Friday, October 23, 2015

River of Smoke - A Word Junkie's Heaven - What A Tamasha!

"Everywhere you look there are khidmatgars, daftardars, khansamas, chuprassies, peons, durwans, khazanadars, khalasis and lascars.  And this my dear Puggly, is one of the greatest of the many surprises of Fanqui-town - a great number  of its denizens are from India!  They come from Sindh and Goa, Bombay and Malabar, Madras and the Coringa hills, Calcutta and Sylhet - but these differences mean nothing to the gamins who swarm around the Maidan.  They have their own names for every variety of foreign devil:  the British are "I-says" and the French are "Merdes".  The Hindustanis are by the same token, "Achhas":  no matter whether a man is from Karachi or Chittagong, the lads will swarm after him, with their hands outstretched, shouting:  "Achha! Achha! Gimme cumshaw!'
  They seem to be persuaded that the Achhas are all from one country - is it not the most diverting notion?"
In Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke the pages are sprinkled, sometimes dripping, with words odd to the American ear.

Some, like Achha, are explained, as you can see above, in the text itself.   And we'd learned a couple of pages earlier about Fanqui-town:
"And so at last to the foreign enclave - or 'Fanqui-town' as I have already learnt to call it!"
And we'd also just learned about the 'Maidan':
"And so, following my young Atlas, [a coolie carrying his luggage from the boat] I stepped upon the stretch of shore that forms the heart and hearth of Fanqui-town.  This is an open space between the factories* and the river-banks: the English speak of it as 'The Square', but Hindusthanis have a better name for it.  They call it the 'Maidan' which is exactly what it is, a crossroads, a meeting-place, a piazza, a promenade, a stage for a tamasha that never ends. . ."

But many other words are left there for the reader to either figure out or skip over, or gradually pick up through hearing it used, just like we learn words in our own language.  And, after all, the basic linguistic ingredient in this book is English. 

It was about this point - page 173 of a 500 page book - that I thought perhaps I should look up some of these words to see how much actually knowing what they mean adds to the reading.  I googled up a couple:


noun: Lascar; plural noun: Lascars; noun: lascar; plural noun: lascars
  1. a sailor from India or Southeast Asia.
Origin early 17th century: from Portuguese lascari, from Urdu and Persian laškarī ‘soldier,’ from laškar ‘army.’"


noun Indian
noun: tamasha; plural noun: tamashas
  1. a grand show, performance, or celebration, especially one involving dance.
    • a fuss or confusion.

      "what a tamasha!"
Origin via Persian and Urdu from Arabic tamāšā ‘walk around together.’"
But when I started jotting down a list, I was on the page with the quote at the top and quickly my list was:

I'll never finish the book if I have to look up all these words.  But, I thought, maybe someone has already done this.  

It turns out Neel [one of the characters in the book] did.  While it's not in the book, it's on Ghosh's website.  It's not a glossary, he calls it a  chrestomathy.

"The Chrestomathy then, is not so much a key to language as an astrological chart, crafted by a man who was obsessed with the destiny of words. Not all words were of equal interest of course and the Chrestomathy, let it be noted, deals only with a favoured few: it is devoted to a select number among the many migrants who have sailed from eastern waters towards the chilly shores of the English language. It is, in other words, a chart of the fortunes of a shipload of girmitiyas: this perhaps is why Neel named it after the Ibis.
But let there be no mistake: the Chrestomathy deals solely with words that have a claim to naturalization within the English language. Indeed the epiphany out of which it was born was Neel’s discovery, in the late 1880s, that a complete and authoritative lexicon of the English language was under preparation: this was of course, the Oxford English Dictionary (or the Oracle, as it is invariably referred to in the Chrestomathy). Neel saw at once that the Oracle would provide him with an authoritative almanac against which to judge the accuracy of his predictions. Although he was already then an elderly man, his excitement was such that he immediately began to gather his papers together in preparation for the Oracle’s publication."

I learned about the Chrestomathy at The Asia Collection which adds this insight into the language:
"It wasn’t until I had almost finished the book that I came across a glossary – and not just a regular glossary but a chrestomathy (technically, “a collection of literary selections, especially in a foreign language, as an aid to learning a language”), no less! The Chrestomathy, appearing at Ghosh’s website, was originally compiled by Neel, a character in both the first and second books of the Ibis triology, but also an ancestor of Ghosh, who passed down to him his love of words. Neel, according to Ghosh, “was of the view that words, no less than people, are endowed with lives and destinies of their own,” and his Chrestomathy “is not so much a key to language as an anthropological chart, crafted by a man who was obsessed by the destiny of words.” Like a number of Neel’s earlier descendants, Ghosh was given the task of not actually recreating the Chrestomathy but of “provid[ing] a summary of a continuing exchange of words between generations.”
It was in the Chrestomathy, then, that I found all those words and phrases that had challenged me while I was making my way through the book. Neel’s research and documentation in the late 19th century and Ghosh’s “summary” must have entailed painstaking work, indeed. And if you think all the above is a goolmaul, a gollmaul, atamasha – a puzzle, also, an uproar or a big fuss – try and work it out as I did with Ghosh’s masterpiece, or better still, read the book! And by all means use the Chrestomathy to ease your way through it."

Here's another example of mixing languages. 
"Patrão, the munshi's here - Freddy sent him.
Achha, munshiji, he said.  Why don't you sit on that kursi over there so we can look each other in the eye.
As you wish Sethji
In stepping up to the chair,  Neel had a vague intuition  . . . ."
Patrão comes from the Portuguese because Vico is from Macau and this is how he addresses his boss
Kursi, like some words, becomes clear in the next sentence, as Neel steps up to the kursi.

But what about munshiji?

From the Chrestomathy
+ munshi/moonshee: see dufter
+ daftar/dufter: This was another word which had already, in Neel’s lifetime, yielded to an ungainly rival, ‘office’. This too carried down with it, a lashkar of fine English words that were used for its staff: the clerks known as crannies, the mootsuddies who laboured over the accounts, the shroffs who were responsible for money-changing, the khazana-dars who watched over their treasuries, the hurkarus and peons who delivered messages, and of course, the innumerable moonshies, dubashes and druggermen who laboured over the translation of every document. It was the passing of the last three, all concerned with the work of translation, that most troubled Neel: those were the words he would cite when Englishmen boasted to him of the absorptive power of their language: “Beware, my friends: your tongues were flexible when you were still supplicants at the world’s khazanas:  now that you have the whole world in a stranglehold, your tongues are hardening, growing stiffer. Do you ever count the words you lose every year? Beware! Victory is but the harbinger of  decay and decline.”
Shroff was actually a word we learned the year we lived in Hong Kong.  To get your parking ticket validated at the mall, you had to go to the schroff.

I'd note the warning here to the British about their language.  Ghosh is a Bengali Indian.  English was imposed upon his country and in these books he's stretching his tongue (and maybe sticking it out a bit at the British) and saying, you left this here so don't tell us how to use it.  We're going to spice up  this language you left behind with all sorts of exotic linguistic ingredients.  

Just as the English have discovered how bland their food was when they started eating Indian found, they will discover how bland their language was too before the Indians stopped worrying about writing it 'properly'. 

But it's not just words from the subcontinent that flavor this book.  Other former British colonies also contribute phrases.

The Cantonese we learned in Hong Kong helped in other parts of the book.   Here's where Neel begins writing the Chrestomathy.  He meets the Chinese printer who is the author of a book Neel has seen often in the hands of Chinese trying to speak pidgin to the foreigners:
"The title of this short booklet was translated for Neel as "The-Red-Haired-People's-Buying-and-Selling-Common-Ghost-Language'.  It was more commonly known however as 'Ghost-People-Talk' - Gwai-lou-waah - and it sold very well . . ."
He does explain the words, but  Gwai-lou is what white foreigners are still called, and waah is the word for language. Both still alive and well in my brain.  Does it add to one's appreciation of the book to also independently recognize the words?  Made me feel good anyway.

That night Neel wonders why a similar book hasn't been written for the foreigners.  He decides fate has brought him together with Compton, the printer, and the next day he proposes they do it together.  Compton says he had thought of it too but couldn't find a foreigner to partner with him.
"'They think-la, pidgen is just broken English, like words of a baby.  They do not understand.  Is not so simple bo.'
'So will you let me do it?'
Yat-dihng!  Yat dihng! [Somewhere from my dusty brain I heard "Certainly! Certainly!"]
'What does that mean?' Neel inquired a little nervously.
'Yes. Certainly.'
Do-jeh Compton. [And thank you was one of the first words we learned, though Cantonese has a thank you that is only for physical gifts and another one for helpful actions.]
M'ouh hak hei  [This is obviously, 'don't mention it'.  I get the M'ouh  which means 'not' or 'nothing' but I don't remember the hak hei.]

Neel could already see the cover:  it would feature a richly caparisoned mandarin.  As for the title, that too had already come to him.  He would call it:  The Celestial Chrestomathy, Comprising a Complete Guide to and Glossary of the Language of Commerce in Southern China."

One other link to an interesting discussion of the language in River of Smoke from a bi-lingual culture blog. 

A final note on doing something I've never done before 

Words and books are semi-sacred to me.  Highlighting books always seemed like a desecration and I still don't mark books with anything more than a pencil.  So it was with a giant effort today that I ripped out the first 115 pages of the book.  I told myself what I used to tell students:  You should do something you've never done before, every day.  I try to do that, but this one was a particularly big one and I put it off as long as I could.  But I've invited a friend to be a guest at our book club when we discuss River of Smoke.   I've tried to get him a copy but neither Title Wave nor Barnes and Noble had copies.  The public and university libraries didn't have available copies.  Amazon wanted $46 to ship it in two days.  So I decided to give him a chunk of the book I'd already read.  If I gallop through the rest, maybe I can finish it before he needs more pages.  

I know for many this is no big deal.  I've even heard of travelers who would rip out the pages after they read them so their book was lighter.  That's not me.  


  1. I'm a word junkie too, but this many would put me over the edge. Check these words out: and put a team together for next year's BizBee!

  2. This is one of my favorite views of you. I just grin. See you Saturday


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.