Sea of poppies / Amitav Ghosh. p. cm. ISBN ISBN 1- 1. Schooners — Fiction. 2. Voyages and travels — Fiction. 3. The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day Sea of Pop Proposal Pack - Business Proposal Template. Sea of Poppies Amitav Ghosh - Free download as PDF File .pdf), Text File .txt) or read online for free.
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After reading Sea of Poppies it seems that Amitav Ghosh has wrote it in relation ruthenpress.info%pdf. ing of Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies. We hope they will enrich your exploration of this masterpiece from one of the world's finest novelists. Turning his eye to. Editorial Reviews. From Publishers Weekly. Starred Review. Diaspora, myth and a fascinating language mashup propel the Rubik's cube of plots in Ghosh's.
Deeti looks almost certain to meet her doom when she is forced to consider sati ritual immolation on her husband's funeral pyre as the only option in the face of threats of more rapes by the brother-in-law, but then Kalua, the untouchable caste ox man from the neighbouring village, comes to her rescue. The couple flee and unite. This is not acceptable to the high caste villagers.
In order to escape Deeti's in-laws, she and Kalua become indentured servants, travelling on the Ibis. The next key figure is Zachary Reid, an American sailor born to a quadroon mother and a white father.
Escaping racism, he joins the Ibis on its first voyage for its new owner, Mr. Burnham, from Baltimore to Calcutta. A series of misfortunes soon befall the ship, leading to the loss of more senior crew. With the support of the head of the lascars , Serang Ali, Zachary becomes the second in command of the ship.
In Calcutta, Zachary is mistaken for a gentleman and enjoys society life. He becomes second mate for the Ibis's next voyage, carrying indentured labour to the island of Mauritius. Neel Rattan Halder, a wealthy and unworldly rajah whose dynasty has been ruling the zemindary of Raskhali for centuries, is confronted by Mr.
Burnham with the need to sell off his estates in order to pay for the debt he had incurred when investing in the opium trade with China. Now that the trade has come to a standstill, as a result of the resistance shown by the Chinese authorities, he is unable to clear his debt.
When Mr. Burnham proposes to settle the loan for Halder's zamindary, Halder refuses the deal as the zamindary is his family's ancestral property and selling it would mean turning his back on his many dependents. In a trial orchestrated by Burnham and his cronies, Halder is tried for forgery. The court sentences him to be to penal transportation for seven years in Mauritius and leading him to lose caste.
In prison he meets Ah Fatt, a half-Chinese, half- Parsi opium addict from Canton, and the two are put aboard the Ibis. Paulette is a French orphan who has grown up in India with Jodu, the son of her Ayah , as her best friend. Zachary Reid was of medium height and sturdy build, with skin the colour of old ivory and a mass of curly, lacquer-black hair that tumbled over his forehead and into his eyes. The pupils of his eyes were as dark as his hair, except that they were flecked with sparks of hazel: as a child, strangers were apt to say that a pair of twinklers like his could be sold as diamonds to a duchess later, when it came time for him to be included in Deeti's shrine, much would be made of the brilliance of his gaze.
Because he laughed easily and carried himself with a carefree lightness, people sometimes took him to be younger than he was, but Zachary was always quick to offer a correction: the son of a Maryland freedwoman, he took no small pride in the fact of knowing his precise age and the exact date of his birth. To those in error, he would point out that he was twenty, not a day less and not many more. It was Zachary's habit to think, every day, of at least five things to praise, a practice that had been instilled by his mother as a necessary corrective for a tongue that sometimes sported too sharp an edge.
Since his departure from America it was the Ibis herself that had figured most often in Zachary's daily tally of praiseworthy things. It was not that she was especially sleek or rakish in appearance: on the contrary, the Ibis was a schooner of old-fashioned appearance, neither lean, nor flush-decked like the clippers for which Baltimore was famous.
She had a short quarter-deck, a risen fo'c'sle, with a fo'c'sle-deck between the bows, and a deckhouse amidships, that served as a galley and cabin for the bo'suns and stewards. With her cluttered main deck and her broad beam, the Ibis was sometimes taken for a schooner-rigged barque by old sailors: whether there was any truth to this Zachary did not know, but he never thought of her as anything other than the topsail schooner that she was when he first signed on to her crew.
To his eye there was something unusually graceful about the Ibis's yacht-like rigging, with her sails aligned along her length rather than across the line of her hull. He could see why, with her mainand headsails standing fair, she might put someone in mind of a white-winged bird in flight: other tall-masted ships, with their stacked loads of square canvas, seemed almost ungainly in comparison.
One thing Zachary did know about the Ibis was that she had been built to serve as a 'blackbirder', for transporting slaves.
This, indeed, was the reason why she had changed hands: in the years since the formal abolition of the slave trade, British and American naval vessels had taken to patrolling the West African coast in growing numbers, and the Ibis was not swift enough to be confident of outrunning them. As with many another slave-ship, the schooner's new owner had acquired her with an eye to fitting her for a different trade: the export of opium.
In this instance the downloadrs were a firm called Burnham Bros. The new owners' representatives had lost no time in calling for the schooner to be dispatched to Calcutta, which was where the head of the house, Benjamin Brightwell Burnham, had his principal residence: the Ibis was to be refitted upon reaching her destination, and it was for this purpose that Zachary had been taken on.
Zachary had spent eight years working in the Gardiner shipyard, at Fell's Point in Baltimore, and he was eminently well-qualified to supervise the outfitting of the old slave-ship: but as for sailing, he had no more knowledge of ships than any other shore-bound carpenter, this being his first time at sea.
But Zachary had signed on with a mind to learning the sailor's trade, and he stepped on board with great eagerness, carrying a canvas ditty-bag that held little more than a change of clothes and a penny-whistle that his father had given him as a boy. The Ibis provided him with a quick, if stern schooling, the log of her voyage being a litany of troubles almost from the start. Mr Burnham was in such a hurry to get his new schooner to India that she had sailed short-handed from Baltimore, shipping a crew of nineteen, of whom nine were listed as 'Black', including Zachary.
Despite being undermanned, her provisions were deficient, both in quality and quantity, and this had led to confrontations, between stewards and sailors, mates and fo'c'slemen. Then she hit heavy seas and her timbers were found to be weeping: it fell to Zachary to discover that the 'tween-deck, where the schooner's human cargo had been accommodated, was riddled with peepholes and air ducts, bored by generations of captive Africans.
The Ibis was carrying a cargo of cotton, to defray the costs of the journey; after the inundation, the bales were drenched and had to be jettisoned. Off the coast of Patagonia, foul weather forced a change in course, which had been plotted to take the Ibis across the Pacific and around Java Head. Instead, her sails were set for the Cape of Good Hope — with the result that she ran afoul of the weather again, and was becalmed a fortnight in the doldrums.
With the crew on half-rations, eating maggoty hardtack and rotten beef, there was an outbreak of dysentery: before the wind picked up again, three men were dead and two of the black crewmen were in chains, for refusing the food that was put before them.
With hands running short, Zachary had put aside his carpenter's tools and become a fully fledged foretopman, running up the ratlines to bend the topsail. Then it happened that the second mate, who was a hard-horse, hated by every black man in the crew, fell overboard and drowned: everyone knew the fall to be no accident, but the tensions on the vessel had reached such a point that the ship's master, a sharp-tongued Boston Irishman, let the matter slip.
Zachary was the only member of the crew to put in a bid when the dead man's effects were auctioned, thus coming into possession of a sextant and a trunk-load of clothes. Soon, being neither of the quarter-deck nor of the fo'c'sle, Zachary became the link between the two parts of the ship, and was shouldering the duties of the second mate.
He was not quite the novice now that he had been at the start of the voyage, but nor was he equal to his new responsibilities. His faltering efforts did nothing to improve morale and when the schooner put in to Cape Town the crew melted away overnight, to spread word of a hell-afloat with pinch-gut pay.
The reputation of the Ibis was so damaged that not a single American or European, not even the worst rufflers and rum-gaggers, could be induced to sign on: the only seamen who would venture on her decks were lascars. This was Zachary's first experience of this species of sailor. He had thought that lascars were a tribe or nation, like the Cherokee or Sioux: he discovered now that they came from places that were far apart, and had nothing in common, except the Indian Ocean; among them were Chinese and East Africans, Arabs and Malays, Bengalis and Goans, Tamils and Arakanese.
They came in groups of ten or fifteen, each with a leader who spoke on their behalf. To break up these groups was impossible; they had to be taken together or not at all, and although they came cheap, they had their own ideas of how much work they would do and how many men would share each job — which seemed to mean that three or four lascars had to be hired for jobs that could well be done by a single able seaman.
The Captain declared them to be as lazy a bunch of niggers as he had ever seen, but to Zachary they appeared more ridiculous than anything else. Their costumes, to begin with: their feet were as naked as the day they were born, and many seemed to own no clothing other than a length of cambric to wind around their middle.
Some paraded around in drawstringed knickers, while others wore sarongs that flapped around their scrawny legs like petticoats, so that at times the deck looked like the parlour of a honeyhouse. How could a man climb a mast in bare feet, swaddled in a length of cloth, like a newborn child?
No matter that they were as nimble as any seaman he'd ever seen — it still discomfited Zachary to see them in the rigging, hanging like monkeys on the ratlines: when their sarongs blew in the wind, he would avert his eyes for fear of what he might see if he looked up. After several changes of mind, the skipper decided to engage a lascar company that was led by one Serang Ali.
This was a personage of formidable appearance, with a face that would have earned the envy of Genghis Khan, being thin, long and narrow, with darting black eyes that sat restlessly upon rakishly angled cheekbones. Two feathery strands of moustache drooped down to his chin, framing a mouth that was constantly in motion, its edges stained a bright, livid red: it was as if he were forever smacking his lips after drinking from the opened veins of a mare, like some bloodthirsty Tartar of the steppes.
The discovery that the substance in his mouth was of vegetable origin came as no great reassurance to Zachary: once, when the serang spat a stream of blood-red juice over the rail, he noticed the water below coming alive with the thrashing of shark's fins.
How harmless could this betel-stuff be if it could be mistaken for blood by a shark? The prospect of journeying to India with this crew was so unappealing that the first mate disappeared too, taking himself off the ship in such a hurry that he left behind a bagful of clothes.
When told that the mate was a gone-goose, the skipper growled: 'Cut his painter, has he? Don't blame him neither. I'd of walked my chalks too, if I'd'a been paid. Since no other sea-officer could be found before their departure, the schooner sailed with Zachary standing in for the first mate: thus it happened that in the course of a single voyage, by virtue of desertions and dead-tickets, he vaulted from the merest novice sailor to senior seaman, from carpenter to second-in-command, with a cabin of his own.
His one regret about the move from fo'c'sle to cabin was that his beloved penny-whistle disappeared somewhere on the way and had to be given up for lost. Before this, the skipper had instructed Zachary to eat his meals below — 'not going to spill no colour on my table, even if it's just a pale shade of yaller. Once under sail, Zachary was forced to undergo yet another education, not so much in seamanship this time, as in the ways of the new crew. Instead of the usual sailors' games of cards and able-whackets, there was the clicking of dice, with games of parcheesi unfolding on chequerboards of rope; the cheerful sound of sea-shanties yielded to tunes of a new kind, wild and discordant, and the very smell of the ship began to change, with the odour of spices creeping through the timbers.
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 to learn to say 'resum' instead of 'rations', and he had to wrap his tongue around words like 'dal', 'masala' and 'achar'.
He had to get used to 'malum' instead of mate, 'serang' for bosun, 'tindal' for bosun's mate, and 'seacunny' for helmsman; he had to memorize a new shipboard vocabulary, which sounded a bit like English and yet not: the rigging became the 'ringeen', 'avast!
The deck now became the 'tootuk' while the masts were 'dols'; a command became a 'hookum' and instead of starboard and larboard, fore and aft, he had to say 'jamna' and 'dawa', 'agil' and 'peechil'. One thing that continued unchanged was the division of the crew into two watches, each led by a tindal.
Most of the business of the ship fell to the two tindals, and little was seen of Serang Ali for the first two days. But on the third, Zachary came on deck at dawn to be greeted with a cheerful: 'Chin-chin Malum Zikri! You catchi chow-chow? Wat dam t'ing hab got inside? Also Mich'man like Malum Zikri.
Malum Zikri sun-sun become pukka gen'l'um. So tell no: catchi wife-o yet? Serang Ali catchi wife? By'mby, Serang Ali catchi nother piece wife. Captin-bugger blongi poo-shoo-foo. He hab got plenty sick! Need one piece dokto. No can chow-chow tiffin. Allo tim do chhee-chhee, pee-pee. Plenty smelly in Captin cabin. Having been schooled until the age of twelve, Zachary was able to write a slow but well-formed copperplate hand: the filling of the logbook posed no problem. Navigation was another matter: although he had learnt some arithmetic at the shipyard, he was not at ease with numbers.
But over the course of the voyage, he had been at pains to watch the Captain and the first mate as they took their midday readings; at times he had even asked questions, which were answered, depending on the officers' moods, either with laconic explanations or with fists to his ear.
Now using the Captain's watch, and a sextant inherited from the dead mate, he spent a good deal of time trying to calculate the ship's position. His first few attempts ended in panic, with his calculations placing the ship hundreds of miles off course. But on issuing a hookum for a change of course, he discovered that the actual steering of the ship had never been in his hands anyway.
Malum Zikri still learn-pijjin. No sabbi shippijjin. No can see Serang Ali too muchi smart-bugger inside? Takee ship Por'Lwee-side three days, look-see. You sure that the right place? Serang Ali Number One sabbi ship-pijjin. The Captain was now too ill to leave the Ibis, so it fell to Zachary to conduct the shipowners' business on the island, which included the delivery of a letter to the owner of a plantation, some six miles from Port Louis.
Zachary was making ready to go ashore with the letter when he was intercepted by Serang Ali, who looked him up and down in concern. Don see nothin wrong. After weeks at sea his face was unshaven and his curly hair was grimy with grease, tar and salt. But none of this seemed untoward — he was just delivering a letter after all. He shrugged: 'So?
Plenty blackbirder wanchi catch one piece slave. Malum go be shanghaied, made slave; allo time floggin, beatin. No good. One of them had been something of a dandy and there were so many clothes in his trunk as to intimidate Zachary: what went with what?
What was right for which time of day? It was one thing to look at these fine go-ashores on others, but to step into them was quite another matter. Here again, Serang Ali came to Zachary's aid: it turned out that among the lascars there were many who boasted of skills apart from sailoring — among them a kussab who had once worked as a 'dress-boy' for a shipowner; a steward who was also a darzee and earned extra money by sewing and mending clothes; and a topas who had learnt barbering and served as the crew's balwar.
Under Serang Ali's direction, the team went to work, rifling through Zachary's bags and trunks, picking out clothes, measuring, folding, snipping, cutting. While the tailor-steward and his chuckeroos busied themselves with inseams and cuffs, the barber-topas led Zachary to the lee scuppers and, with the aid of a couple of launders, subjected him to as thorough a scrubbing as he had ever had. Zachary offered no resistance until the topas produced a dark, perfumed liquid and made as if to pour it into his hair: 'Hey!
What's that stuff?
In a couple of hours Zachary was looking at an almost unrecognizable image of himself in the mirror, clothed in a white linen shirt, riding breeches and a double-breasted summer paletot, with a white cravat knotted neatly around his neck. On his hair, trimmed, brushed and tied with a blue ribbon at the nape of his neck, sat a glossy black hat. There was nothing missing, so far as Zachary could see, but Serang Ali was still not satisfied: 'Sing-song no hab got?
The idea that he might be able to afford a watch made Zachary laugh. Malum Zikri wait one minute. When he came back, there was something hidden in the folds of his sarong. Shutting the door behind him, he undid his waist knot and handed Zachary a shining silver watch. Flipping the cover open, he stared in amazement at the moving hands and clicking cogs.
He read it out loud: '"Adam T. Who was that? Did you know him, Serang Ali? No, sabbi. Bought clock in pawnshop, in Cape Town. Now blongi Zikri Malum's. Ain nobody never gave me nothin like this before.
They'll make me Mayor, for sure. Allo propa. If planterbugger coming catch, must do dumbcow. I one-piece pukka sahib, no can catch. You takee pistol in pocket; if bugger try shanghai, shoot in he face.
He went to a stable to hire a horse, and the French owner bowed and addressed him as 'milord' and couldn't do enough to please him. He rode out with a groom running behind him, to point the way. The town was small, just a few blocks of houses that faded away into a jumble of shacks, shanties and other hut-houses; beyond, the path wound through dense patches of forest and towering, tangled thickets of sugar-cane.
The surrounding hills and crags were of strange, twisted shapes; they sat upon the plains like a bestiary of gargantuan animals that had been frozen in the act of trying to escape from the grip of the earth.
From time to time, passing between fields of sugar-cane, he would come upon gangs of men who would put down their scythes to stare at him: the overseers would bow, raising their whips deferentially to their hats while the workers gazed in expressionless silence, making him glad of the weapon in his pocket. The plantation house came into view while he was still a long way off, through an avenue of trees with peeling, honey-coloured bark.
He had expected a mansion, like those in the plantations of Delaware and Maryland, but in this house there were no grand pillars or gabled windows: it was a one-storeyed woodframed bungalow, skirted by a deep veranda. The owner, Monsieur d'Epinay, was sitting on the veranda in his drawers and suspenders — Zachary thought nothing of this, and was taken aback when his host apologized for his state of undress, explaining, in halting English, that he had not expected to receive a gentleman at this time of day.
Leaving his guest to be waited on by an African maidservant, M. It was with some reluctance that Zachary checked his watch and announced that it was time for him to leave. As they were walking out of the house, M. Now that we may no longer have slaves in Mauritius, I must have coolies, or I am doomed. Put in a word for me, will you not?
The mountains around are filled with marrons and desperadoes and escaped slaves. A gentleman on his own must be careful. Make sure your gun is never far from your hands. With nightfall, the narrow lanes around the Lascar Bazar had come alive with women, and the sight of Zachary, in his paletot and hat, had a galvanic effect on them: clothes became the newest addition to his list of praiseworthy things.
Thanks to their magic, he, Zachary Reid, so often disregarded by the whores of Fell's Point, now had women hanging off his arms and elbows: he had their fingers in his hair, their hips pressing against his own, and their hands toying playfully with the horn buttons of his broadcloth trowsers.
One of them, who called herself Madagascar Rose, was as pretty a girl as he had ever seen, with flowers behind her ears and painted red lips: dearly would he have loved, after ten months on a ship, to be dragged behind her door, to stick his nose between her jasmined breasts and to run his tongue over her vanilla lips — but suddenly there was Serang Ali, in his sarong, blocking the lane, his thin acquiline face compressed into a dagger of disapproval.
At the sight of him, the Rose of Madagascar wilted and was gone. What for wanchi flower-girl? He not big pukka sahib now?
Can't nobody turn a sailor from a snatchwarren. Is too muchi happy fish. Make heself too muchi happy inside. Allo time smile. Why Malum not so-fashion do? Ten finger no hab got? All the way back to the ship, Serang Ali kept brushing dust off his clothes, fixing his cravat, straightening his hair. It was as if he had acquired a claim on him, in having aided in his transformation into a sahib; no matter how much Zachary cursed and slapped his hands, he would not stop: it was as if he had become an image of gentility, equipped with all that it took to find success in the world.
It dawned on him that this was why Serang Ali had been so determined to keep him from bedding the girls in the bazar — his matings, too, would have to be arranged and supervised. Or so he thought. The skipper, still ailing, was now desperate to get to Calcutta and wanted to weigh anchor as soon as possible. But when told of this, Serang Ali disagreed: 'Cap'tin-bugger plenty sick,' he said. Go topside too muchee quick. Nothing wrong with me.
Just the running scoots. I'll be better the minute we make sail. The skipper managed to stagger out to the quarter-deck and declared himself to be all a-taunto but Serang Ali was of another opinion: 'Captin catchi Cop'ral-Forbes. Look-see — he tongue go black. Better Malum Zikri keep far from Captin. Cop'ral-Forbes — he one piece nasty bugger. The tongue-searing tastes were difficult to get used to at first, but Zachary could tell the spices were doing him good, scouring his insides, and he soon grew to like the unfamiliar flavours.
Twelve days later, just as Serang Ali had predicted, the Captain was dead. This time there was no bidding for the dead man's effects: they were thrown overboard and the stateroom was washed and left open, to be cauterized by the salt air.
When the body was tipped into the sea it was Zachary who read from the Bible.
He did it in a voice that was sonorous enough to earn a compliment from Serang Ali: 'Malum Zikri number-one joss-pijjin bugger. Church-song why no sing? Joss-man hab learn him one-piece saam. Other works no hab got?
With Calcutta just two or three days away, Zachary would have been only too glad to get under weigh immediately. Several days went by while the fretful crew waited for a pilot to arrive. Zachary was asleep in his cabin, dressed in nothing but a sarong, when Serang Ali came to tell him that a bunder-boat had pulled alongside. He too muchi dumbcowing,' said the serang. A chowdering of your chutes is what you budzats need.
What do you think you're doing, toying with your tatters and luffing your laurels while I stand here in the sun? He was dressed in an extravagantly old-fashioned way, with his shirt-collar up on high, a coat that was cut away in the skirts, and a Belcher fogle around his waist. His face, with its bacony hue, its mutton-chop whiskers, beefy cheeks and liverish lips, looked as if it could have been assembled upon a butcher's counter.
Behind him stood a small knot of porters and lascars, bearing an assortment of bowlas, portmanteaus and other baggage. Has he been given the kubber that my bunder-boat has lagowed? Don't just stand there: jaw! Hop to it, before I give your ganders a taste of my lattee. Have you saying your bysmelas before you know it. Won't do when you're the only sahib on board — not if you don't want to be borakpoked by your darkies. The Burra Sahib — Ben Burnham, that is — asked me to take charge of the ship.
What'd you say we leave the steering to that badmash and find ourselves a drop of loll-shrub? If not, a brandy-pawnee will do just as well. Listen: Hukam Singh has passed out, at the factory. They said you should go there and bring him home. With that he gave his reins a snap and drove off hurriedly, impatient for his meal and his afternoon sleep: it was typical of him to offer no help.
A chill crept up Deeti's neck as she absorbed this: it was not that the news itself was totally unexpected — her husband had been ailing for some time and his collapse did not come entirely as a surprise.
Rather, her foreboding sprang from a certainty that this turn of events was somehow connected with the ship she had seen; it was as if the very wind that was bearing it towards her had blown a draught up her spine. What shall we do?
How will we bring him home? We have to find Kalua and his ox-cart, Deeti said. Chal; come, let's go. The hamlet of the Chamars, where Kalua lived, was a short walk away and he was sure to be home at this hour of the afternoon. The problem was that he would probably expect to be paid and she was hard put to think of something to offer him: she had no grain or fruit to spare, and as for money, there was not a dam's worth of cowrie-shells in the house.
Having run through the alternatives, she realized that she had no option but to delve into the carved wooden chest in which her husband kept his supply of opium: the box was nominally locked, but Deeti knew where to find the key.
On opening the lid, she was relieved to find inside several lumps of hard akbari opium, as well as a sizeable piece of soft chandu opium, still wrapped in poppy petals.
Deciding on the hard opium, she cut off a lump the size of her thumbnail, and folded it into one of the wrappers she had made that morning. With the package tucked into the waist of her sari, she set off in the direction of Ghazipur, with Kabutri running ahead, skipping along the embankments that divided the poppy fields. The sun was past its zenith now and a haze was dancing over the flowers, in the warmth of the afternoon. Deeti drew the ghungta of her sari over her face, but the old cotton, cheap and thin to begin with, was now so worn that she could see right through it: the faded fabric blurred the outlines of everything in view, tinting the edges of the plump poppy pods with a faintly crimson halo.
As her steps lengthened, she saw that on some nearby fields, the crop was well in advance of her own: some of her neighbours had already nicked their pods and the white ooze of the sap could be seen congealing around the parallel incisions of the nukha.
The sweet, heady odour of the bleeding pods had drawn swarms of insects, and the air was buzzing with bees, grasshoppers and wasps; many would get stuck in the ooze and tomorrow, when the sap turned colour, their bodies would merge into the black gum, becoming a welcome addition to the weight of the harvest.
The sap seemed to have a pacifying effect even on the butterflies, which flapped their wings in oddly erratic patterns, as though they could not remember how to fly. One of these landed on the back of Kabutri's hand and would not take wing until it was thrown up in the air. See how it's lost in dreams? Deeti said. That means the harvest will be good this year. Maybe we'll even be able to fix our roof. She stopped to glance in the direction of their hut, which was just visible in the distance: it looked like a tiny raft, floating upon a river of poppies.
The hut's roof was urgently in need of repairs, but in this age of flowers, thatch was not easy to come by: in the old days, the fields would be heavy with wheat in the winter, and after the spring harvest, the straw would be used to repair the damage of the year before.
But now, with the sahibs forcing everyone to grow poppy, no one had thatch to spare — it had to be bought at the market, from people who lived in faraway villages, and the expense was such that people put off their repairs as long as they possibly could. When Deeti was her daughter's age, things were different: poppies had been a luxury then, grown in small clusters between the fields that bore the main winter crops — wheat, masoor dal and vegetables.
Her mother would send some of her poppy seeds to the oilpress, and the rest she would keep for the house, some for replanting, and some to cook with meat and vegetables. As for the sap, it was sieved of impurities and left to dry, until the sun turned it into hard akbari afeem; at that time, no one thought of producing the wet, treacly chandu opium that was made and packaged in the English factory, to be sent across the sea in boats.
In the old days, farmers would keep a little of their home-made opium for their families, to be used during illnesses, or at harvests and weddings; the rest they would sell to the local nobility, or to pykari merchants from Patna. Back then, a few clumps of poppy were enough to provide for a household's needs, leaving a little over, to be sold: no one was inclined to plant more because of all the work it took to grow poppies — fifteen ploughings of the land and every remaining clod to be broken by hand, with a dantoli; fences and bunds to be built; downloads of manure and constant watering; and after all that, the frenzy of the harvest, each bulb having to be individually nicked, drained and scraped.
Such punishment was bearable when you had a patch or two of poppies — but what sane person would want to multiply these labours when there were better, more useful crops to grow, like wheat, dal, vegetables? But those toothsome winter crops were steadily shrinking in acreage: now the factory's appetite for opium seemed never to be sated.
It was impossible to say no to them: if you refused they would leave their silver hidden in your house, or throw it through a window. It was no use telling the white magistrate that you hadn't accepted the money and your thumbprint was forged: he earned commissions on the opium and would never let you off. And, at the end of it, your earnings would come to no more than three-and-a-half sicca rupees, just about enough to pay off your advance.
Reaching down, Deeti snapped off a poppy pod and held it to her nose: the smell of the drying sap was like wet straw, vaguely reminiscent of the rich, earthy perfume of a newly thatched roof after a shower of rain. This year, if the harvest was good, she would put all the proceeds into the repairing of the roof — if she didn't, the rains would destroy whatever was left of it.
Do you know, she said to Kabutri, it's been seven years since our roof was last thatched? The girl turned her dark, soft eyes towards her mother.
Seven years? But isn't that when you were married? Deeti nodded and gave her daughter's hand a squeeze. It was. The new thatch had been paid for by her own father, as a part of her dowry — although he could ill afford it, he had not begrudged the expense since Deeti was the last of his children to be married off. Her prospects had always been bedevilled by her stars, her fate being ruled by Saturn — Shani — a planet that exercised great power on those born under its influence, often bringing discord, unhappiness and disharmony.
With this shadow darkening her future, Deeti's expectations had never been high: she knew that if she were ever to be married, it would probably be to a much older man, possibly an elderly widower who needed a new wife to nurse his brood. Hukam Singh, by comparison, had seemed a good prospect, not least because Deeti's own brother, Kesri Singh, had proposed the match.
The two men had belonged to the same battalion and had served together in a couple of overseas campaigns; Deeti had her brother's word that her prospective husband's disability was a minor one. Also in his favour were his family's connections, the most notable of which consisted of an uncle who had risen to the rank of subedar in the East India Company's army: on his retirement from active duty this uncle had found a lucrative job with a merchant house in Calcutta, and had been instrumental in finding good posts for his relatives — it was he, for instance, who had procured a muchcoveted job in the opium factory for Hukam Singh, the groom-to-be.
When the match advanced to the next stage, it became clear that it was this uncle who was the motive force behind the proposal. Not only did he lead the party that came to settle the details, he also did all the negotiating on the groom's behalf: indeed when the talks reached the point where Deeti had to be led in, to drop her ghungta, it was to the uncle rather than the groom that she had bared her face.
There was no denying that the uncle was an impressive figure of a man: his name was Subedar Bhyro Singh and he was in his mid-fifties, with luxuriant white moustaches that curled up to his ear-lobes. His complexion was bright and rosy, marred only by a scar across his left cheek, and his turban, which was as spotlessly white as his dhoti, was worn with a negligent arrogance that made him seem twice the size of other men of his height. His strength and vigour were evident as much in the bull-like girth of his neck, as in the surging contours of his stomach — for he was one of those men on whom a belly appears not as an unnecessary weight, but rather as a repository of force and vitality.
Such was the subedar's presence that the groom and his immediate family seemed pleasingly diffident in comparison, and this played no small part in earning Deeti's consent for the match.
During the negotiations, she examined the visitors carefully, through a crack in a wall: she had not much cared for the mother, but nor had she felt any fear of her. For the younger brother she had conceived an immediate dislike — but he was just a weedy youth of no account, and she had assumed that he would be, at worst, a minor source of irritation.
As for Hukam Singh, she had been favourably impressed by his soldierly bearing, which was, if anything, enhanced by his limp. What she had liked better still was his drowsy demeanour and slow manner of speech; he had seemed inoffensive, the kind of man who would go about his work without causing trouble, not the least desirable of qualities in a husband.
Through the ceremonies and afterwards, during the long journey upriver to her new home, Deeti had felt no apprehension. The music had accompanied her as she was carried, in a nalki, from the riverbank to the threshold of her new home; veiled in her sari, she had seen nothing of the house as she went to the garlanded marital bed, but her nostrils had been filled with the smell of fresh thatch.
The songs had grown increasingly suggestive while she sat waiting for her husband, and her neck and shoulders had tightened in anticipation of the grip that would push her prone on the bed. Her sisters had said: Make it hard for him the first time or he'll give you no peace later; fight and scratch and don't let him touch your breasts.
My choli strains Against my waking breasts. When the door opened to admit Hukam Singh, she was sitting coiled on the bed, fully prepared for an assault. Listen there: you don't have to curl yourself up, like a snake: turn to me, look. Peeping warily through the folds of her sari, she saw that he was standing beside her with a carved wooden box in his hands.
He placed the chest on the bed and pushed back the lid, to release a powerful, medicinal smell — an odour that was at once oily and earthy, sweet and cloying. She knew it to be the smell of opium, although she had never before encountered it in such a potent and concentrated form.
He pointed to the interior of the box, which was divided into several compartments: See — do you know what's in here? Isn't it opium? Yes, but of different kinds. His forefinger pointed first to a lump of common akbari, black in colour and hard in texture; then it passed on to a ball of madak, a gluey mixture of opium and tobacco: See; this is the cheap stuff that people smoke in chillums. Next, using both hands, he took out a small lump, still in its poppy-petal wrapper, and touched it to her palm, to show her how soft it was: This is what we make in the factory: chandu.
You won't see it here, the sahibs send it across the sea, to Maha-Chin. It can't be eaten like akbari and it can't be smoked like madak. What's done with it then? Dekheheba ka hoi?
You want to see? She nodded and he rose to his feet and went to a shelf on the wall.
Reaching up, he brought down a pipe that was as long as his arm. He held it in front of her, and she saw that it was made of bamboo, blackened and oily with use. There was a mouthpiece at one end, and in the middle of the tube there was a little bulb, made of clay, with a tiny pinhole on top. Holding the pipe reverentially in his hands, Hukam Singh explained that it came from a faraway place — Rakhine-desh in southern Burma. Pipes like this one were not to be found in Ghazipur, or Benares, or even Bengal: they had to be brought in, from across the Black Water, and were too valuable to be toyed with.
From the carved box, he took a long needle, dipped its tip in the soft black chandu and roasted the droplet on the flame of a candle. When the opium began to sizzle and bubble, he put it on the pinhole of his pipe and took a deep draught of the smoke, through the mouthpiece.
He sat with his eyes closed, while the white smoke drifted slowly out of his nostrils. When it was all gone, he ran his hands lovingly over the length of the bamboo tube. You should know, he said at last, that this is my first wife. She's kept me alive since I was wounded: if it weren't for her I would not be here today. I would have died of pain, long ago. It was when he said these words that Deeti understood what the future held: she remembered how, as children, she and her playmates had laughed at the afeemkhors of their village — the habitual opium-eaters, who sat always as if in a dream, staring at the sky with dull, dead eyes.
Of all the possibilities she had thought of, this was one she had not allowed for: that she might be marrying an afeemkhor — an addict. But how could she have known? Hadn't her own brother assured her that Hukam Singh's injury was not serious?
Did my brother know? About my pipe? He laughed. No; how could he? I only learnt to smoke after I was wounded and taken to the hospital barracks. The orderlies there were from the country we were in, Arakan, and when the pain kept us awake at night, they would bring us pipes and show us what to do. It was useless, she knew, to be seized by regret now, on the very night when her fate had been wedded to his: it was as if the shade of Saturn had passed over her face, to remind her of her destiny.
Quietly, so as not to rouse him from his trance, she reached under her veil to wipe her eyes. But her bangles tinkled and woke him; he picked up his needle again and held it over the flame. When the pipe was ready to be smoked, he turned to her, smiling, and raised an eyebrow, as if to ask if she wanted to try it too. She nodded, thinking that if this smoke could take away the pain of a shattered bone then surely it would help in calming the disquiet in her heart.
But when she reached for the pipe, he moved it quickly out of her reach, holding it to his chest: No — you won't know how! He took a mouthful of the smoke, placed his mouth on hers and breathed it into her body himself. Her head began to swim, but whether from the smoke or from the touch of his lips she could not tell. The fibres of her muscles began to soften and go slack; her body seemed to drain itself of tension and a sensation of the most delectable languor followed in its wake.
Awash in well-being, she leant back against her pillow and then his mouth closed on hers again, filling her lungs with smoke and she felt herself slipping away from this world into another that was brighter, better, more fulfilling. When she opened her eyes next morning there was a dull ache in her lower abdomen and a painful soreness between her legs.
Her clothes were in disarray and she reached down to discover that her thighs were crusted with blood. Her husband was lying beside her, with the brass box in his arms, his clothes undisturbed. She shook him awake to ask: What happened?
Was everything all right last night? He nodded and gave her a drowsy smile. Yes, everything was as it should be, he said. You gave proof of your purity to my family. With heaven's blessing, your lap will soon be filled. She would have liked to believe him, but looking at his enervated and listless limbs she found it hard to imagine that he had been capable of any great exertion the night before.
She lay on her pillow trying to remember what had happened, but was unable to retrieve any memory of the latter part of the night.
Shortly afterwards, her mother-in-law appeared by her bedside; wreathed in smiles, she sprinkled blessings from a container of holy water, and murmured, in a tone of tender solicitude: Everything went exactly as it should, beti. What an auspicious start to your new life!
Her husband's uncle, Subedar Bhyro Singh, echoed these blessings and slipped a gold coin into her palm: Beti, your lap will soon be filled — you will have a thousand sons. Despite these reassurances, Deeti could not shake off the conviction that something untoward had happened on her wedding night. But what could it have been?