Amitav Ghosh was at his eloquent best reading from River of Smoke, his latest novel. The six pages he read are a gripping account of a storm that almost upset a ship carrying the largest consignment of opium ever from India to China, for Seth Bahramji, a Parsi trader.
Diya Kar and Amitav Ghosh launching 'River of Smoke' in Kochi
Taj Vivanta Malabar and Penguin Books hosted the packed event. The author expressed his delight at being in Kerala again, the place where he took his first writerly steps in 1983 with the book The Circle of Reason.
Amitav Ghosh reads from 'River of Smoke'
After the reading there were many questions from the audience, to which Amitav Ghosh responded with expansive details on the history of opium trading. He said the wealth accumulated in the 19th century in Europe and USA could be traced largely to the opium trade. It was carried on by the British Crown as the main purveyor of opium to the world. China was victimised by opium addiction, bitterly against the will of Chinese authorities, by gunboat diplomacy – which led to the Opium Wars.
Priya, Kamli and KumKum
A major character in the book is the city of Canton itself, now called Guangzhou. It was a most fascinating city and Amitav Ghosh has elaborated its exciting cosmopolitan life with meticulous care for its history.
Thommo, Geetha and Minu
Readers have some wonderful writing in store, and a yarn told with great verve and engrossing detail. The signing of books went on for a good hour after the reading – a testament to the avidity of Kochi readers and the natural courtesy of Amitav Ghosh who chatted on as though time could stretch forever into the future. But alas, the evening came to an end. Wonderful snacks too and a great revelation of pastries by the chef, Sudipto Chaudhuri.
KumKum tries to appropriate Amitav Ghosh, based on their shared Rangoon background
For a full account, click below.
Amitav Ghosh (AG) said: “ No matter how perfectly it is written, you cannot read a book if it does not have life in it.”
It was for him “a great, great, pleasure” to be in Kerala for this book release because it was in 1983, when he was working at the Centre for Developing Societies in Trivandrum that he wrote his first novel, The Circle of Reason. Kerala has left a profound impact on that book.
What is known now as the Ibis trilogy was never intended by him to be such. It is not a linear narrative leading from one book to the next. This book being launched today in Kochi, River of Smoke, can stand on its own, although the main character, Bahram Modi is referred to in the first book. Many Parsees made their fortune trading in China. Some trade was in cotton, and mostly via the port of Canton, now Guangzhou. The previous book ends with a storm as a ship sails from Bombay to Canton.
Bahram was trying to start a business of his own, and as the present book starts the ship Anahita with Bahram on board has set sail with a large consignment – the largest ever sent from India – of opium meant for China. It was laden with 3,000 cases of opium, whose monetary equivalent was about 10 tonnes of silver.
With this introduction, AG launched into reading pages 26-33 from the hardcover edition released by Penguin Books (Rs. 699). AG read in a powerful voice and as the words flowed, the minds of the listeners were set to wondering about the scene on board ship; the calamitous storm nearly wrecked it. Bahram goes below the hatches to see to the safety of the precious cargo he had amassed for the shipment. As AG read, evocative phrases of the description struck the readers just like the storm being described. Here are some arresting snatches:
– consignment of opium running amuck
– two-thirds Malwa … small round cakes … like certain kinds of jaggery, one third ‘Bengal’ opium which had more durable packaging … about the size of a cannonball .. chests were made of mango wood
– gobs of the raw gum hurtling about like shrapnel
– the sickly sweet smell of opium mixing with bilge water
– his head was filled with the giddying smell of opium
– his large prominent eyes seemed almost maniacally bright against the matt darkness of his dripping face
– never had he felt so utterly indifferent to the fate of his merchandise
The interviewer, Diya Kar Hazra (spelling?) of Penguin, New Delhi, asked a few perfunctory questions, seated with the author on stage. One did not know whether to gaze at her striking Tangail saree or the elegantly composed flower arrangement of Asiatic lilies, white roses, gerbera, and foliage.
Flower arrangement of Asiatic lilies, white roses, gerbera, and foliage
Diya: How did the idea of the Ibis trilogy take hold
AG: It began as a book of departures. From an early age we were travelers, Bengalis from E. Bengal settled in Bihar. How migration came to India in the 19th century has always interested me. We were not historically a mobile people. The Chinese even less so. They were forbidden by the Emperor to travel abroad. But then in 1830 when you look at the records, lakhs of people left India. And they did not come from the coastal areas where the sea and ships were a part of the consciousness. It was not Malayalis, Tamilians, or Bengalis who migrated first, but people from Bihar, hundreds of miles from the coast. In fact, Biharis speaking Bhojpuri from Benares. What made them leave? Was there an upheaval of nature?
It turns out that was the exact same period when the British launched into a thirty-fold increase in the cultivation of poppy, in this very part of Bihar. Their livelihoods as farmers was radically disturbed.
KumKum, Diya Kar and Amitav Ghosh
Diya: Why is there so little awareness of the Opium Wars?
AG. It was a world historical event that changed the face of Asia. Few of us know how it happened, even fewer in the West know about it. The calamity is hidden. The Chinese had been watching and learned how colonial exploitation had overtaken large swathes of Asia and Africa; it always arrived in the form of trade, and the trade was a beachhead for land-acquisition, first peacefully obtained by grants, and then by force. And that ultimately led to rule by foreigners.
The Chinese bitterly resisted the opium thrust on them. And 90% of the opium came from India.
Why don’t we talk about it? The notion has got around that India is very spiritual, a land of vegetarians, and all that, but 19th century India was quite different under the British.
Diya: Are there any favourites among your books to you as author?
AG: There is a continuity between this and the last. It was exciting to write. Translating Judaeo-Arabic letters written in the Hebrew script – Arabic as it was written in the old days. I visited Malabar, Tellicherry, to be precise. (AG didn’t answer the original question – perhaps AG does not have a favourite among his books).
(The remaining questions were from the audience)
Diya Kar applauds after the reading by Amitav Ghosh
Q: It is alleged the Tata and Birla companies were founded on opium. A brilliant write called MP Narayanan Pillai refers to the opium trade as being controlled by a mafia of cultivators and traders, keen to protect their interests, Even Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal’s father, was legal counsel for the opium companies. Does your research substantiate this?
AG: That is an incendiary question! Patna and Benares and central India were all the scene of the opium trade. If you draw a line between Goa and Calcutta, every large business north of the line was implicated in the opium trade. Dwarkanath Tagore, Rabindranath’s grandfather, made his money in opium. The grandson repeatedly brought up this issue and his memorable indictment rings true: “Indian opium is a dagger in the heart of China.”
There was speculation. The big lawyer Motilal Sheel argued cases in Calcutta High Court, concerning opium. Opium was a major item of commerce. There is a book about Bombay, titled The Opium City. Bombay was built on that commerce.
The grandfather of the American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), was in Canton making his fortune from the opium trade; his name was Andrew Delano. President Coolidge too had antecedents in the opium trade. All major British commercial companies were involved in the trade. In Calcutta there is an important business area called Fairlie Place, near Dalhousie Square (now BBD Bag). Who was Fairlie? An opium trader.
You can say the modern world of capitalism was built on opium. Four port cities all benefited very much from that trade: Bombay, Singapore, Canton, Hongkong.
Q: (KumKum) But in India we were mainly told about the indigo trade (neel) and we were taught that was the major item of trade.
AG: The indigo trade pales in comparison to the opium trade. The East India Company (EIC) had a complete monopoly in opium. The growing and the production never passed through Indian hands. When you see all those palaces in central India and Rajasthan, remember the rulers all promoted opium cultivation.
Q: Was opium not used in India?
AG: Opium is hard for anyone to avoid even today. It is part of almost all cough syrups, and used in many other medicinal formulations. You can draw an imaginary north-south line through Burma; East of that line, opium was refined and smoked; West of that line, opium in more or less raw form was ingested as small pills. Smoking of the refined opium is much more debilitating and addictive. There is a famous pleading letter from a Chinese official, Lin Zixu, Commissioner of Canton, to Queen Victoria, who is known as the Opium Queen for the quantities of the drug that were sent to her by the royal apothecary. The letter in effect requests the Queen to prohibit under severe penalty all trading ships that carried the danegrous drug to China.
Lin Zixu argues:
“I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries – how much less to China! Of all that China exports to foreign countries, there is not a single thing which is not beneficial to people: they are of benefit when eaten, or of benefit when used, or of benefit when resold: all are beneficial. Is there a single article from China which has done any harm to foreign countries?”
But the plea fell on deaf ears. [my comment: perhaps the Queen was too far gone in opium to have read the letter!]
You must remember that Britain had a difficult balance of payments problem at the time. Tea, silks, and porcelain were valued imports from China to Britain (indeed to Europe). And taxes on tea constituted an important part of the revenue of the British Crown, 10 percent. How to pay for the imports? There was incredibly large budget deficit. Tonnes of silver and gold had to be exported from Britain to China. The Chinese did not want to buy anything from Britain, because they were confident they could make any product from Europe even better themselves.
It was at this time Warren Hastings in India strategised with his advisers how to fix Britain’s deficit: it would be by trading in cotton, and vastly expanding the opium trade. It was a deliberate, desperate and nefarious strategy. He sent ships up the Pearl River with opium to penetrate the Chinese market.
For further reference on how the Queen pushed dope, read:
Q: What about khaini?
AG: No, khaini is raw tobacco, not opium.
Q: What about your focus on the river running to the sea?
AG: You can make a protagonist of a place, e.g., Mangalore has figured in one of my novels. The city of Canton itself is a character. Guangzhou, as it is now known, is fascinating. It was the only place from which the Europeans were allowed to trade with China, and China with the world at large. That constraint was probably the reason China did not come under colonial occupation. It was a deliberate policy of the much wiser Chinese to prevent the exploitation and colonisation that would have inevitably followed trade.
In this humming city of Canton a whole world of commerce took place. There grew an incredible community. Indians were among them, as the service class and as traders. There was an efflorescence of the arts and sciences. Many well known flora came through Canton: the white lily, camellias, chrysanthemum, peonies. In 1763 Chinese paintings were shown in London at an exhibition, and they were received there to much acclaim. The artists were invited to Buckingham Palace. Canton was, in a word, one of the most interesting places in the world. I interviewed many people in Bombay, descendants of the Indian traders in Canton in that time of ferment. But they had only vague memories of some remote past in which their forbears had been in China.
Q: How do you research your descriptions of Cantonese food and Parsee food? Are you interested in food?
AG: I am interested in food; you might call me a ‘foodie.’ Cantonese is one of the great cuisines of the world. Merchants used to hold eight-hour long banquets serving 80 courses! This was true of Chinese merchants and Bombay traders.
Q: (Jose Dominic of CGH Earth) There are dense layers of history here in Kerala. The Muziris near Kodungallor is one such. Could that be a site for your next book?
AG: No, I am afraid not. I have had the privilege of being housed by my school-mate and friend Amitbah Kant (spelling?) who was Secretary in the department and the District Collector in Tellicherry in times past when I wrote an earlier book.
Q: The Indian economy, it would seem, is the child of opium, and money is our religion. Would you think then that Karl Marx’s dictum that "religion is the opium of the people" has come true in a strange way?
AG: That’s a nice formulation! Opium, in fact, was the foundation of the world’s future. The history of the companies who were involved in the commerce is known. What has happened in the modern world everywhere may be called 'commodity fetishism.' Money has become the passion of life, and consumption, its currency. How to limit our consumption is an urgent problem for the modern world. (Perhaps AG was hinting at climate change being the result of unconstrained consumption).
Q: (Joe) As you were reading the powerful passage of the storm I was struck by the phrase “ gobs of the raw gum were hurtling about like shrapnel.” That is like epic poetry. Have you written poetry?
AG: Only as a school boy. I am glad you liked that phrase.
Q: Is the next novel taking shape?
AG: Yes, there’s a character buzzing in my head. But it will take years before it comes out on paper.
Q: How do you research the story?
AG: It is always the characters that drive the story for me. It is never the research that drives the story. You have the characters in your head and you wonder: what did they eat? How did they spend their time? Whom did they deal with in everyday life? And so on. The research is to answer those questions acording to the historical reality of the times. The characters drive the story, and that drives the research.
Q: Do you write daily?
AG: It is like music. You have to have your daily riaz. It is difficult to carry out while you are traveling. You have to calm yourself, and be in a collected state of mind. For, your mind is like an unruly horse, as Plato pointed out, tending to run off in all directions. Publishers urge me to write an article on this or that. I have to resist. Every day to write 200 or 300 words requires effort. It’s like climbing a mountain, one step at a time. It’s arduous and I wonder: will people continue to persevere in that in future?
Q: (Priya) Do you write on a computer?
AG: No, I start writing in pencil. Then it is transcribed in ink by fountain pen. Then it’s cut and hacked. Then it’s entered as text in a computer and undergoes perhaps ten drafts. The end result is what you are holding in your hands.
KumKum, Soma, and Rajalakshmi
Thommo, Geetha, Soma, Ranajit and KumKum
Priya has her copy of a book signed by Amitav Ghosh
There's an interview in three parts with Amitav Ghosh that readers may like to view. Anuradha Sengupta of CNBC TV has a wide-ranging chat in which he talks freely about the craft of a writer and how he sees his role, and that of the reader. Dhyaan is a big part of his preparation to write, he says.