Ghosh’s work has much to recommend it, not least his extensive literary use of the letter in the voice of Robin, an Anglo-Indian sojourning in Canton. He also makes very interesting and widespread use of vernacular words and phrases originating in Hindi, Persian and Arabic, which were then, if not now, also understood and employed in the English language in the 17th to 19th centuries, during the heyday of the British Empire. In addition, the novel contains a great deal of Pidgin English that was spoken in Canton, then a major trading post in that period. In fact, the text includes entire dialogues in the vernacular and in Pidgin English. And there is no glossary in my edition of the book. Frustrating? Yes, in the beginning it was, but gradually I began to understand, at least partially, what was said and meant.
For instance, among the daftardars (office staff) who work in Bahram’s daftar are his munshi (his secretary/translator), his gumusta (accountant and general confidant), and his shroffs (money counters and changers), as well as his numerous khidmutars (servants). (Note, there are variations in spelling for most of these terms.)
All the foreigners in Canton (no women allowed!) live in Fanqui-town, the place of unfamiliar spirits (the “unfamiliar spirits” being the foreigners, of course). And with the Chinese linkisters (translators/liaison men), members of the Co-Hong (their trading partners), and locals, the foreigners speak Pidgin English. Hence, the frequency of terms such as chop-chop (hurry, quickly) and chow-chow (miscellaneous). (Now you can work out the title of this post.) A typical shopkeeper’s patter might go like this: “What thing wanchi buy?... “Can do, can do! Look-see here. Have got what-thing…”
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, a tamasha – 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.