Peter Frankopan

The greed and hypocrisy of the opium trade continue to shock

Amitav Ghosh admits he found writing his history difficult because of the obscene profiteering and suffering he had to cover

The stacking rooms at a Patna opium factory, with thousands of Opium balls destined for the China market. Lithograph by W.S. Sherwell, c.1850. [Alamy]

‘A fact that confounds me now when I think back on it,’ writes the acclaimed Indian author Amitav Ghosh at the start of this expansive and thoughtful book, ‘is that for most of my life China was for me a vast, uniform blankness.’ There were many reasons for this, he says. The war between India and China in 1962 might have played a part, along with the complex relationship between the two countries since then; but also the way that ‘an inner barrier’ has been ‘implanted in the minds’ of many around the world – one that blocks out China but allows in the ‘language, clothing, sport, material objects and art of the West’.

Smoke and Ashes is a lovely blend of historical writing, travelogue and personal reflection stemming from what the author calls his ‘epiphany’. China’s imprint on the world is, and has long been, vast, he says – but often invisible. One might hear and learn little about the country, its people and its history, but traces are everywhere – from packets of peanuts to envelopes, from incense sticks to the gardens of Wolfson College, Oxford. ‘Everywhere I looked, there was something, old or new, that harked back to China.’

Ghosh’s focus in this book grew out of his ‘Ibis’ trilogy (beginning with Sea of Poppies), in which he came across many of the themes that appear here. Opium plays the central role; but rapacious greed, the evolution of poisonous ideas about race, mind-boggling double standards, the legacies of the past – and some painful modern parallels – provide an unsettling backdrop. Ghosh is too elegant a writer to frame his book through the prism of burning anger. Nevertheless, there is passion aplenty.

One Dutch governor general returned home after a spell in Asia with ‘Bill Gates’ levels of wealth

Poppies are ‘a thirsty, labour-intensive crop, difficult to cultivate for small farmers’.

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