Opium of the Empire

River of Smoke
By Amitav Ghosh
Hamish Hamilton
Rs 699, 533 pages

Writing history is one thing but to recreate the past with all its smells, sights, sounds and chaos is a different ballgame altogether. Amitav Ghosh can do both with equal ease. He can also draw a parallel between two different phases of history which may look completely detached from each other. He can also create the bigger picture even as he goes into details of life during a period buried in sands of time – how people lived; what they ate, drank and smoked; how they travelled; how they made love; and how they made enemies and killed each other. In “River of Smoke”, Ghosh’s second book in the Ibis trilogy, the writer takes the reader on a stormy ride through the haze of opium smoke that was spread across countries and continents in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This smoke, fuelled by the British East India Company’s greed, engulfed entire communities in India and destroyed a nation – China.

In the bestselling “Sea of Poppies”, the first book in the series which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2008, Ghosh took us along the Ganges and to Calcutta, where the poppies were grown and the opium processed. In the second book, the story moves to Canton in China, where the opium was sold to the Chinese or rather forced down their gullets in the name of “free trade” . It was in and around this port town that the Chinese fought and lost two wars against the illegal import of the drug that was dulling their senses and playing havoc with their social fabric, even as it added enormous amount of gold and silver to the Company treasury.

The British rule in India, says Ghosh, was basically financed and sustained by their opium trade to China. “The situation was similar to today. There was a huge balance of payments problem in relation to China. China was exporting enormous amounts, but wasn’t interested in importing any European goods. That was when the British came up with idea that the only way of balancing trade was to export opium to China,” says Ghosh, who divides his time between Kolkata, Goa and Brooklyn. But, call it shame or lack of awareness about the past, a majority of Indians are still ignorant about this phase of Indian history , despite the fact that barely 100 years ago there was not a section of Indian society – from poor peasants in the Gangetic belt to landlords to mercantile communities in the north, which was not affected by the Company’s policy of growing opium in India and selling it in China. “Opium accounted for at least one-fifth of the Company’ revenues in India. If you add ancillary industries like ship-building and the armed forces to it, then it accounted for almost 50% of the Company’s revenue in India. It was an enormous amount of money . “The fact that one single commodity accounted for such a huge part of the colonial economy is extraordinary,” says the professor of comparative literature who has produced some of the finest historical fiction in recent times.

At the heart of this story is the opium trade which was the fundamental undergirding of Indian economy for centuries. But, for some strange reason, this part of the Indian past is still missing from history books. And because of this lack of knowledge, says Ghosh, we have not completely understood the full impact of British rule in India – how it devastated local industry and agriculture pattern. “Before the British came, India was one of the world’s biggest economies. All the empirical facts show you that British rule was a disaster for India. Before the British came, 25% of the world trade originated in India. By the time they left, it was less than 1%,” says Ghosh.

It’s the historian and anthropologist in him that makes him dig out the hidden past and decipher its meaning. Then the writer in him gives shape to characters and situations which create a compelling story. All this while, he doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Does he like retelling the history in his own way? “As far as the opium trade is concerned, there is no question of retelling as this story hasn’t been told yet. We have yet to discover and document this phase of our history,” says the author.

“River of Smoke”, a fine and deeply entertaining work of fiction , records this history as accurately as possible.

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