied high position in colonial rule remained subservient to their masters and followed them blindly to seek their favour. The English language was used in a way so that the British could convince the Indians that they were the best rulers Indians could have. The Western education as introduced by the British is a reflection of their ego and their sense of exaggerated importance. The Englishmen introduced Western education to create a subservient class of people.Gauri Viswanathan quotes J Farish in his Minute issued in the Bombay Presidency where he said, “The Natives must either be kept down by a sense of our power, or they must willingly submit from a conviction that we are more wise, more just, more humane, and more anxious to improve their condition than other rulers they could possibly have” (2). Babu Nob Kissin’s behaviour shows a success of their effort.

Right at the outset of the novel, Amitav Ghosh describes the arrival of Ibis in the Ganga-Sagar Island with Zachary Reid, the ship captain having a number of crew who were no better than slaves with a number of Bengalis, Goans, Tamils, Arabs as his mates. They had a number of hobbies, food habits and ways of talking very different from Englishmen. Zachary had to learn their language fast:

Having been put in charge of the ship’s stores Zachary had to familiarize himself with a new set of provisions, bearing no resemblance to the accustomed hardtack and brined beef; he had learn to say ‘resum’ instead of ‘rations’ and he had to wrap his tongue around words like ‘dal,’ ‘masala’ and ‘achar.’(Sea of Poppies, 15)

Once Zachary Reid has arrived in India with a view to establishing a colony he realizes he needs the help of the local people to survive in this colony. As a result, he picks up the Indian language well to explain his demands to his followers and coolies to get his work done. Obviously, Zachary needs to blend his language with local flavour to get his business activities done in a smooth manner. They need to know the original names of the food items they consume, but obviously they cannot remember the names so fast. As a consequence, the language no longer remains ‘pure English’ but is very nicely blended with local elements. This is known as appropriation of language through which the authors of former colonies put forward alternative cultures and models. The literature of the third world countries is, after all, a product of “the tension between the abrogation of the received English which speaks from the centre, and the act of appropriation which brings it under the influence of vernacular tongue.” (The Empire Writes Back, 39)

The language is powerfully presented to describe all kinds of emotions. The novel begins with Deeti’s marriage with Hukam Singh, who is an ‘afeemkhor’ a drug addict. As Deeti, a wise but illiterate woman waits for him on the wedding night, she sings the following song:

Ag mor lagal ba
Are sagaro badaniya
… (sic)
Tas-mas choli karai
Barhala jobanawa
(Sea of Poppies, 32)

Ghosh provides the translation for clarity of the readers:

I'm on fire
My body burns …
(sic) My choli strains
Against my walking breasts … (Sea of Poppies, 32)

It’s obvious that Deeti, although a wise but illiterate woman cannot speak English. Her emotions would be best expressed in her language and so the translation is provided by Ghosh to make us aware of what feelings are going on in her mind. Deeti’s feelings loaded with sexual innuendoes are very logically presented in the original language.

The appropriation of language continues in River of Smoke. At the outset of the novel, we see that Deeti has been raised to the position of a Goddess and she has been made into a legend, “It was not till the feast had been digested and gas lamps lit that children would begin to drift back to the shrine’s outer chamber, to stare in wonder at the painted walls to the cavern that was known as Deetiji’s ‘Memory Temple’—Deetiji-ka-smriti-mandir.” (River of Smoke, 8) The elevation of Deeti to a Goddess and the establishment of her temple in a small area again would be best expressed in Hindi because the people of the pre-independent era living in a small area would never know English. As a result, the description etched with memory of Deeti is best brought out in Hindi.

The third volume of The Ibis Trilogy namely Flood of Fire begins in the following manner: “Havildar Kesri Singh was the kind of soldier who liked to take the lead, particularly on days like this one, when his battalion was marching through a territory that had already been subdued and the advance-guard’s job was only to fly the paltan’s colours and put on their best parade-faces for the benefit of the crowds that had gathered by the roadside.” (Flood of Fire, 1) Very significantly, he has been described in Indian terms. He is not called a ‘constable’ but a havilder asserting his Indian identity. He might be loyal to the British but that does not guarantee a high position. His army is described as a ‘paltan’ and not as a team or group. The point is very simple. The word ‘paltan’ is a distortion of platoon, meaning a subdivision of soldiers headed by a subaltern or lieutenant. The word has become Indianised because most half-educated Indian soldiers would pronounce the word in that manner.
Sea of Poppies opens with Deeti working in the opium fields and Kabutri, her six-year-old daughter, is “given the job of sweeping the poppy petals into a heap while she busied herself in stoking the fire and heating a heavy iron tawa”, as Deeti proceeds to toast handfuls of poppy petals together to make packing material for opium:

And ‘roti’ was indeed the name by which these poppy-petal wrappers were known although their purpose was entirely different from that of their namesake: they were to be sold to the Sudder Opium Factory, in Ghazipur, where they would be used to line the earthenware containers in which opium was packed. (Sea of Poppies, 6-7)

The use of the word ‘roti’ as mentioned above reminds how the poppy look similar to it but ironically used for a different purpose. ‘Roti’ is the essence of survival for these farmers and the ‘tawa’ is the place where it is prepared. However, instead of roti which is meant to satisfy hunger, production of poppy petals would increase it and lead to starvation and misery of people. So right at the outset of the novel indications are clearly given about the devastation that is to follow.

Credit must be given to Ghosh for his dexterous handling of the English language. The appropriation of language has helped Ghosh to criticise the British in a scathing way showing us that English language can be used not only as a means of domination by the colonisers but also to attack and dismantle the colonial hegemony.

Works Cited

  • Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, eds 1997. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literatures. London: Routledge.
  • Bhabha, Homi, K. 1995. “Signs Taken For Wonders.” Quoted in The Postcolonial Studies Reader. Ed. Ashcroft et al.  London: Routledge.
  • Dutta, Amrita. “Languages seep into each other, form each other. They are like people.”
  • 17th June, 2008. 24.6.08. < news/ languages-seep-into-each-other-form-eachother.-they-are-like-people/323565/4>
  • Fanon, Frantz. 1968, Black Skins, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lee Markmann. London: Mac Gibbon & Kee Ltd.
  • Ghosh, Amitav. 2011. River of Smoke. New Delhi: Penguin.
  • ---. 2008. Sea of Poppies. New Delhi: Viking, Penguin.
  • ---. 2015. Flood of Fire. New York: Penguin.
  • Macaulay, Thomas. 1995. “Minute on Indian Education.” Quoted in The Postcolonial
  • Reader. Eds. Ashcroft et al. London: Routledge.
  • Viswanathan, Gauri. 1989, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. London: Faber & Faber.




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