Reimagining the Opium Trade Era: Bureaucratic Modernity in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy and Kunal Basu’s The Opium Clerk


The Sino-British opium trade of 19th century has long been a subject of discussion and analysis in academic and literary circles. Two notable literary works that explore this complex phenomenon include Amitav Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy and Kunal Basu's The Opium Clerk. Through their respective narratives, Ghosh and Basu provide a nuanced understanding of the opium trade and its imposition of bureaucratic modernity in Indian provinces under British control. Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy follows the intersection of the opium trade, the Indian Ocean slave trade, and British gunboat policy, presenting a vivid portrayal of the expanse and impact of British imperialism. Basu's The Opium Clerk, on the other hand, delves into the lives of the native colonial administrative staff, providing a poignant account of their experiences and the dilemmas they faced as they balanced their personal ethics with their professional duties. Through their works, Ghosh and Basu explore the interconnections between the opium trade, bureaucratic modernity, and colonialism, exploring the devastating impact on Indian society and its people. In this essay, I will analyse Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy and Basu's The Opium Clerk to understand the complex interplay of the opium trade and bureaucratic modernity, how they intersected and impacted colonial subjects. I will further examine the portrayal of the opium trade in these narratives, its relationship with British imperialism, and its broader implications of the imposition of modern bureaucratic structures on Indian provinces under its control.

Author Information
Arnab Das, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, India

Paper Information
Conference: ECAH2023
Stream: Literature/Literary Studies

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Posted by James Alexander Gordon