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Lascars -- IT workers of the 19th century?

July 24, 2008
And then there are the lascars, that mongrel cargo of Indian Ocean sailors whose argot is as infectious as it is confounding. Writing in The Economic and Political Weekly (June 21, 2008), Ghosh avers that the term 'lascar' may be rooted in an Anglo-Indian adaptation of the Persian/Urdu lashkar or lashkari, meaning 'soldier' or 'army'. The lascars spoke Laskari -- a chutney of languages derived from English, Malay, Hindustani, Chinese and Malayalam -- and invented their own babble for English nautical terms they were too careless, or too illiterate, to get right. 'Thus,' Ghosh writes, 'a hawser becomes a 'hansil' in Laskari; a jack-block becomes a 'jugboolak'; a martingale becomes a 'matanghai', and the cable known as the messenger becomes a 'masindar'.'

In Poppies, the lovable lascars are depicted as having the viciousness and manpower needed to mutiny, yet they conduct themselves with uncharacteristic tact and restraint. In fact, you wonder what holds back Serang Ali, the Muslim lascar leader with 'a face that would have earned the envy of Genghis Khan', when his British first mate calls him a son of a pig. The answer dawns on you soon enough: Fierce as they appeared, the lascars were professionals who did not let trifles get in the way of their purpose. As Ghosh explains, they were very much the 19th century equivalent of today's IT workers.

You compared the lascars to today's IT workers and also remarked about the decline of the Indian shipbuilding industry. Markets, commerce, labour... is Sea of Poppies in some way a novel about globalisation?

Well, it's about a very early version of globalisation. But everyone carries on like globalisation was something new.

The lascars were in every way pioneers. They were the first group of Asians to work with cutting-edge Western technology -- shipping technology in the 19th century was really the equivalent of aerospace today. They were the first to live in close quarters with Europeans. They were the first to achieve a colloquial competence in the Western languages, and the first to set up colonies in the West. They faced exactly the same issues of discrimination, of not being compensated adequately for their work...

Everything except H1-B?

Actually, because the lascars would go the pubs and often sleep with women, there was this terrible anxiety about them reproducing! So, the East India Company ringed off certain parts of London along the docks and kept the lascars there.

Image: Amitav Ghosh with his daughter Leela at The Oberoi, Mumbai. Ghosh, who is married to writer and Pulitzer Prize finalist Deborah Baker, also has a son Nayan. He spends part of the year at his bungalow in Aldona, Goa.

Also read: 'I am a novelist, not a historian'

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