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Amitav Ghosh Revisits Opium Trade in New Nonfiction

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Amitav Ghosh writes Smoke and Ashes that is at once a travelogue, a memoir and an excursion into history, both economic and cultural.

The ‘Smoke and Ashes’ – a very personal look at Amitav Ghosh’s own engagement with opium’s hidden histories will be first published by Harpercollins in July this year. This is at one level a writer’s memoir, with deep insights into the process of writing the Ibis Trilogy.

It is releasing on 15 July 2023 under the Fourth Estate imprint

Amitav Ghosh

Amitav’s newbook by Harpercollins

When Amitav Ghosh began his research for the Ibis Trilogy some twenty years ago, he was startled to find how the lives of the nineteenth-century sailors and soldiers he wrote of were dictated not only by the currents of the Indian Ocean, but also by a precious commodity carried in enormous quantities on those currents: opium. Most surprising of all was the discovery that his own identity and family history were swept up in the story.

Smoke and Ashes is at once a travelogue, a memoir and an excursion into history, both economic and cultural. Ghosh traces the transformative effect the opium trade had on Britain, India and China, as well as on the world at large. Engineered by the British Empire, which exported opium from India to sell in China, the trade and its revenues were essential to the Empire’s survival. Upon deeper exploration, Ghosh finds opium at the origins of some of the world’s biggest corporations, several of America’s most powerful families and institutions, and contemporary globalism itself.  In India the long-term consequences were even more profound.

Moving deftly between horticultural histories, the mythologies of capitalism and the social and cultural repercussions of colonialism, Smoke and Ashes reveals the pivotal role one small plant has played in the making of the world as we know—a world that is now teetering on the edge of catastrophe.

Amitav Ghosh says, “My new book, Smoke and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey Through Opium’s Hidden Histories, is based on the enormous quantities of material I accumulated while researching the trilogy of novels I wrote between 2005 and 2015. When I started writing the novels I thought they would be mainly about the transportation of indentured workers from India to Mauritius in the early nineteenth century. But in the course of my research, and much to my surprise, I stumbled upon a different trade in a precious commodity that was being carried in large quantities from India to China—opium!

Ibis Trilogy

Smoke and Ashes is the story of how, under the aegis of the British Empire, India became the world’s largest producer of opium between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the different conditions under which opium was produced in various regions, with lasting effects for those areas. It also traces the transformative impact that the opium trade had on India, China, Britain and the United States, with profound long-term consequences for the birth of the modern world, and of contemporary globalism. Many of the world’s biggest corporations got their start in the colonial opium trade. But the opium economy also had significant effects at the microlevel, influencing migration and settlement patterns, and touching upon millions of lives, including those of my own forefathers.

Amitav Ghosh

This story is remarkable, and revelatory, because at the heart of it lies a plant—the opium poppy. While many other plants, like sugarcane, tobacco and cotton, have played major roles in history, their importance has faded over time. The opium poppy, on the other hand, has gone from strength to strength; it is now more powerful than ever, manifesting itself in the devastating opioid crises that currently grip the globe. Smoke and Ashes tells the story of how this common and deceptively humble plant has shaped the modern world, and the key part it is now playing in the unmaking of that world.

HarperCollins India will be the first to publish Smoke and Ashes, in July, which is only appropriate because their editorial teams have given me huge and whole-hearted support throughout the writing of the book. I am very excited about the publication of the book!”

Udayan Mitra, Executive Publisher, HarperCollins India, says, “Smoke and Ashes simply took my breath away. Like so many readers around the world, I have read and admired everything Amitav Ghosh has ever published—but Smoke and Ashes is one of those books that left an impact at a very intrinsic level. Here Amitav recounts the fascinating journey—into economic, social and cultural history—he undertook as he researched and then wrote the Ibis Trilogy, and tells us how the discoveries that he made influenced him, both as an individual and as a writer. As he peels layer after layer off perceptions and understandings of Indian and Chinese history, trade patterns and cultural imperatives, our view of the past that has shaped the world we inhabit today expands progressively, and gains a deeper, sharper focus. At the heart of Smoke and Ashes is the incredible story of the opium poppy and its defining role in the making and unmaking of the modern world: it is a hidden history that invites deep reflection.

Smoke and Ashes is one of the most powerful, thought-provoking works of non-fiction I have read in some time. We at HarperCollins India are privileged to be the first publisher to bring this exceptional book to readers, before its publication elsewhere across the world. I can hardly wait for booklovers everywhere to read and respond to what is most certainly, for me, the non-fiction book of the year.”

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