Book Review | White is might in opium memoir that unmasks Britain, America

The Asian Age.  | Soumya Bhattacharya

In Smoke and Ashes, his new book of nonfiction, Ghosh returns to opium.

Cover photo of 'Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey through Opium’s Hidden Histories' by Amitav Ghosh. (Photo by arrangement)

Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy — Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011) and Flood of Fire (2015) — is a sweeping historical saga, immense in its breadth and depth. It fictionalises the events leading up to the first opium war of 1839-42 between Britain and China. All three novels are rich with a sense of place and are peopled by unforgettable characters. All of them reveal how opium casts its long shadow over our history and shapes international relations. Among the finest historical novels written by an Indian in English, the trilogy is a towering achievement in a distinguished literary career.

In Smoke and Ashes, his new book of nonfiction, Ghosh returns to opium. But, as he tells us towards the end of the book, this was a different book to write compared to the historical novels. “There is also an inherent conceptual difficulty in telling a story of this kind: the problem lies in the inescapable presence of a non-human protagonist, a plant… it is very difficult to narrate a story in which a botanical entity is both instrument and protagonist.”

Ghosh pulls it off, though. This is a bravura effort. Smoke and Ashes is, among many things, a damning indictment of Britain and America, the two countries that benefited the most from the opium trade. Britain comes across as particularly disingenuous, exploitative and ruthless. Ghosh explains how, after 1830, opium became the “keystone of the colonial economy”. He quotes from an article in US National Defense University: “English merchants, led by the British East India Company, from 1772 to 1850, established extensive opium supply chains … creating the world’s first drug cartel.”

Certainly the numbers are staggering. Through the 19th century, opium accounted for 16-20 percent of the British Raj’s revenues, the third highest revenue generator after salt and land. But this did not factor in the earnings from industries allied to opium, such as shipping and transportation. “If these other industries are taken into account, the net earnings from opium probably far exceeded those derived from the land and salt taxes.”

The enduring stamp of opium wealth in America is no less egregious. Ghosh uses the examples of individual traders and their families to demonstrate the “wider ripple effect of opium money on America”. These traders journeyed to Guangzhou, the hub of the opium trade, in China. By trafficking in opium, they multiplied their fortunes many times over within years. They then returned to America to live lives of vast, scarcely credible opulence. Many iconic American families and institutions owe their wealth to opium and drug dealing in Guangzhou. But this aspect of their lives has largely been airbrushed from history.

It was not merely Britain and America. Ghosh shows, through the examples of Singapore and Hong Kong, how the economy of the region was dependent on the spoils of opium. “Opium was… crucial to the making of Southeast Asia’s modern economy, providing not only sustenance for what is arguably the region’s most important city, Singapore, but also the seed capital for entrepreneurs and industrialists.”

Ghosh draws a chilling parallel between the supply and consumption of opium across the world with that of the opioid crisis — unleashed by prescription drugs such as Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin — engulfing America. He spots in both instances the same insidiousness, the same creation of dependence among users and the same greed and plundering of wealth by those orchestrating the supply. Right through the book, Ghosh is always alert to the nuances of race and the disregard that white people have for the well being or even dignity of those who are not white.

Smoke and Ashes is a genre bending book. Part social history, part geopolitics, part memoir (there are delightful insights into the writing of the Ibis trilogy), part travelogue, part cultural studies, its sweep is as enormous – and as immersive – as the trilogy of novels that came before.

In the closing pages of the book, we find out that there is more opium being produced in the world today than at any time in the past. It is a chastening realisation. As Ghosh puts it earlier on in the book: “To be sure, tea, sugarcane, tobacco, rubber, cotton, Yersinia pestis, and many other plants and pathogens have played major roles in human history, some of them over several centuries. But today they are all much diminished in their influence, while the opium poppy is mightier than ever.”

Smoke and Ashes is a harrowing book. Of a piece with our fraught, often frightening times, it has come not a moment too soon.

Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey through Opium’s Hidden Histories

By Amitav Ghosh

HarperCollins India

pp. 408, Rs 699

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