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 fromplaces 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.' The Ibis's next port of call was to be the island of Mauritius, where they were to exchange a cargo of grain for a load of ebony and hardwood. 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 pennywhistle 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.' But now, rather than dine alone, he insisted on having Zachary share the table in the cuddy, where they were waited on by a sizeable contingent of lascar ship's-boys - a scuttling company of launders and chuckeroos.
Excerpted from Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
Copyright © 2008 by Amitav Ghosh
Published in September 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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