Fact is stranger than fiction. History is packed with odd events that astonish us in unexpected ways. Amitav Ghosh, the only writer in English who has won the Jnanpith Award, is adept at fact and fiction. His reputation as a novelist is unparalleled.

But, one of my favourite Ghosh books is a slim collection of five reports filed on topics as diverse as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, 9/ll in New York and the tsunami in the Andamans. The essays gathered in ‘Dancing in Cambodia’ and ‘At Large in Burma’ linger in the mind for their immediacy, honesty and emotional content just as much as any of his stories.

Ghosh even covers the same topic twice, once as fiction, later as fact. The fiction is grounded in solid research and facts are suffused with passion and imagination.

His early publications are rooted in his experiences in Egypt while working on a thesis in anthropology from Oxford University. ‘The Circle of Reason’, his debut novel, introduces themes that would preoccupy him for years: diasporas seeking survival by fleeing to foreign shores and the humanism that binds strangers across the "shadow lines" of region, religion, language and culture.

The book closes with protagonists drawn from across India gathered together in the area around Alexandria, a clearing house for migrants en route to new homes.

The outskirts of Alexandria are again the milieu for a later work, ‘In An Antique Land’, which is based on the story of Ghosh’s Phd. This is presented through the eyes of two migrants. There is the merchant-traveller, (whose life was pieced together by Ghosh in his thesis), who has embarked from Alexandria for Mangalore in southwest India to build a new life across the seas.

Alongside this is the author’s own story as a voyager in the opposite direction, from India to Egypt, welcomed and befriended by strangers who have become friends. The pattern of repeated study of a favourite topic as fact and fancy is as much a trademark of Amitav Ghosh as his focus on displacement and fraternity.

The same approach helps Ghosh to shed light on the infamous opium trade, which ruined both the Bihari farmer and the Chinese consumer. He presents his insights first as fiction through a sumptuous saga of three action-packed, loosely-linked tales spanning continents, seas and cultures, packed with personalities, whose disparate pasts fuse into common purposes and actions.

In the ‘Ibis Trilogy’, a bevy of strangers from different countries leaves the shores of India; many of them have been driven out by the British policy of enforced cultivation and marketing of the poppy plant.

The novels track their adventures and mishaps while sailing to Mauritius and eventually follow them and their progeny to the gates of China, where the narrative closes with the ruin of a prosperous country through the infamous opium wars.

The fictional foray into the world of the poppy has now been rounded off with a final salvo in Ghosh’s latest book, ‘Smoke and Ashes’. And the reality is far more horrifying and just as riveting as the fiction.

‘Smoke and Ashes’ is not a rehash of the ‘Ibis Trilogy’. Although it refers to places and characters that feature in the novels, it is a standalone study of the impact of the “innocuous” poppy plant on human history.

Before Ghosh's epic hit the stands, we only had hazy notions about the opium trade. The novels ripped away the veil to reveal "the white man's burden" in its true colours as a callous plot by (to quote Ghosh) “the first drug cartel” of western colonial powers to enrich their countries and unscrupulous businessmen by impoverishing and enslaving the producers and consumers of opium.

Ghosh’s work resulted in a spurt of research papers on the opium wars, which extended and confirmed the findings of the Ibis trilogy.

‘Smoke and Ashes’ draws on these findings to shed light on a disgraceful chapter of colonial history. It offers an essential corrective to the current global perception about China. Ghosh and later researchers go against today’s western political and economic narrative and compel us to look at our eastern neighbour with objectivity and warmth.

He is astonished to learn that several Chinese products and practices have always been part of the lives of ordinary Indians. To the list that he makes in ‘Smoke and Ashes’, I can add items which are integral to households as far away as Kerala: the pagoda like temple roofs, which dot the State, the frying pan in which the typical Kerala hopper or appam is cooked, (the Chinese wok, known even today as cheenachatti or the Chinese pot) and the iconic fishing nets of the Cochin backwaters.

Ghosh reminds us that the Chinese were once great artists, artisans, administrators and businessmen, gardeners and cultivators too, representatives of a culture that was envied and admired by Western observers. A self contained and advanced civilization which did not seek European artefacts.

No wonder that the colonial powers turned eastwards to satisfy their craving for chinoiserie and soon exhausted their capacity to offer silver stolen from South American mines to buy what they coveted. This is when they resolved to make opium, the addictive soporific derived from the poppy plant, a part of the bargain.

Ghosh discloses the ruthless economic and political strategy of coercive poppy cultivation in British Indian colonies, control of the transport and export of semi-processed opium to Chinese shores and imposition of its consumption on hapless families at the point of the gun. He bolsters his argument with horrifying statistics that testify to the exponential growth of the Opium Department in Bihar and the upward spiral of exports to Guangzhou (Canton) in the nineteenth century.

What bowled me over was the finding that the revenue raised from opium covered Britain’s outlay on all matters, excluding defence. The effects of these policies are still felt in what is now one of the most backward regions of India.

Exploitative practices and habits that evolved during the period when farmers were forced to grow the poppy for prices far below cultivation costs have broken the backs of Biharis and kept the region poor and undeveloped. In contrast, farmers in western India, which continued for a long time under semi-autonomous Maratha rule, chose to cultivate and process opium only when they could evade British regulation if overseas demand made it profitable.

The hypocrisy of colonial economic theory is mind-boggling. Those who professed to be free traders are precisely the ones who closely regulated the production, marketing and transport of the poppy and its products and forced Chinese emperors and their honest officers, who were trying to save their people, to open the country to a harmful addictive drug. In this process, Ghosh laments that Indians became the lackeys and instruments of the British colonial power, serving as labourers, cultivators and soldiers.

Smoke and Ashes carries the story of the poppy beyond the point at which it ends in the novels. The Ibis trilogy has American characters too: traders caught up in the remunerative opium trade as well as god fearing and compassionate Christians devastated by the spectacle of their countrymen and their British counterparts ruining Chinese families.

‘Smoke and Ashes’ goes a step further and updates the narrative by bringing in the US opioid crisis. Amitav Ghosh, who now lives in Brooklyn, confesses that while writing the novels, he had not fully realised the extent to which US academic institutions (Ivy League colleges) and museums and the riches of its prominent families were founded on fortunes derived from opium.

Ghosh unearths two shameful American secrets. Much of the Bostonian wealth which found its way into museums and academic institutions is derived from the opium trade, which contributed to exponential growth in American fortunes.

And he links the poppy to the current opioid crisis fuelled by the Sackler family, which has gripped the American Midwest and destroyed the futures of vast swathes of the population. Members of this scandal-ridden family which promoted opioids by fair and foul means are also among the biggest donors to US museums and galleries.

It's a chilling trajectory from an innocuous flower forcibly cultivated in faraway India under British fiat to the destruction of the proud Chinese culture and the threat looming over the futures of young Americans.

Eventually, Ghosh goes beyond economic and political history to something symbolic, perhaps even mystical. In his eyes, the story of the poppy counters our belief that human beings can impose their will on nature.

He anthropomorphises the poppy plant as a creature with a will and purpose of its own, which has used its ability to produce an addictive pain reliever to exploit the greed of men for wealth at any cost. Ghosh interprets the current reincarnation of opium in the form of opioids which holds in thrall even the most powerful nation, the United States, as proof of the power of nature to revive and regenerate itself, beyond all human control.

The Bihari farmer is no longer compelled to grow the poppy, but the market for opium offers profit enough to attract cultivators in Afghanistan. Ghosh’s factual account is infinitely more appalling and worrying than the scenario presented in the novels.

I have often wondered why Ghosh’s novels, so packed with atmosphere, adventure and racy episodes have not yet seduced filmmakers in Hollywood and their Indian imitators. The answer lies in his penchant of discovering skilfully concealed uncomfortable truths of colonial history and challenging and threatening Western perceptions about India and China. Not surprising that the truths that he reveals are hardly palatable for Western audiences.

Smoke and Ashes : A Writer's Journey through Opium's Hidden Histories

Author: Amitav Ghosh

Published by: Harper Collins

Price: ₹ 699.00