Now Reading
Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Smoke and Ashes’ is An Excursion Into the Making of the Wealth of Nations

Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Smoke and Ashes’ is An Excursion Into the Making of the Wealth of Nations

  • The novel reveals of a plant wreaked havoc and became a pawn at the hands of greedy colonizers who use the poppy to create a treacherous triangle across India, China and Britain.

At the South Asian Literature and Arts festival in Menlo Park, California, late last year, Amitav Ghosh gave a stirring interview about his just-published non-fiction book “Smoke and Ashes.” It’s a subject he has great expertise in — opium as a colonial tool of war and dominance. Ghosh is one of the most admired Indian writers today and his deeply thoughtful, poignant stories set in East and South East Asia have delighted readers for decades.

It took a while for the book to reach our shores and even longer for me to finish. I’m glad I read it — I learned so much about the history of India and China through the lens of the opium trade. 

This review is two-part. One summarizing some of the startling facts about the humble poppy and its rise to the top of the drug chain. The other reflections on an unbridled focus on progress and the cautionary lessons from history.

Poppy is used to make opium, it takes a lot of processing to get there. Opium is also an ingredient in many other household medicinal drugs such as Imodium, also morphine, and heroin. And yes Valium, OxyContin. Fentanyl is a synthetic formulation coated on heroin to make it more potent and deadly. 

The opium trade story is fascinating: The British loved their tea from China, and used silver coins mined by African slaves to pay the Chinese. When the slave trade dwindled in the 19th century, the British needed another currency to pay for their tea. Enter opium. 

Illicit trade with the Chinese created a nation of addicts and a scourge over a century. The opium was grown in East India by indentured farmers and sold in China. It was the biggest source of revenue next to salt and cotton. Interesting aside about Bombay’s rise as a main port city for the transport of opium to East Asia. Adam Smith unlocked the wealth of nations, little could he have anticipated that “free” trade is built on the backs of people who are enslaved. 

The Chinese empire rebelled, they were squashed in two Opium Wars. In the first in 1852, China paid a lot of money and gave up Hong Kong. Sigh. Racism and rampant misinformation propagated by Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens among many others created a strange justification for something that’s pretty heinous. There was a popular theory that addiction is the nature of the people of the East who are weak willed, laziness and corruption is a proclivity again of East and South Asians. The colonizers are merely amplifying innate traits. The audacity of these beliefs shocks us now but also if food for thought about what beliefs we hold now that are similarly biased or stereotypical and ultimately marginalizing. 

American families including the Forbes, Astors, Delanos, Brown, Low and many others made their fortune in the opium trade. They used this money to build railroads and many other American industries and institutions. 

Does the end justify the means? Is a just end “progress” as measured by an increase in wealth and prosperity for a few nations at the cost of others? The Sacklers at Purdue Pharma profited from Opioids in much the same way the British Raj did. They wiped out 400,000 Americans in Appalachia and other parts of middle America. 

See Also

Why did we not learn from the rhymes that history repeats in the fullness of time?

Many reflections and much to unpack in this book. It’s not the easiest or most pleasurable read. Ghosh takes literary detours that are arduous; he focuses on minor characters and metaphors that are a stretch. They are a small price to pay for the education though. 

The truth is hard to miss. A plant wreaks havoc and becomes a pawn at the hands of greedy colonizers who use the poppy to create a treacherous triangle across India, China and Britain. 

Priya Sethuraman lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has an exciting career in technology and immerses herself in the core and emerging technology trends. She is also passionate about the arts and appreciates all forms of literary expression including books, films, music and painting. She hopes her foray into the world of words via a critique of the works of giants can inspire her to take a pen to create an original work someday. 

What's Your Reaction?
In Love
Not Sure
View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

© 2020 American Kahani LLC. All rights reserved.

The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
Scroll To Top