Book Box | The hidden truth about the opium poppy - Hindustan Times

Book Box | The hidden truth about the opium poppy

Jul 22, 2023 03:05 PM IST

A lost Kindle sets the stage for a journey into opium's gripping past and its significance today. Presenting a compelling book list with secrets of the poppy.

Dear Reader,

Smoke and Ashes(The Author) PREMIUM
Smoke and Ashes(The Author)

I am in a panic. Sitting at the departure lounge in Thiruvananthapuram airport, I can’t find my Kindle. I scrabble in my bag, and then upturn it.

Out come two boarding passes, three gel pens in blue, green and red, a journal, a hairbrush and lipstick, and my cellphone. But no Kindle.

I just had it with me. All through the check-in and security queues, I’ve been reading about the English and the Dutch fighting over opium markets in Java, Indonesia and China. And being amazed to discover that in 1800’s India, there was an entire department of opium, from low-paid Indian gumasta clerks to junior opium officers and finally the highest-ranking British official, the Opium Agent.

Okay, okay, I tell myself. This is a small airport- you’ll find it. I race back down a flight of stairs to airport security.

A man is calling out my husband’s name.

In his hand, he holds my Kindle. ‘Thank you, thank you, this is mine, it’s registered in my husbands’ name’, I declare. He looks sceptical. I return to scrabbling in my bag and produce a driving licence that certifies our marital relationship. Now all I have to do is write my name and telephone number in a large ledger, and at last I have my Kindle back.

Seated in the aircraft, I read Rudyard Kipling’s essay on an Indian opium factory. ‘It’s an outstanding example of the way in which the English language was often used to occlude and naturalize colonial practices and policies. Much of the essay is written in the passive voice; the opium factory simply exists and produces vast wealth’, writes Amitav Ghosh in his newly released Smoke and Ashes: A Writers Journey Through Opium’s Hidden Histories.

What is it with this poppy, I wonder? Two hundred years after the opium wars, why is this story still haunting me?

My best read this year so far, is all about opium – here’s why you should read Babel by R F Kuang.

Another favourite book is about the devastating effects of opium. Here is Demon Copperhead, this year's Pulitzer prizewinning novel, set against the opioid epidemic in the rust belt of America, skilfully retelling David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

Yet I am dismayed to discover, in the pages of Smoke and Ashes, that Dickens too, like Kipling, turns out to be an opium trade defender, turning a blind eye to its darker effects.

I stay up late, reading into the night. In the morning I wake up to a deluge of rain. The palm trees outside my window career crazily in the monsoon winds that blow in from the Arabian Sea, and everywhere there are muddy pools of water. I am here, in this island city of Mumbai, because of opium, it appears. This city grew around the port of Bombay, which exported many goods, like cotton, but it was opium that was the driving force. Opium generated the wealth and the prosperity of this city, and this book explains how.

At the roiling epicentre of these histories, is a flower, sometimes white, sometimes pinkish red. To understand the secret power of this poppy flower, needs an entirely new frame of reference, explains Ghosh. He calls upon the botanical understanding of Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of the amazing Braiding Sweetgrass. Because the poppy, like a pathogen, has a life and agency of its own. After the opium wars of the 18th century, this plant is back - defeating the US forces in Afghanistan, holding pharma and big business in its thrall. You only need to read the mesmerizing Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe to know the truth of this.

Empire of Pain(The Author)
Empire of Pain(The Author)

It is still raining heavily, when I set out for the formal launch of the book I am reading. To my surprise, the traffic flows easily. I reach the Royal Opera House, a cream-coloured colonial building, an hour in advance. Volunteers are handing out colour-coded seat number cards, there is already a buzz of excitement and people are queueing up to buy copies of the book.

At 6.30 pm, when Amitav Ghosh enters the ornate auditorium, beneath the stunning domed roof and the crystal chandeliers, the 500 plus seats are already occupied. The ceiling lights dim, and the screen lights up with paintings - of people and places in the opium trade.

Amitav Ghosh at the Royal Opera House, Mumbai(The Author)
Amitav Ghosh at the Royal Opera House, Mumbai(The Author)

‘I knew my grandfather moved from Bangladesh to Bihar to Chhapra, why Chhapra, I used to wonder. And then when I started researching opium during the writing of Sea of Poppies, I found the answer’, Ghosh confesses. People don’t talk about opium but at least a third of the people here, will have opium in their histories, he says.

I know I do. My opium story goes back (at least) to the town I was born in. Jamshedpur is a steel township founded by Jamshedji Tata. Like many other industrialists in India and around the world, Tata too made his fortune in opium trading. Like the traders of the time, the Parsis dealt in opium, and because they had a previous connection with the Dutch in Surat, and no embargo on sailing overseas, they also shipped opium, Ghosh says.

For the audience hanging onto his every word, it feels exhilarating and even redeeming to be part of this world, to watch in wonder, as this fearless storyteller, takes on everyone from the British to the Boston Brahmins to energy companies like Royal Dutch Shell ( it’s name is now changed to Shell)

Reader, if you’re looking to find the answers to development, to history and geopolitics, here are five brilliant books you will love, books that uncover the hidden truth about the opium poppy.

>Smoke and Ashes

>The Ibis Trilogy


>Empire of Pain

>Demon Copperhead

Until next week then, adieu and happy reading! And keep your Kindles close!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading requests or suggestions, write to her at

The views expressed are personal

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