'A very large part of this would have come from opium.'
Amitav Ghosh is back with his new book, Smoke and Ashes, which was launched in Mumbai at the Royal Opera House on July 18, 2023.
The book explores the opium trade's effect on world history and how it continues to hugely impact our lives today.
Part travelogue and part memoir, this book is Ghosh's fourth book on opium after the Ibis trilogy -- Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011) and Flood of Fire (2015).
"I was amazed to learn that the so-called Benarasi sari, which is still worn at so many ceremonial occasions in India, including weddings, is actually inspired by Chinese textiles," Amitav Ghosh tells Syed Firdaus Ashraf/Rediff.com in an e-mail interview.
Why is your book called Smoke and Ashes? Smoke refers to opium being smoked, perhaps, and Ashes the ashes of civilisation?
Yes, that is exactly why the book has this title -- because the world today is imperiled by many intersecting crises, one of which is the opioid crisis.
How many years did you research the material for this book?
I have been researching the book since 2005, so 18 years.
What is the most unusual fact that you stumbled upon while researching this book?
I was amazed to learn that the so-called Benarasi sari, which is still worn at so many ceremonial occasions in India, including weddings, is actually inspired by Chinese textiles.
How would the indigo trade during British rule compare with the opium trade?
The indigo trade is better known because a great deal has been written about it, but the opium trade was much larger in scale. Through several decades in the nineteenth century opium was the most valuable commodity of all.
Monetarily, what is the quantum of wealth Britain earned from the opium trade and what was the extent of impoverishment for India?
The exact amount that Britain earned from opium has not been computed. But the economist Utsa Patnaik has estimated that Britain siphoned off somewhere around the equivalent of $44 trillion from the Indian subcontinent over a roughly 200 year period. A very large part of this would have come from opium.
Centuries later, where and how is the impact of the opium trade felt in India, if at all?
Today there is more opium in circulation around the world than ever before. This is creating a very serious opioid crises in many countries, including India and the US.
Was selling opium to China an intentional act of British and Indian merchants to subdue the Chinese empire? Could not the British defeat China militarily like they took on Burma which you have described very beautifully in your book The Glass Palace?
The problem for the British was that through the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century, their government was heavily dependent on the taxes it earned from tea. All their calculations were geared to keeping the trade going -- they could not afford to be cut off from the Chinese tea market.
This was why they had to be very careful about antagonising the Chinese.
From your first book The Circle of Reason to Smoke and Ashes, how would you describe your journey as a writer?
It has been a long and complicated journey, but there are several threads that have consistently run through all my work. Among these are migration, globalisation and the cultural connections that have been nurtured by the Indian Ocean. All of these themes figure in The Circle of Reason and in Smoke and Ashes.
When you write, how many hours a day do you devote to writing? How do you decide that your book is done? How do you know when to stop?
I write for several hours each day. It is very hard to know when a book is done, especially where it concerns non-fiction books. In fact, non-fiction books are often revised after publication.
Which among all your books, is your personal favourite and why?
Have you begun thinking about your next book?
Yes, I am looking forward to writing another novel.