Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey through Opium’s Hidden HistoriesAmitav Ghosh
397 pages|₹ 699
Amitav Ghosh (Photo: Getty Images)
AMITAV GHOSH’S IBIS Trilogy laid out in cinematic detail the trade of opium between India and China in the early 19th century. The three novels Sea of Poppies
(2008), River of Smoke (2011) and Flood of Fire (2015) proved Ghosh’s ability to be both a lapidarist with words and an archaeologist of fact. He is now out with Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey through Opium’s Hidden Histories (Fourth Estate; 397 pages; ₹699), which traces opium’s transformative effect on the planet. Excerpts from an interview:
At the end of the Ibis Trilogy, you mentioned that you were going to put the research into a nonfiction book. While writing Smoke and Ashes, did you imagine a character from the trilogy sitting on your shoulder and looking at your work, as you did live with the trilogy for so long?
That’s a very interesting question. Yes, I lived with the trilogy for 12 years. And I did intend to write this book immediately after I finished, because all the research material was then fresh in my head. As I say in this book, I gave up on that and I started working on other stuff. I think the character who was always sitting on my shoulder during the writing was Neel Rattan Halder, the deposed zamindar of Raskhali.
Neel was also the lover of words. Why him and what was he telling you?
Yes! He was a chronicler of everything that was happening all around him. He was for me one of the most interesting characters in the book, in the entire trilogy, and he’s also one of the few who just laughs all the way through it, from beginning to end. So, he was accompanying me on this journey all the way.
You nearly abandoned this project. What were some of the challenges of writing this story about a plant, which was ‘both instrument and protagonist’?
This story is, in a sense, a very sad story. In the first place, it shows you that so much of what we’ve been taught about the past is just myth. Behind all these origin stories of capitalism, where we are told that there are these heroic entrepreneurs, behind it all lies this very, very ugly story of addiction and drug peddling. It’s inherently a difficult story to cope with psychologically, and especially when you’re writing a book, you’re living with that material for a long time. In fiction, it’s something different because you have various characters, you have various storylines, but here you’re just dealing with this material up front, and it’s not easy to continue with it.
At one point the book takes a personal turn and you realise that Chhapra, where your ancestors settled, was essentially an opium town. How did this make you re-evaluate your own family history?
It is all speculation. In linking my family, my family history, to Chhapra’s history, it’s really just speculative. But opium really was the major factor in Saran district. Because it was the most important crop. In as much as my family had to make a living there, there must have been some connection is what I’m hypothesising, but it can be quite fairly said that certainly north of the Vindhyas there’s hardly any family that has not in one way or the other been touched by the opium industry in the 19th century.
Yesterday I was presenting the book to a room of 450 Calcutta people, many of whom were from various business communities. And I could say absolutely with no fear of contradiction, that any of them who represented the old money, would almost certainly have had a connection with the opium trade. And they themselves know this perfectly well.
You just mentioned Calcutta and it takes me to a line in the book; ‘Mumbai got the economy, while Calcutta got the economists.’ Did you feel that this time too?
(laughs) It’s just true. Calcutta produces many, many economists, many of the world’s leading economists are from Calcutta or from Bengal. Both the Indian economists who got the highest honours in economics are from Calcutta. And I remember from my own college years; in other parts of the world where people look up to engineers or physicists, in Calcutta, people looked up to economists! (more laughter) Economics as a discipline has this very special place in Calcutta.
In the book every time you write progress, it is ‘Progress’, which hints at your scepticism at the term. What would your understanding of progress with a lower-case p be?
This idea of progress is one of the most terrible myths. One of the most insidious myths generated by modernity. This idea of progress didn’t always exist. It became the main justification of colonialism; ‘Yes, it’s terrible that those Indians have to suffer out there. But they won’t have progress unless they get it.’ And it’s the same rhetoric that’s used today to justify the most appalling things that are going on. For example, in India, and Indonesia, and certainly parts of Africa, now when forests are opened up to mining companies, this is exactly the rhetoric that accompanies it. Without chopping down the forest, we won’t have progress. Well, if you chop down the forest, you won’t have anything in the end. Because everything is going to go up in smoke. So, what’s the progress really? It’s a dangerous delusion. And it’s driving us, as human beings, to the brink of disaster.
“We are always told the 19th century is this age of the industrial revolution. And so it was, but the capital for all of that came from this addictive product. That’s produced by dirt poor Indian peasants”
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What would a positive definition of progress be?
Maybe we should never use that word. A word that we can use is betterment. Obviously, there are certain abuses that you have to do away with and you can talk about changing that for the better, for example, dowries, we can change that for the better by doing away with it. But we shouldn’t imagine that that promises us some promised land at the end of the rainbow. There are many better and more fruitful ways to talk about change than this idea of progress, because behind this idea of progress is a kind of teleology. An idea that you’re going somewhere, somewhere very good, somewhere better than anything that existed in the past. And I don’t think that’s the case.
Smoke and Ashes tells the story of opium and colonialism. For those who might not read the book, can you summarise that connection?
This is something that is so much hidden from our eyes. But it was the Dutch, first of all, who built a colonial narco state. They used opium to cement their hold upon the East Indies on what is now Indonesia. And the British copied this model and they made India into the largest producer of opium through much of the 19th century. They used the money that they got from opium to finance their own industries elsewhere. This is the weird thing. We are always told the 19th century is this age of the Industrial Revolution. And so it was, but the capital for all of that came from this addictive product. That’s produced by dirt poor Indian peasants and consumed by dirt poor Asian peasants and working-class people. Just to give you a sense of the enormity of it and how it really laid the foundations of a certain kind of modernity. If you think that Singapore essentially came into being to facilitate this opium trade, and it was completely financed by the opium trade. The reason that Singapore could exist as a free port was because its opium revenues paid for it. The same is true of Hong Kong. Hong Kong became the biggest opium distribution centre in the world, and remained so for very long. Bombay was kept afloat by opium. The same is true of Shanghai, in the 19th century. If you think of these four ports, which are essential cogs of the modern globalised economy, and if you think of the history that ties them together and created their place in the modern world. Between them, these four ports probably handle the majority of world trade today. This whole other aspect of the modern world, it’s not that it’s not known—as you can see from my book, hundreds of books and articles have been written about this—but it’s always made to vanish, as it were, to be replaced by some sort of very exciting and completely fantastic notion of globalism and how wonderful it is.
What do you think are some of the dangers of this wilful amnesia?
The greatest danger—which we now see in relation to climate change—is that it creates a false idea of what is possible through markets. The whole idea that free markets can provide a solution to climate change is based upon this idea that free markets are inherently more efficient, inherently providers of various kinds of benefits. But in fact, you know, that has never been the case. And the markets had to be constrained, for example, the opium markets, which were based upon this idea of free trade, had to be constrained in the end by popular action. And that’s the case again today. If we see this whole myth of the free market and all the benefits that it confers upon people, what they actually see is that the free market is propelling the world towards absolute catastrophe. It hasn’t provided any solutions in relation to climate. And probably never will. What this story tells us is that we have to create some kind of very wide-ranging popular movement, to apply certain constraints on the way that fossil fuel companies work, the way that energy corporations work.
“The opium poppy now is under nobody’s control. It’s defeated every human attempt to control it. It’s outwitted human beings at every point. And so today there is much more opium in the world than ever before”
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The Great Derangement, The Nutmeg’s Curse dealt with climate change. And in this book, you have this line, “The poppy, having been a major force in the making of modernity, will also be instrumental in its unmaking, a role that it will share with fossil fuels.” As a writer who has explored both, what are some of the connections between both these forces?
Let’s look at it this way. When the Dutch and the British started using opium to shore up colonialism, they thought of these addictive substances, as tools or instruments that they could easily control and therefore establish monopolies and, so on and so forth. But at a certain point, it becomes clear that in fact, far from being tools, they are actually using human beings in a certain way, and that is what we can see in relation to the opium poppy. The opium poppy now is under nobody’s control. It’s defeated every human attempt to control. It’s outwitted human beings at every point. And so today there is much more opium in the world than ever before. Not only that, opium is undermining state structures across the planet. Large parts of northern Mexico are now in areas controlled by drug cartels. Some of the armaments that are meant for Ukraine, are being sold on the black market and they’ve been ending up in northern Mexico in the hands of these drug cartels. Mexico has more or less declared itself powerless to do anything to control the drug cartels. We see a similar scenario unfolding in northeastern India. What actually happens is that opium makes such large amounts of cash available, that it corrupts everything. That’s what happened in 19th century China, and now we see this happening in more and more places on the planet.
So, in the same way, human beings think that they control fossil fuels, but in fact, in many ways, fossil fuels have proved themselves to be incredibly powerful in the way that they have insinuated themselves into human life. They’ve created not only all kinds of attachments, they’ve created power structures across the world. That is what is making it so very difficult for us to try to confront the power of these energy corporations. They’ve proved themselves to be in control of so much of what is happening in the world. These are interconnected phenomena where we as humans get used to telling ourselves the story of how powerful we are, how god-like we are. We discover suddenly, no, we’re not that powerful at all. There are these other entities that are in fact much more powerful than us.
You make note of Rudyard Kipling’s description of the Ghazipur Opium Factory and how much he hid with his skilful use of language. Can you briefly talk about how language was used to perpetuate colonialism?
The English language has been an incredibly powerful tool in the hands of colonisers to depict, to put a certain gloss on, what they were doing. So, for example, the British when they conquered northern Burma in 1885 and overthrew the Konbaung dynasty, for decades afterwards they faced intense resistance from the Burmese people, and they had to wage these constant campaigns. And they called those campaigns, ‘campaigns of pacification,’ ‘of making peace’.
This pattern is again repeated. The Americans attack Iraq, they create these conditions of absolute societal breakdown and then they wage what they call a ‘pacification campaign’ again. In so many ways, the English language is used to create, as it were, to build in internal justifications of what was actually happening.
For example, calling the War of 1857 a ‘Mutiny’, which is a language that we all accepted for a long time. But in this case, who is mutinying? There are soldiers who rise up. But there’s also the Rani of Jhansi, Tantia Tope. So many other people who joined forces with them, not to forget all the ordinary people who rose up. You could say that during the French Revolution as well, so many soldiers were ‘mutinying’, if you like, and that’s true equally of the Russian Revolution.
So why do we use that language? We use that language because the language is chosen for us by the coloniser. I’m not saying here that this necessarily needs to be the case. I don’t think any language needs to project a certain ideology, but we have to be absolutely self-conscious about how we are using that language. And I think that’s what writing about Burma did for me. It’s what writing about all these subjects has done for me. It’s reminded me that one needs to be extremely wary and self-conscious about how we use the language.
You often refer to paintings in the book. Shiva Lal is fascinating, you note how you can see the initial stirrings of revolution in his paintings, as this was around 1857. What did you find most interesting about him?
It’s a very interesting thing. All those painters essentially come from a gharana, we might call it, painters that originated in Rajasthan. They were Kayasths from Rajasthan, in the 16th and 17th centuries. They attached themselves to various Mughal courts. When the Mughal Empire began to disintegrate, they scattered across northern India. And mainly moved eastwards where they attached themselves to various British patrons. So, they had this curious relationship with the colonisers, as the colonisers provided them with the market. They often helped to train them in various kinds of western techniques. And these painters themselves were extremely adept at adopting various kinds of Western techniques.
In the case of Shiva Lal, it’s particularly interesting because he obviously had a close relationship with various British patrons in Patna and it is said he was particularly close to an opium agent in Patna, who was one of the first colonisers to be killed in the Great War of 1857. It’s forgotten that the people who rose up against the British in 1857, among their first targets were in fact the opium factories and the opium installations in Bihar.
It is said that when the British opium agent in Patna was killed Shiva Lal was so moved. And in fact, that guy was the one who commissioned him to make those paintings. It’s very interesting to consider Shiva Lal’s peculiar position because there he is making these paintings of the opium factory. And at the same time, there he is, when this incredible reign of terror is unleashed by the British in the wake of the War of 1857. And people were quaking about what might happen to them. When Shiva Lal is making these paintings, that’s the atmosphere that surrounds him. He’s in this peculiar position, on the one hand he has these connections with the coloniser. On the other hand, he’s a colonial subject himself. And out of that attention, he creates these works where in fact he never represents any White person. Never represents a coloniser. Some of his early sketches had colonisers in them, but then he just decided to cut them out. And I think the reason was that at that point he was just fearful that some high-level coloniser would object to what he was doing. And so, despite those allegiances, he creates these representations, which are in a way, quite subversive, Shiva Lal’s representations of these workers shows them as they are. But most of all, he shows Indians are working as chemists and so on. And that is very subversive because the British liked to think that Indians were technologically inept and incapable of doing any science. Shiva Lal shows the patterns of surveillance in the factory. He includes people being searched and washed. And that was the reality of the factory that the people who worked there were under constant surveillance. It’s a really grim story and Shiva Lal represents it in its bleakness.