Reading reflections in the Bookinglass

An expat with a love of fiction

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Sea of Poppies – sense of the Unclean

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IMG_0548On the tube (reading place par excellence) I was engrossed in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and smiling. Not because it was an amusing, fun, happy or enlightening part but because the scene was so…well, DISGUSTING that I wondered what my neighbour would make of me if they decided to take a peek at my page over my shoulder. But peek away now though at a particularly juicy bit of description. To set the scene, in the dark depths of an 19th century Calcutta prison, a formerly high ranked man, Neel, who has lived a life of luxury and pernickity traditions is put into a cell with an afeemkhor, an opium addict, who is being ravaged by the withdrawl effects of being denied this drug. Neel has taken on the task of cleaning the cell, and now, the addict himself.

‘Neel looked over the barber’s shoulder at his cell-mate’s scalp: even as the razor was shaving it clean, the bared skin was sprouting a new growth – a film that moved and shimmered like mercury. It was a swarming horde of lice, and as the matted hair tumbled off, the insects could be seen falling to the ground in showers.’ (p. 341)

The way that Ghosh compares the lice to liquid mercury conveys the physical thickness of the infestation. It is really interesting because it might be referring to the nature of the lice and possibly hinting at the personality of addict himself as volatile, changeable and lively (as we would descibe someone as mercurial) or even dangerous like the element Mercury. Hm, I will have to wait to find out later on in the book as all the addict is doing at the moment is writhing around in his own filth, his character is still a big mystery.

One of the biggest themes of the book is the sense of ‘unclean’, highlighted in the passage above and the necessity for Neel to overcome his extreme aversion to the worst of human grime. Another example is the way that Paulette the orphan taken in by the rich, self-made merchant Mr Burnham after her father dies, ┬átakes daily washes in secret as Mrs Burnham sees women washing themselves as ‘unseemly, even perverse.’ (p. 130) Both Paulette and Neel feel the strong need for physical cleanness even if this means that they are perhaps regarded as socially unsavory in higher circles. I think that this is to do with the other big theme, that of being released from the rigid social expectations of the Caste system. I feel that I need to know a lot more about this though to comment further.

It is enough perhaps to note that it is quite fitting that Ghosh’s notions of social uncleaniness were revealed to me in the tube where people of all different backgrounds, cultures and ‘class’ (in a very general sense) are being mixed in an germy environment (with the adverts for swine flu on the side how could one forget). In fact perhaps the tube is the same kind of democratising place as that of the Ibis, the ship in the book where all the different characters in the story are brought together.

Written by bookinglass

August 30, 2009 at 7:02 pm