Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
rating: 5 of 5 stars
Many have commented on the vibrancy of historical detail and breadth of research in this book, so I will not bother repeating the other readers - it is all true and the praise here is well-deserved. I would like to say that I particularly loved what several other reviewers have found somewhat difficult, and that is the unique and amazing language side of this book. The author claims to be a descendent of one of the main characters, a dispossessed raja who at the end of this installment of the story, escapes imprisonment and, as is clear from the comments, goes on to make a life for himself as linkister (a linguist) in a foreign land, probably China. It is not enough to say here that the whole way the dialects are handled is unique - it is well known that even in modern India more languages co-exist than anywhere else; additionally, we are treated to the lascar hookums, pijjin English, the British and French colonial lexicon, American 19-century Southern idiom, to name the main ones.
I know some readers found it difficult to follow the paced introductions of the parallel lexicons, and I have to say, I myself have this annoying general reading habit to skip ahead, as I cannot wait to know what the end is. I have to say, it has never deterred me from coming back to my marked place of departure and finishing a book while finally paying full attention to the richness of language and the peculiarities of style. This book was so much so the case - I kept coming back, re reading, surging forward and coming back. When I had about 60 pages left, I could not bear to finish it and put it aside, so much has the idiom become part of my thought process.
There was a test we were put through while at the language school (which I must say I used to profoundly resent at the time, impatient as I was as a young student). The task was presented as an initially incomprehensible jumble of invented language words with maybe one or two words in English in between. The student was to search for the meaning of the word, to uncover more meanings of the surrounding words from the context, and progressively build up on it. After a full session, the task culminated in being able to translate back and forth between the English and the invented lingo. The task was timed, and no matter how impatient you were to skip ahead, it took exactly the alloted minutes to start owning the new words and their sometimes multiple meanings. Furthermore, when we studied the regular European languages at the school, the emphasis was placed not on translating back and forth between English and our native language, but on learning the many meanings of various words and idioms in the target language, starting to think in the language you were studying.
To me, this concept is brilliantly presented in Ghosh's book - the pacing, the introduction of the languages and dialects, first incomprehensible, and then fully understandable, the tension it creates, finally culminating in the publication of Raja Neel's Chrestomathy, is one of the most amazing linguistic works I have encountered in fiction. It is a nice addition that it is solidly based on a well-developed story full of interesting characters who are the mouths speaking these various idioms - with both these factors going for this book, the next two books cannot come fast enough! Well recommended and a reading well worth your time. Interest in languages definitely helpful!
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