|Image from Telegraph
Title: Smoke and Ashes
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2023
History can be viewed from diverse perspectives.
Academic historians usually look at it from political perspectives. As a
result, we get very blinkered views of the past. Rulers do not constitute
history. In fact, too many of them have been blatant exploiters of the common
people to whom history should rightfully belong. The rulers, more often than
not, snatch history ruthlessly from its real inheritors.
Literary novelists give us better
history than academic historians. Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy comes to
mind immediately. Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy is another commendable example.
History comes alive in the hands of
such writers as Mantel and Ghosh. What if they actually write history instead
of novels? And that is exactly what Ghosh has done in Smoke and Ashes.
Smoke and Ashes views history from a
totally unexpected angle: opium. “Only by recognizing the power and
intelligence of the opium poppy can we even begin to make peace with it,” says
Ghosh towards the end of the book, having shown how opium played an incredibly
significant role in human history from early 18th century to mid-19th.
Poppy is more of a villain than a hero in this “bleak and unedifying story,”
though it appears more like a hero – just like many of our political rulers.
story of poppy begins with the history of tea. Catherine of Braganza introduced
tea to England when she married King Charles II in 1662. At that time the Ming
dynasty was being overthrown by the Qing dynasty in China from where
Catherine’s country, Portugal, got tea. A casket of Chinese tea was part of
Eventually tea became a popular drink
in England. By the time Britain established its empire in India, tea was an
important article of trade between England and China. All the tea England consumed
came from China and China was charging for it in silver. A time came when the
supply of silver dwindled and China was not ready to accept anything else. The
British were ingenious. They introduced China to opium and soon enough the
country was addicted.
The figures tell an astounding story.
If 200 chests of opium could sate the Chinese craving for intoxication in 1729,
30,000 chests were required in 1830. That is an increase of 14,900% in a
century. Within a decade after that, in 1840, the number of chests rose to
40,000. Britain had
created a whole nation of opium addicts.
The British got not only tea in
return; its economy thrived. Britain’s annual income from the sale of opium to
China was 200,000 pounds in the 1790s and ten million pounds in the 1880s.
was an integral part of this sordid history of national intoxication. The poppies were
cultivated and processed mostly in the Gangetic plains. Indian peasants were
forced to cultivate the dreadful plant. And they were not paid decently either.
Thousands of acres of land meant for food crops were converted into poppy
fields at gun point. The large-scale conversion of paddy fields into poppy
cultivation contributed to the notorious Bengal famine of 1770.
The Indian peasants were not given
their due by the British colonialists. It was sheer extortion and exploitation
that they faced. They were forced to cultivate poppy at abysmally low wages.
Their doors were broken open and houses raided to ensure that they had not
stolen any opium. Many were arrested without reason.
is the protagonist of the history that Ghosh’s book presents. The British made immense
wealth with it and they made the Chinese addicts. Indians did all the labour.
The whole thing is a “bleak and unedifying story,” says Ghosh in his book of
395 pages of which 70-odd pages are notes.
Towards the end of the book, Ghosh
says that he had abandoned the project of writing this book at one point and
cancelled the contracts he had signed because it was all to bleak and
unedifying. But the story had to be told. It contains an important lesson, a
lesson different from what the Ibis trilogy teaches. A historic lesson that
goes beyond the fact that “opium has a magical bond with humanity’s darkest
propensities.” This book shows some of those propensities. It also connects the
past darkness with some present ones.
What the pharmaceutical firm called
Purdue Pharma did in America using an opioid named OxyContin is not very unlike
what the British did to the Chinese with opium. Purdue created quite many
addicts in America. You can read the details in the book.
Ghosh also draws a comparison between
the diabolic abuse of opium in China and the clever shifting of the blame for
environmental degradation to the poorer nations. Again, read the book for the
There is a lot more that the book
offers. This is not an ordinary history book. This is a vibrant story whose
protagonist is a plant which apparently “concluded that Homo Sapiens was too
dangerous an animal to be allowed to survive” and hence surrendered itself as a
sacrificial gift that “would be used by the most ruthless and powerful of the
species to build economic systems that would slowly, inexorably bring about the
end of their civilizations.”
The deadly march of opium did not end
with what happened in China in the 18th and 19th
centuries. What Purdue Pharma did in America of the 21st century
with OxyContin is a repetition of history with the help of America’s rulers. In
Ghosh’s own words, “In the years between 2006 and 2015 alone, Purdue Pharma and
other drug companies spent roughly 700 million dollars on buying political
influence, eight times the amount spent by the gun lobby.” America’s rulers
were supporting the drugging of their own citizens!
Read Smoke and Ashes to
discover a lot more shocking details about the sordid and complex history of
opium which is also the history of Homo Sapiens as seen by an erudite novelist.
This book can enlighten you and shock you.
PS. This review is powered by Blogchatter Book Review Program.