The Opium of the Classes

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Amitav Ghosh
Amitav Ghosh

In Amitav Ghosh’s deft hands, history becomes a beautifully haunting re-creation of a particular milieu, as he populates his narrative with characters who insist upon identity, irrespective of how removed they are from actual reality. The magnum opus is finally out, beckoning us to savour it. In its third and last installment, with its history, characters and everything else intact, the trilogy makes for compulsory reading.

Set in the 19th century, against the background of the large-scale migration and veritable transportation of indentured labour, Ghosh’s magnificent foray travels places to make several essential points about the dark underbelly of colonialism and capitalism during the 1840s.

This physical dislocation of generations of indentured labour from their own habitat to an unknown realm happens at a pace where the lines get blurred, the shadows of the past as well as the uncertain future hanging ominously over the characters.

The 1830s marked the full-scale manifestation of the opium war and its inherent forms of slavery. Ghosh has graphically fleshed out the sordid reality of capitalist deceit by the colonial power. Ibis, the ship, represents a symbol of the slavery and the exploitation. It represents a powerful metaphor of the point that Ghosh has sought to make in the trilogy. There is a virtual breakdown of the slave’s contacts with the so-called free world, a virtual decimation of identity and loss of name. Indeed, the magnum opus travels into the heart of a complicated historical fact that was rendered even more obtuse by British cunning.

The lanes that we have traversed with Ghosh earlier have been as luminous and enlightening as they have been empirically enriching and stimulating. He is a perfect historian and anthropologist who has given us not just the trilogy but much more. The literati, however, has had a great affinity with Ghosh’s long-form narratives and this volume is an addition to what one had savoured in River of Smoke. It was a magnificent exposé of the enormously profitable opium trade — a territory that the Sea of Poppies revisited in the second installment of the trilogy. Ghosh has in his concluding hurrah carried the story forward from the Ibis to the protagonists.

Ghosh usually refrains from visiting China beyond its trading centres, but in Flood of Fire, he carries over some characters from Sea of Poppies. He reconstructs the consequences of the British insistence on the cultivation of poppies at the cost of all other crops.

He talks of characters who become widows of opium addicts. Woven into the beautiful narrative are the many ramifications of British rule — for instance, the decay and false splendour of the zamindari system, which was made even more brutal by the British who had become the world’s “new Brahmins”.

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