Book Review: ‘Smoke and Ashes’ by Amitav Ghosh

An eye-opener!

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Book Title: Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey through Opium’s Hidden Histories
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Publisher: Fourth Estate India
Number of Pages: 408
ISBN: 978-9356992757
Date Published: Jul. 15, 2023
Price: INR 497

Smoke and Ashes by Amitav Ghosh

Book Review

In recent years, Ghosh’s works have focused on climate-intensified disasters and demographic shifts, emphasizing the climate crisis. “Smoke and Ashes” continues Ghosh’s efforts to raise awareness and encourage action. For those familiar with his previous works, this book establishes connections and offers a deep, thought-provoking narrative about the world’s self-destructive tendencies.

Smoke and Ashes,” by Amitav Ghosh and published by Fourth Estate India, guides readers through various realms and historical eras impacted by the movements and upheavals caused by opium. The narrative begins with the nineteenth century when the Western world faced a scarcity of bullion with funding trade with China due to meager exports to the country. At that time, China was largely self-sufficient and uninterested in foreign goods. However, opium emerged as a form of currency, disrupting the balance.

Ghosh then delves into the narrative of how British colonies in India transformed into opium-rich territories, bolstering the empire’s coffers through opium exports to China, essentially reversing the flow of wealth. The Americans also embraced this trade, using opium profits to establish their new economy, influencing railroads, banks, and construction sectors. The narrative details the systematic destruction of China as opium addiction escalated, driven by profit motives, disregarding ethics and morality. Over time, anti-opium movements and global opinions diminished the opium trade in the twentieth century, though it is now resurfacing as a social and political force.

Furthermore, Ghosh draws parallels between the aggressive opium trade, its dominance, lack of accountability, and the contemporary actions of fossil fuel organizations. He calls for a coalition of civil society groups and religious entities, akin to the anti-opium movement, to hold fossil fuel entities accountable for climate action.

For readers of Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, “Smoke and Ashes” provides an insightful backstage look into the research behind the trilogy. However, prior knowledge of the trilogy is unnecessary to understand this book’s content.

The book exposes the British exploitation of fertile regions like the Gangetic plains for opium cultivation, even during famines, and the coercive pricing practices imposed on farmers. The British further intensified their wrongdoing by pushing opium into China to finance tea purchases, which funded British colonial expansion. This was achieved by selling opium in China and using the proceeds for the tea trade, resolving the dilemma of limited Spanish silver supply for payment.

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The rise of genetically engineered “super poppy” varieties and their connection to Big Pharma’s opioid push could be linked to contemporary unrest in Burma and Manipur startled me. While opium has a historical medicinal use, the British propelled it into a trade commodity. In pre-colonial India, opium was cultivated in the Gangetic Plain and Malwa regions. The British established an influential Opium Department in the East, controlling all aspects of opium production and distribution.

The British Opium Wars in 1729 banned opium in China, leading to a surge in exports and increased poppy cultivation in eastern India. The Americans also joined the trade, acquiring opium from Turkey and western India. The book highlights the global repercussions of the opium trade, particularly in the USA.

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