Amitav Ghosh’s latest work, a nonfiction book titled Smoke and Ashes, was published in India this July. Being in New Delhi at the time, I was fortunate to buy the volume and attend his launch-lecture.

Ghosh’s book investigates the interplay between plants and humans. It explores the profound impact this has had on India’s and China’s colonial histories, and on the USA’s present-day opioid crisis. Ghosh’s meditation shows the pivotal role of the humble poppy in shaping economic fortunes, geopolitical rivalries and cultural exchange.

But first Ghosh discusses the remarkable journey and impact of another plant, tea, in India’s colonial context.

Cups of tea are not really Indian at all, in the sense that their most important elements are, and were, produced elsewhere. The cup itself is made of “china”, a product from the country’s northern neighbour. Initially the best porcelain came from China — hence the name.

Tea also began as a luxury item. It was first imported to Britain from China, and later from India and Ceylon too. Tea wasn’t popular in South Asia until the early 1940s, when “ingenious advertising campaigns” persuaded much of the Subcontinent to switch beverages from milk or coffee to tea.

Sugar (or “cheeni”, another word deriving from China) was stirred into tea. The sugarcane plant became widely available after the 17th century with the development of British sugar plantations in the Caribbean. South Asians’ favourite drink thus consists of a herb grown in China, then India, by Asian workers, sweetened by a product that was made widely available as the result of African slave labour on British plantations in the Americas. It is a central part of daily life and culture that would have been impossible without empire.

Yet the tea trade came under East India Company (EIC) auspices, posing a conundrum for the EIC: how to pay for this Chinese export. Silver was the currency of choice. Echoes of Rebecca F. Kuang’s 2022 novel Babel resonate, as European powers exploited slave labour to mine silver and thus to balance their trade with China. However, silver reserves dwindled in the 18th century, sparking a global financial puzzle reminiscent of modern balance-of-payments dilemmas.

The 18th century was the period when the EIC was expanding into Bihar. There, the EIC ventured into the realm of opium, at first for indigenous use. The novelist paints a vivid picture of Ghazipur, where opium production began to thrive. Local monkeys and fish became “contented and tranquil”, then “dazed”, because of effluents from the factory, which is still processing opium for medical use today.

According to Ghosh, a decisive moment came in an EIC meeting in Calcutta when Colonel Watson proposed a daring solution to the deficit — to exchange opium for Chinese tea. This strategy, which began to be implemented in the 1770s, copied the Dutch model of leveraging Bengal opium in other markets.

The trade exploded, with the region between Patna and Banaras emerging as the epicentre of opium production. This is also the location for much of Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, most notably his first novel of the series, Sea of Poppies, which opens in Ghazipur. In Smoke and Ashes, Ghosh reflects on the research which underpinned his earlier artistic choices.

Like an opportunistic pathogen (another living non-human), opium hit hardest those populations who had no historical exposure to it. Whereas India had a long history with the drug and was relatively “immune”, the Chinese population was “naïve” and therefore succumbed to addiction.

The geopolitical undercurrents are equally absorbing. In the 18th century, the EIC had declared a monopoly on the lucrative trade, but this was lost in 1834. Consequently, the Opium Wars broke out in 1839-42 and 1856-60. These were conflicts between Britain (and France) and China triggered by trade imbalances and opium. China experienced significant territorial, treaty and economic losses from losing the Opium Wars.

Chinese opium addiction caused a shift from admiration to disdain in the European portrayal of China. To add insult to the injury of addiction, the British obscured their own culpability “by claiming that it had existed from time immemorial because non-white people were by nature prone to addiction and depravity.”

This mirrors attempts by present-day Big Pharma to blame American addicts for the opioid crisis. Ghosh avers that the recent strategy failed because the victims were based in the West and mostly white, so their suffering was less easy to ignore.

As the book navigates narratives of plants, power and people, it encourages readers to confront the unseen centrality of nature. Ghosh urges humility in our approach, stressing the interconnectedness of humans and the world they inhabit. He writes: “the colonisers have themselves been colonised — by a non-human entity whose intelligence, patience and longevity far exceeds that of humans.”

From the late 19th century, a transnational anti-opium movement emerged, with Indians like Rabindranth Tagore and Dadabhai Naoroji at its heart. These dissenters argued that, through its opium production, India was responsible for China’s ruination via addiction. Ghosh compares the historical naysayers with global citizens protesting against those “trafficking in fossil fuels” today.

As Ghosh had suggested in an earlier non-fiction book about climate change, The Great Derangement, and much of his recent fiction, it is only as humans are heading for environmental ruin that they realise non-human actors shape their lives. If bats or pangolins were indeed the vector in Covid’s jump from animals to humans, the pandemic is but another recent example.

Through a bifocal lens of historical and environmental consciousness, Smoke and Ashes unravels plants’ influence on geopolitics, economics and society. Ghosh’s work attests to the unexpected stories that emerge when we watch the intimate dance of plants and humans.

The columnist is Professor of Global Literature at the University of York and author of three books.

She tweets @clarachambara

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 27th, 2023

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