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Smoke and Ashes – Review

Image from Telegraph

Book Review

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.

The 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 Catherine’s dowry.

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.

India 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.

Opium 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 details.

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.


  1. Would love to read this. Thanks for the interesting review.

    1. Most welcome. You'll find this book quite different from other history books.

  2. Thank you for the detailed and interesting review. I just gained some more knowledge about Indian history. We have generally been taught about kings and battles and the freedom struggle. Hope to read it someday.

    1. Read it, Marietta. It's not light reading but stimulating.

  3. Hari OM
    Bleak, but perhaps necessary reading. YAM xx

  4. I have read about the Bengal famine, but I hadn't known that the British was cruely imposing that destiny upon them.

    1. The British were ruthless. But the time period matters. Today Great Britain is a dying country whose senility is sponged up by Malayali nurses.

    2. Yeah, time is changing and with that the destiny too. I heard UK is no more a bubbly destination for Malayali nurses.

  5. The book sounds interesting, thanks so much for the review.

  6. ...Colonialism was never a good thing, but for the colonizer.

  7. Truly, the book is an eye opener. It is about using commodities for exploitation, torture and creating inhuman circumstances. And then putting on a mask of innocence. Power is a mental health issue! I loved reading the book and am probably going to read it again after a gap. And have now added Mantel to my list too.

    1. Mantel is excellent, especially the Cromwell trilogy.


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