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Chi's Opium Wars had myriad Indian links'

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  6 April 2015 12:00 AM GMT

New Delhi, April 5: There is a general lack of awareness in India about Chi’s Opium Wars and the India connection, according to eminent author AmitavGhosh. The poppy plant was grown in India and the opium extracted from it was transported to Chi. It was the soldiers in the British Indian Army who fought in Chi in the Opium Wars. The opium trade was the driver of British expansionism in Chi. These Opium Wars’ led to a humiliating defeat of the Chinese resulting in a trade treaty that ceded Hong Kong to the British. It was not opium that interested Ghosh, when he started work on the first book in his Ibis trilogy, he wanted to write about migration, about Indians who had left India to travel to distant places. “I wanted to write a book about Indians who had left India. Migration started in the 19th century to Mauritius,” Ghosh told IANS in an interview.

But once he started researching it, all the roads led back to opium. The indentured migration started in the 1830s, the opium traffic was at its peak and that decade culmited in the Opium Wars against Chi. “The first opium war planned in India, it was finced by Indian money, it was fought with Indian soldiers. But it has all completely vanished from our historical memory,” Ghosh said, adding: “The putting together of the expeditiory force took place in India. The British val ships for the expedition were accompanied by 50 supply ships, all provided for by Parsi merchants in Bombay (now Mumbai). From top to bottom, it was a completely Indian enterprise; all the wherewithal for it came from India”.

Amitav Ghosh is known for his aversion to attending literary fests; he doesn’t like to take part in public discussions while he is working on a book. But his latest work, the third and last of his critically acclaimed “Ibis” trilogy is due to be released by May. And Ghosh was ready to talk about his forthcoming book at his publisher Penguin’s ‘Spring Fest’ here.

“Flood of Fire” is set in the 1830s. One of the main characters in the book is Kesri Singh, brother of Deeti, whose journey to Mauritius was related in ‘Sea of Poppies’, the first of the series. Kesri, a havildar in the British Indian Army goes to Chi to fight in the Opium Wars. The Ibis sailing and the opium trade is the connector in the trilogy. In the ‘Sea of Poppies’, the Ibis takes indentured labourers to Mauritius from the hinterland of Bihar, where the poppy is grown and opium is extracted; in the “River of Sorrow” the ship is a trader on the India-Chi route and filly in “Flood of Fire”, it carries opium to Chi.

Ghosh sought to dispel the notion that Indians were settled in the place where they lived and did not travel much. This picture is a misleading one, according to him. “India was a place that was absolutely churning. There was a lot of migration, particularly because of the dhams. People were going on pilgrimages, Muslims were going to Ajmer Sharif. There was a lot of movement.”

There were wars and the armies were accompanied by a huge hordes of camp followers; there would be about 10 camp followers to every fighting soldier - they were the cobblers, the tailors, bishties, the cooks and the like. All of them travelled when the army moved and some stayed behind after the wars were done. Ghosh is an anthropologist and historian; his trilogy is historical fiction filled with historical facts, many of them not known in India. His books are meticulously researched, but how much of that history does he put in his books? “My rule is simple. I put in everything I find interesting. At the end of the day I am my first reader. I have to live with the characters for days.” His books try to give “a sense of lived history. I try to recreate the texture of that experience. I want to know what was the sailor on the ship was feeling.” His work is “not reflecting reality, it is recreating a reality. Unlike film, we have only words to do so - to recreate the experience.” (IANS)

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