Smoke and Ashes review: On opium trail, Amitav Ghosh unearths a tale of human avarice

Smoke and Ashes review: On opium trail, Amitav Ghosh unearths a tale of human avarice

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As China bares its fangs, flexes military muscles, and positions itself as a superpower intending to alter the status quo with obsessive fixation, and as the western world finds itself pitted against its own opium scourge, Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey Through Opium’s Hidden Histories (HarperCollins India) — a remarkable book by Amitav Ghosh — would remind the readers about an unmissable sense of poetic justice. The book could as well have been named Smoke and Mirrors, given the way the western powers, especially England, went all out to disingenuously justify the forcible smuggling/export of opium into China, leading to a century and a half of decay, devastation and disintegration.

It is a remarkable account of a plant — opium — with agentive property of its own which, mixed with gargantuan human avarice and hubris, set off a chain reaction of events which would impact lands near and far-off and the after-effects of which continue to be felt even today. In terms of implications and ramifications of a single plant (opium), as dealt in Smoke & Ashes, it is a palimpsest of a book.

Opium was grown first in the areas under permanent settlement in Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh and somewhat later in the Malwa region of Western India. As against white opium poppies of Eastern India, the Malwa region grew multi-hued opium poppies. However, differences between the two regions were more fundamental, went much deeper and their manner of unfolding ensured why Eastern India would be condemned to backwardness while Western India would evolve very differently as a result of opium cultivation and trade.

Eastern India vs Western India

One, while Eastern India came under the imperial sway much earlier and the permanent settlement proved detrimental to farmers, the Maratha forces in Western India gave the British a harrowing time before succumbing; and even then, a number of princes and landed magnates would dot the landscape of central and western India with autonomous resilience. Ghosh points out that this difference had implications for the way opium was cultivated, traded in and exported from two regions. The company controlled opium with an iron-hand in Eastern India, but it — for various reasons — failed to enforce its writ in Western India. So, farmers would grow opium in Eastern India under coercive duress, often suffering losses, in Western India profits of opium trade trickled down to all those involved: princes, moneylenders, traders, opium-growers.

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Again, the position of farmers under the permanent settlement was precarious but that of those under the Ryotwari system was relatively secure. Further, while Bombay’s opium trade was conducted with the frenzied energy typical of an Indian bazar, in Calcutta, it resembled an art auction with the lion’s share cornered by the colonial regime and a lesser but still substantial part garnered by wealthy merchants.

These differences make Ghosh conclude that Eastern India, particularly Bihar and Eastern UP, suffered and suffered terminally — all the more so with the representation of Purbiyas in armed forces going down severely after 1857. Sepoys, who revolted in 1857, were basically ‘peasants in uniform’ and distress caused by forced cultivation of opium, inter alia, embittered them against the company. So, backwardness of Eastern India in relation to Western India goes back in time. His sense of epiphany is manifest when he says, “Mumbai got economy, Calcutta got economists.”

Opium as an instrument of the state policy

But Mumbai and Calcutta were merely starting points for China where naked imperial aggression would find vicious play. Smuggling/export of opium to China and the consequent triangular trade system took care of the drain of silver bullions from England to China in lieu of the Chinese tea. Later on, opium trade would yield fabulous riches for the company. Just as rogue states these days employ terror as an instrument of state policy, England used opium as an instrument of state policy. This model of colonial narco-state was perfected by the British in India.

The British, given that some putative civilising mission constituted the alleged raison d’etre of their imperial drive, couched their predatory and naked aggression in ideological terms. Drug pushing in China was justified by referring to hallowed notions of free trade, ‘invisible hand’ of the market and the fact of demand from imbecile, degenerate and effeminate Chinese who allegedly could not do without opium. Blaming the victims for their woes. Imperial effrontery at its best or worst. They argued with a straight face that imperial powers were merely meeting a demand that was said to have existed in China independently of Western colonialism. But their ideological skulduggery could not hide the brutal fact that this purportedly free trade depended crucially on enslavement, coerced labour, smuggling and black markets.

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By the late 19th century, with two demoralizing and devastating opium wars in the background, China found itself at the receiving end of colonial modernity — oxymorons don’t get any sharper. England was the most dominant but others joined the party as well. The USA, France, Germany and later on, Japan would join the party to enfeeble and reduce China into desperate helplessness. All the same, guilty conscience needed to be appeased. In a brilliant chapter titled ‘Boston Brahmans’, Ghosh traces the trail of fabulous riches from notorious opium trade — a part of which would go into founding and supporting museums, libraries, endowments and so on. For example, Abbot Law returned to the US as a man of fortunes after six years in China. To appease his guilty conscience, a part of his fortunes went into Low Library, Columbia University.

An ominous parallel

The Chinese response ranged from abject capitulation to millenarian movements like the Taiping rebellion, secret societies to moments of resolve in self-strengthening movement. Introspection and backlash accompanied by a wish to avenge the wrongs done to the Middle kingdom informed the Chinese psychodynamics. Ghosh quotes a Chinese statesman Ku Hung-ming’s warning words to Somerset Maugham, “…What will become of your superiority when the yellow man can make as good guns as the white and fire them as straight? You have appealed to the machine gun and by the machine gun shall you be judged.”

But all said, Smoke and Ashes is a cautionary tale. The way Sackler-family owned Purdue Pharma used Oxycontin — apparently a painkiller — to spread opium addiction in large parts of the USA in the 21st century by buying off political influence, by subverting public institutions and by riding roughshod over human complacency — it bears eerie similarity to what happened some two centuries ago. He draws an ominous parallel with fossil fuel industries and how they lie through their teeth when it comes to impending climate change. Towards the end of the book, he offers a small ray of hope: transnational, multi-ethnic, multilateral coalition of civil society groups was eventually able to drastically curtail the opium trade despite the determined and skilful resistance of the British Empire, which was, at the time, even more powerful than today’s giant energy corporations.

(Sanjay Kumar is a Patna-based writer)

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