Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Smoke and Ashes’ is as invigorating a commentary on the current state of geo-politics as there is

“A travelogue, a memoir, and an excursion into history,” his latest book is yet another marvel on the impact of the opium trade across the globe. We speak with the author about the writer’s penning process.

Harper's Bazaar India

Amitav Ghosh’s latest literary triumph, Smokes and Ashes: A Writer’s Journey Through Opium’s Hidden Histories, starts a few moments before his celebrated Ibis Trilogy (Sea of Poppies, 2008; River of Smoke, 2011; Flood of Fire, 2012)—in the early 17th century, during the regnant rivalry between Britain and China, when China’s self-sufficiency brought trepidation to the colonisers, who saw in them competitors and possible rebels. Add to that their developed taste for Chinese tea and inadequacy to meet these demands with bullion payments. It was then that the British found allies in the Parsis and Marwaris in India, and there was born the biggest drug-running operations in history—cultivated in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, processed in Ghazipur and Patna, making its way to Guangzhou (earlier Canton) through Kolkata (earlier Calcutta). 

Opium trading, a network Ghosh has spent over four decades on, and, one that Ghosh elucidates, continues to disgrace the present in political, social, and economic ways unravels on the world-roving pages in what is yet another genre-bending work by the author, threaded perfectly with personal vignettes and excruciating detail.

When we got talking to him, post a long book tour, it was impossible to not go off track and delve into his extensive writing process. Here is an excerpt. 

Harper’s Bazaar: Take us through your early years, when you were dreaming of making it as a writer. How did you juggle the dream with the reality of the publishing industry? What kept you going? 

Amitav Ghosh: I knew I wanted to be a writer from a young age. I loved to read and write stories, and I was always fascinated by the power of language to create worlds. But I also knew that the publishing industry was tough, and that it would be a long and difficult road to make it as a writer. In my early years, I juggled my dream by teaching and by writing for newspapers and magazines. This made it possible for me to support myself while I was writing my first novel. What kept me going was the belief that I had something to say. I wanted to write stories that would make people think and feel, and that would help them understand the world around them.

HB: Your writing often blends historical research with fiction. What draws you to this approach and how do you find the balance between the two? 

AG: I am drawn to the blending of historical research with fiction because I believe that it is the best way to tell stories that can inform, entertain, and inspire. History is full of stories that are fascinating and important, but it can also be dry and academic. Fiction, on the other hand, can bring history to life by making it relatable and engaging.

I find the balance between history and fiction by doing extensive research on the historical events that I am writing about. I read primary sources, such as letters, diaries, and newspapers, and I travel to the places where the events took place. I also talk to historians and other experts to get their insights.

Once I have a solid understanding of the history, I start to create my fictional characters and plot. I try to be as faithful to the historical record as possible, but I also allow myself some creative freedom. I want my stories to be both historically accurate and emotionally resonant.

HB: What inspired you to explore the Opium Wars and their impact on Asia in the Ibis Trilogy? 

AG: I was inspired to explore the Opium Wars by a number of things. First, I was fascinated by the story of the Indian indentured labourers who were shipped to Southeast Asia and the Caribbean to work on plantations. These labourers suffered a great deal, and their experiences were a dark chapter in colonial history.

Second, I was interested in the way that the Opium Wars had shaped the modern world. The wars were fought over the control of the opium trade, and they had a profound impact on the economies and societies of China and India.

Third, I wanted to write a story that would challenge the traditional narrative of the Opium Wars. The wars are often seen as a conflict between China and the West, but I wanted to show how they also had a devastating impact on the people of Asia.

HB: When writing about different cultures and regions. How do you ensure cultural authenticity and respect?

AG: I do extensive research on the cultures and regions I am writing about. Whenever possible, I use primary sources such as interviews, field research, and archival materials. I also read books, articles, and other materials about the cultures, and I am careful to avoid stereotypes and generalisations. I want to portray the cultures I am writing about in a nuanced and accurate way.

HB: Can you explain your research and writing process?

AG: My research and writing process is always evolving, but I generally start with a character or an idea. These could be drawn from a historical event or a personal experience. Then I do extensive research. This is where I really dig into the topic, reading books, articles, and other materials. I also try to talk to people who are knowledgeable about the subject. The aim is to let the research inform the story, without dictating it. I want to make sure that my story is grounded in reality, but I also want it to be creative and engaging. Writing is a demanding process, and it takes time and effort to get it right. I have learned to be patient and persistent, and I never give up on a story.

HB: What do you believe is the significance of literature in cross-cultural understanding and empathy?

AG: Literature can help us to see the world through the eyes of others and to understand their experiences and perspectives. It can also help us develop empathy for people from different cultures, even when we do not agree with them. It can help us see the world from other perspectives. By reading about the experiences of people from different cultures, we can begin to see the world from their point of view.

Literature is not a magic bullet that can solve all the problems of cross-cultural misunderstanding and conflict. However, it can play an important role in promoting understanding and empathy. By reading literature from other cultures, we can begin to build bridges between cultures.

HB: How do you handle critical acclaim and the pressure of expectations? 

AG: I am grateful for the critical acclaim that my work has received, but I try not to let it go to my head. I know that I am only as good as my next book, and I am always striving to improve my craft. I also try not to let the pressure of expectations get to me. I know there are always people who will love my work and people who won’t. I just try to write the best book that I can, and I let the chips fall where they may.

HB: How has your perception of the world evolved throughout your writing and how has this evolution influenced your storytelling?

AG: My perception of the world has evolved in many ways. As I have travelled and met people from different cultures, I have come to see the world in a more complex and nuanced way. I have also become more aware of the interconnectedness of all things and of the challenges that we face as a global community.

This has influenced my storytelling in a number of ways. I am now more interested in telling stories that explore the complexities of the world we live in. I am also more interested in stories that can help us understand each other better and build bridges between cultures.

Over the years, I have become more interested in the larger historical and political forces that shape our lives. This is evident in my novels The Shadow Lines and The Glass Palace, which both deal with the impact of colonialism and globalisation.

I have also become more aware of the interconnectedness of all things. This is evident in my novel The Hungry Tide, which tells the story of the people who live on the Sundarbans, a delta region that is home to both humans and tigers. The novel shows how the fate of these two species is intertwined.

Finally, I have become more aware of the challenges that we face as a global community. This is evident in my non-fiction book, The Great Derangement, which deals with the issue of climate change. I believe that it is important for writers to be aware of the world around them and to reflect that awareness in their writing.

HB: Your advice to young writers who want to tackle complex and significant themes? 

AG: My advice to young writers who want to tackle complex and significant themes is five-tiered. 

Be passionate about the themes you want to explore. If you are not passionate about the themes, it will be difficult to write about them in a way that is both engaging and meaningful.

Do your research. Make sure you have a good understanding of the themes you are writing about. This means reading books, articles, and other materials on the subject. It also means talking to people who are knowledgeable about the themes.

Be creative. Don't be afraid to experiment with different ways of exploring the themes. There is no one right way to do it. Just find a way that works for you and that is true to your voice as a writer.

Don't be afraid to challenge yourself. If you want to write about complex and significant themes, you need to be willing to challenge yourself as a writer. This means pushing yourself to think in new ways and to explore new ideas.

Don't give up. Writing about complex and significant themes is not easy. It takes time, effort, and perseverance. But if you are passionate about it and you don't give up, you can succeed.

HB: Your advice for writers who are hoping to make a dent in the world of literature? 

AG: Again, my advice is five-tiered:

Write what you love. If you are not passionate about your writing, it will be difficult to produce work that is both engaging and meaningful.

Read widely. Read books by other writers who you admire. This will help you develop your own voice as a writer.

Get feedback. Don't be afraid to share your work with others and to get feedback. This will help you improve your writing.

Be patient. It takes time and effort to become a successful writer. Don't give up if you don't see results immediately.

Never stop learning. The world of literature is constantly evolving. Be open to learning new things and to experimenting with different writing techniques.