Amitav Ghosh has chased opium for decades. From the stash of opium papers in the British archives to the poppy fields from Bihar to Guangzhou, he followed the flower―the most potent force that, like Helen of Troy, launched a thousand ships, and more―for a considerable part of his life.
It is a few days after his 67th birthday and Ghosh, in a way, is back to the start with Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey through Opium’s Hidden Histories. It has been almost a lifetime on the trail of the drug. He embarked on the Ibis trilogy (Sea of Poppies, 2008) when his children were teenagers. Flood of Fire (2015) was out when they were adults. “I was completely unaware of before [opium story],” he says. “I studied history in college, I have been reading history forever. But even then it came as a complete surprise to me, this whole chapter of the Indian past.”
Ghosh is on a whirlwind tour across the country promoting his new book, which is a chronicle of the addiction―pushed by colonial powers. And it could be tied up intimately with his own history. “As I began to delve into it more and more, I suddenly discovered that it could have played an important role in my family,” he says. “Maybe some of my ancestors were employed by the opium department, which was by far the biggest game in Chapra and in Saran district. But I would say, what was true for me was to some greater or lesser extent true for virtually every family in the Gangetic belt in Malwa. This trade had such a massive role in the 19th century India. In fact, it affected most of us in one way or the other.”
The book is testimony to Ghosh’s eye for detail. If he conjured up a world that had been lost in memory in the Ibis Trilogy, his latest makes the history that built his books difficult to forget. “It was the Dutch who led the way in enmeshing opium with colonialism, and in creating the first imperial narco-state, heavily dependent on drug revenues,” writes Ghosh. “But it was in India that the model of the colonial narco-state was perfected by the British.”
It is all poppy crop. The foundations of Bombay, Singapore and Hong Kong. Grown in the fields of the Gangetic plains, the drug that addicted China and filled the coffers of British India. “From the 1830s onwards, Bombay was literally kept afloat by opium,” says Ghosh. “Singapore could be a free port solely because it was essentially financed by opium. Hong Kong was built in order to be an opium smuggling hub after the war. This is the hidden history of globalisation. If you think of cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bombay, these four cities together handle probably 30 to 40 per cent of the global trade. They all came about because of the opium.”
Like with everything that Ghosh writes, it is thoughtful and meticulously researched. There is the sheer vast landscape of history, which provides a dark history of globalisation powered through drugs that existed in the colonial world and became the template for the narco-states that is witnessed in Afghanistan today. “Japanese resisted,” he says. “Every Asian company in the country tried to resist. The Burmese tried. But essentially, they were forced to adopt this model by the British and the French. Once Patrick French and I were talking about these things. He said to me, ‘No matter how bad you think colonialism was, when you actually look at the material, it’s even worse’.”
The book traces the extent of this narco-state and how its links were hidden in plain sight. While it is a book based in India―and on how it became the centre of trade―it is also about China. And the devastation that opium brought. Even India’s role in it, from fighting the Opium Wars to fuelling the habit.
Farmers in the Gangetic plains were forced to grow it even in the famine. It expanded the empire; the Company invaded Sindh to capture Karachi. After the 1830s, opium was the main export, averaging 20 to 30 per cent of the annual total.
There are very few writers who have perused opium so obsessively, or written about it with so much clarity. The book comes at a time when slavery―and the countries linked to it―are being questioned. Ghosh confronts the reader with the Indian link. Opium not only fuelled the rise of cities, but also contributed to the rise in wealth across continents. From the Dutch rulers to the wealthiest families in America, they all trace their fortunes to the drug habit.
Closer home, the trade benefitted great Parsi merchant clans like the Wadias, the Dadiseths and the Readymoneys. Even Dwarkanath Tagore, Rabindranath’s grandfather, traded in opium. “Indian merchants also did that. In fact, many of them won’t let historians enter their archives. This whole subject is considered taboo. They will not let it be spoken of,” says Ghosh.
The research of the drug―and its sheer power―has kept Ghosh clean. He kept away from it, even after a hip replacement. “I was then two or three years into my research,” he says. So, he chose paracetamol to the miraculous power of opioid painkillers. “I am going to America’s opioid crisis because they promoted this whole idea that there is too much pain in society. And in order to fight the pain, you have to have oxycodone. And they would prescribe oxycodone even after minor surgeries or minor procedures. And that’s how people got hooked,” he says.
Ultimately, Ghosh’s book is about morality. And an idea of correctness tinged with idealism. What makes his retelling of history poignant is that it is deeply felt. “One of the reasons why it is possible to talk about what western countries did to Africa is because Africa is so clearly a victim,” he says. “It is very difficult to conceive of the Chinese as a victim because they are so strong, so powerful. But it is certainly true that they were at the receiving end of this history. They managed to overcome this problem. They are the only society that have really dealt with mass addiction in this way.”
An epic sweep of the history of the flower that made and unmade empires, Ghosh’s book offers a tangible proof that the past is never really gone.