EXCLUSIVE! Amitav Ghosh on Smoke and Ashes: ‘Climate disruption is a clear and present danger’
In an interview with Firstpost’s Lachmi Deb Roy, author Amitav Ghosh talks about his favourite non-fiction book Smoke and Ashes, climate change and how opium trade has a multiplier effect in heightening social and political tensions.
Lachmi Deb Roy Last Updated:July 27, 2023 10:06:45 IST
Amitav Ghosh on his book Smoke and Ashes
Amitav Ghosh’s book Smoke and Ashes talks about the writer’s journey through opium’s hidden histories. A global literary figure, Ghosh talks about how travel has been an underlying theme for all his works, how climate change is the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced. In this book he tried to trace the impact of the colonial opium industry on India, China, Britain and the United States. He mentions that it is clear from recent events in Manipur that many pre-existing tensions are being exacerbated by opium.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
What was the foundation of Smoke and Ashes? How did it all start and the research that went behind it?
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It started with my book Sea of Poppies, which is set in the 1830s. The story is about a young, inter caste couple who have to flee their village in the Bhojpur region, and eventually sign up as indentured workers and are shipped out to Mauritius. It was in the process of doing the background research for this story that I stumbled upon the history of opium and learned about the hugely important role it had played in colonial Asia.
How travel has been an underlying theme for all your work?
Travel has played an enormously important role not just in my work, but also in my ways of thinking. That is perhaps because my family moved a lot when I was a child, so I got used to traveling when I was very young. But it is also because I have always been very curious about the world, so the process of learning about new places has always stimulated my imagination.
Your thought on climate change and how the conversation on this topic has changed over a period of time?
When I first started writing about climate change many people were surprised by my interest in the subject, because at that time there was very little awareness of the subject amongst most people. Even those who were aware of global warming tended to think of it as a very distant threat. But all of that has changed dramatically in the last few years.
Extreme climatic events have become so common now that it is impossible to remain indifferent to global heating. It is touching upon people’s lives everywhere, no matter where they live or what their circumstances are. It has now become clear that climate disruption is a clear and present danger and that we are living in a drastically altered world, one that requires us not only to rethink our ways of life but also our modes of thought. This is why there has been a huge increase in writing about these issues, in both fiction and nonfiction.
When it comes to writing, what is the method and process that you follow?
Writing a four five-hundred-page novel is not something you can do casually. It takes an enormous amount of time, effort, and indeed discipline – because it requires very hard work over extended periods of time. Amongst other things writing is very hard work – for me it is more tiring than tennis or badminton. Sometimes at the end of a day’s work I am so exhausted that I can hardly move, and have to lie down. However, these are also the most exhilarating days because that’s when you know that you are working well.
What do you have to say about climate change being the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced?
There can be no doubt that climate change is the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced. But I think it’s very important to remember that climate change is just one of a much larger, interconnected matrix of crises, all of which are unfolding simultaneously. One of these crises is biodiversity loss, which may, in fact, be an even greater threat to humanity than climate change. Without certain insects, for instance, many kinds of agriculture will become impossible because insects are essential for the pollination of plants.
Similarly, as we discovered during the Covid pandemic, we are also facing biological crises of various kinds, with new pathogens evolving all around us. This isn’t even to mention the various kinds of political crises that are now racking the world, with right wing extremist movements gaining strength in many countries. Behind all these crises lies the enormous acceleration in processes of production, consumption and communication that has occurred since the Industrial Revolution. What is really frightening is that this acceleration, instead of slowing down, is actually gaining speed.
You’ve said, ‘There is more opium being produced in the world today than at any time in the past’. What is the impact of opium in this world?
This is indeed the case. The opium poppy has defeated every effort to limit and contain it. And as the quantity of opium has increased, it has become increasingly disruptive, destabilizing many societies in many parts of the world. Opium production has increased hugely in northern Mexico, for instance, and parts of that region are now completely under the control of drug cartels, and the government is powerless to contain them. This is leading to major problems between the US and Mexico.
Similarly, opium production has also increased hugely in Myanmar of late. This should be a matter of grave concern to India, because the centers of production have moved close to the borders in the northeast. It is clear from recent events in Manipur that many pre-existing tensions are being exacerbated by opium. This is a role that opium has often played in the past: it has a kind of multiplier effect in heightening social and political tensions.
How did the opium trade shape our world history?
This is exactly what I explore in Smoke and Ashes. In the book I have tried to trace the impact of the colonial opium industry on India, China, Britain and the United States. In India the impacts were very different in different parts of the country. In some regions the opium industry caused widespread immiseration while in others it stimulated commerce and industry. The seed capital for many Indian enterprises came from the opium industry. However, this was true not only of India but also of Britain, the United States and east Asia. For example, many of the early American railroads were launched with capital that came from opium. It is in this sense that opium was one of the pillars on which modern globalized capitalism was built.
Other than traveling and writing, what are the other things that you like doing?
I have always loved to play, and watch, racquet sports, like table tennis, tennis, squash, and badminton. In recent years, badminton has become my favorite sport, both to play, and to watch. I have followed with keen interest the rise of a whole generation of young badminton players in India. One of the lesser-known aspects of this is that badminton had its origins in India and was initially known as ‘Poona’.