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Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Smoke and Ashes’ is a Deep Dive Into Economic and Cultural History of Opium and Its Impact on World History

Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Smoke and Ashes’ is a Deep Dive Into Economic and Cultural History of Opium and Its Impact on World History

  • The novel, released on July 15, is being described as “the climax” of the New York-based author’s decade-long research on the drug trade.

When Amitav Ghosh began the research for “The Ibis Trilogy” ten years ago, “he was startled to find how the lives of the 19th-century sailors and soldiers he wrote of were dictated not only by “the currents of the Indian Ocean,” but also by opium, according to his website. Along with that he was surprised to discover that “his own identity and family history was swept up in the story.”

The New York-based author’s new book “Smoke and Ashes,” which was released on July 15, is being called “the climax” of that decades-long research. His website describes it as “a travelogue, a memoir and an essay in history, drawing on decades of archival research” about “the transformative effect the opium trade had on Britain, India, and China, as well as the world at large.  The trade was engineered by the British Empire, “which exported Indian opium to sell to China and redress their great trade imbalance, and its revenues were essential to the Empire’s financial survival,” it adds. During his research, Ghosh also found the drug at “the origins of some of the world’s biggest corporations, of America’s most powerful families and prestigious institutions and of contemporary globalism itself.”

Harper Collins, which published the book, says it “moves deftly between horticultural histories, the mythologies of capitalism and the social and cultural repercussions of colonialism.”

Ghosh’s The Ibis Trilogy — “Sea of Poppies” (2008); River of Smoke (2011) and Flood of Fire (2012) is a work of historical fiction set across the Indian Ocean region during the 1830s in the lead-up to the First Opium War. It particularly focuses on the trade of opium between India and China.

So far, the reviews of “Smoke and Ashes” have been mixed. “The novel feels stitched together clumsily in a few places,” writes Tessa Hadley in The Guardian. However, she notes that “on the whole,” the novel’s strength lies in how thoroughly Ghosh fills out his research with his novelistic fantasy, seduced by each new situation that presents itself and each new character, so that at their best the scenes read with a sensual freshness as if they were happening now.” While “the story of the opium trade is an ugly one, the spirit of the novel is enthusiastic tragicomedy, not moralizing post-hoc gloom,” Hadley continues.” And for all the writer’s sympathy with the Chinese authorities, there’s no lament in here for the loss of past purity,” she adds. “The writing can’t help coming down on the side of the rich intercourse of ports and traders, the hybridity born of cultural contact, the bastardizations of language in pidgin and port slang, and sexual encounters across the barriers of race and convention.”

The Financial Times calls it “a genre-bending cautionary tale about bullish globalization,” where the author “connects the dots between opium, China and the world today.”

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In the Money Control, reviewer Sanjukta Sharma says while “the book is similar to the trilogy that the book’s hefty and expansive contents fueled,” it is “unlike anything an Indian author has written in the last several decades.” Noting that “a new genre is born,” she says Ghosh’s “rigorous world-building, in the dilated architecture of the epic in which opium trade in the 17th and 18th centuries thwart or unite characters both colonizing and colonized, the socio-historical novel attains a singular fire.” Like in his past novels, Sharma says Ghosh has used his knowledge and world view in “Smoke and Ashes” to provide lessons for today’s tech-united world, based on mistakes that governments and societies have made in the past.” 

Ghosh is the author of “The Circle of Reason,” “The Shadow Lines,” “In An Antique Land,” “Dancing in Cambodia,” “The Calcutta Chromosome,” “The Glass Palace,” “The Hungry Tide,” and “The Ibis Trilogy.: His book, “The Great Derangement; Climate Change and the Unthinkable,” a work of non-fiction, appeared in 2016. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages and he has served on the juries of the Locarno and Venice film festivals. He holds two Lifetime Achievement awards and four honorary doctorates. In 2007 he was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest honors, by the President of India. In 2010 he was a joint winner, along with Margaret Atwood of a Dan David prize, and in 2011 he was awarded the Grand Prix of the Blue Metropolis festival in Montreal. In 2018 the Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary honor, was conferred on him. He was the first English-language writer to receive the award. In 2019 Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the most important global thinkers of the preceding decade.

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