'Malum Zikri think lascar-bugger no can do sail ship?' said Serang Ali indignantly. 'Lascar-bugger savvi too muchi sail ship, you look-see.'
Zachary protested that they were three hundred miles off course for Port Louis and was answered with an impatient retort: 'What for Malum Zikri make big dam bobbery'n so muchee bukbuk and big-big hookuming? Malum Zikri still learn-pijjin. No sabbi ship-pijjin. No can see Serang Ali too muchi smart-bugger inside? Takee ship Por'Lwee-side three days, look-see.'
Three days later, exactly as promised, the twisted hills of Mauritius appeared on the jamna bow, with Port Louis nestled in the bay below.
'I'll be dickswiggered!' said Zachary, in grudging admiration. 'Don't that just beat the Dutch? You sure that the right place?'
'What I tell you no? Serang Ali Number One sabbi ship-pijjin.'
Zachary was to learn later that Serang Ali had been steering his own course all along, using a method of navigation that combined dead reckoning - or 'tup ka shoomar' as he called it - with frequent readings of the stars.
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.
'Malum Zikri catch plenty trouble'n he go Por'Lwee like that.'
'Why? Don see nothin wrong.'
'Malum look-see.' Serang Ali stepped back and ran a critical eye over Zachary. 'What dam cloth hab got on?'
Zachary was dressed in his workaday clothes, canvas trowsers and the usual sailor's banyan - a loose-fitting tunic made, in this instance, of coarse and faded Osnaburg cloth. 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?'
'Malum Zikri go so-fashion to Por'Lwee, no come back,' said Serang Ali. 'Too muchi press gang in Por'Lwee. Plenty blackbirder wanchi catch one piece slave. Malum go be shanghaied, made slave; allo time floggin, beatin. No good.'
This gave Zachary pause for thought: he went back to his cabin and looked more closely at the possessions he had accumulated as a result of the death and desertion of the two ships' mates. 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 'dressboy' 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?'
'Champi,' said the barber, making a rubbing motion with his hands. 'Champoo-ing too good . . .'
'Shampoo?' Zachary had never heard of this substance: loath as he was to allow it on his person, he gave in, and to his own surprise, he was not sorry afterwards, for his head had never felt so light nor his hair smelled so good.
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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No Man's Land
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