The Opium War – A heady read

​I was but a child when I had read Tintin’s adventures in The Blue Lotus, where the spunky reporter unearthed opium smuggling racket between China and Japan. It was my first encounter with the word ‘opium’ and I still clearly remember the dark, gloomy panels that depicted the opium dens. Surly faced men lying on their sides smoking a pipe. And though I may not have known about the cultivation of opium in India, I had an inkling of what a drug was.

So back in 2016, when I came across The Opium War by Julia Lovell at the World Book Fair, I snapped it right up. The tagline runs as ‘Drugs, dreams and the making of China’. Didn’t think twice beyond that. China, it’s history and culture has always fascinated me, and I try to read as much as I can about it.

Such a pretty cover :)

The author Lovell teaches Modern Chinese History in London and has also published other non-fictional works on China for various publications, while also translating Chinese fiction. The book is split across nineteen chapters with a detailed appendix, maps for reference and a quick guide on Chinese names and romanisation.

The earliest Chinese reference of the drug was in 8th century and mainly Used for medicinal purposes. Opium-enriched aphrodisiacs was a booming industry in Ming China (1368-1644).

It was with the import of opium in the tobacco form that led to the smoking of the drug during 1573-1627, and smoking opium soon became a status symbol.

“In 1780, a British East India Company ship could not break even on a single opium cargo shipped to Canton. By 1839, imports were topping 40,000 chests per annum.”

The British shipped in opium because they wanted to address the trade deficit they were facing. They needed tonnes of tea leaves and silks from China, but China didn’t need much from them in return. China felt a threat not just to its political stability but economic well being as the Empire seemed to be running out of silver. Silver was the currency in which taxes and the army were paid.

Two opium wars were fought between the British and China in the 1800s, and were mainly due to conflicts regarding trade, diplomatic relations and justice system. The import of opium into China had rendered many locals useless as they were more often than not caught up in the heady fumes of the drug. Chinese armies across years have been rendered useless as the soldiers were heavily under the influence of opium. The Chinese army were unable to match the armed weaponry of the British, while their war tactics too failed miserably. Corruption was rampant from top to down, with many Chinese, be it generals or mere foot soldiers, reaching out to the British and pocketing profits.

The book is exhaustive with rich descriptions, but the narrative kept me hooked. It may not be termed as a page-turner akin to mystery novels, but not once did I get bored. Lovell has explained every scene so well I could almost visualise it my mind and that’s the best kind of writing. Though it did take me time to finish the book, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the book will make it to the top ten reads of this year.

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The Connaught

Glitzy streets and neon signs, psychedelic showroom windows and bustling crowds, Connaught Place emits quite the fashionable aura post sundown. It took me almost four years to land a job in the heart of city, and I am ever so happy. The centre of bustle, a choice shopping location, ample bars and restaurants, packed with happening sights and locales, and at stone’s throw distance from most areas, working in Connaught Place is very eventful.

But the area looks starkly different in the early morning light, sans the fanfare and the showy lights. A pall of gloom lies all over with shops shut and shutters down, the broken dilapidated buildings and their wrinkles ever so conspicuous, dusty railings and roads littered with just about everything. A large garbage dump lies overflowing with waste attracting eagles and crows alike, as the scavengers and birds of prey swoop down dangerously low and their wings almost touching my covered head. Packs of dogs loll about till lock onto a target and come charging, barking quite ferociously. Some injured with festered wounds and scraggy fur, their eyes drooping and general surliness all around. The pavements sprinkled with human and animal excreta, with sleeping corpses found tucked in the corners. The Connaught Circus is quite the sight in the early morning light.

But as the sun rises and the dirty white columns turn a speckled golden, the city stirs with cleaners sweeping, brooms in hand. Shopkeepers stir in their humble establishments, turning the locks on that rickety collapsible gates and more often than not, caught in the act of some stage of dressing through the dusty shop windows. The glamour showrooms are shut, models pouting with such attitude. They push you to walk faster to office, make some of that money as you dream of payday and finally get that bag you had your eye on.

There’s a certain beauty in Connaught Place, even as it changes colours throughout the day. And I hope that only a number of light years shall make me weary of this place.

Connaught Place

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Hostel memories

My favourite corner
​This corner of the room was how I majorly survived three years of college. Of course my friends did play a massive role in this, but whenever I needed some alone time, I found solace here. I was such a Westlife nut back then. It’s vastly diminished now, but I still can spend nights singing their songs loudly, loud enough to wake the neighbours. My bestfriend and I had bought similar posters from Delhi’s Kamla Market in North Campus. We were ecstatic when we chanced upon it. And sure enough, it made its way right down to Pune. Over the years more pictures and newspaper cutouts of celebrities found their way up on the wall, while the shelf was adorned with books and a wine bottle stuffed with fairy lights. It was quite a magical place where I could be me, a facet of me or no one at all. And I deeply miss this place.

The Joy of Teaching

My mother is a primary school teacher and has been one for the better part of her life. Yesterday she came to me with an exercise book where one of her students had written a really nice poem on friends. She showed me how the nine-year-old boy had identified some similar sounding words to be used, and on the next page he had written almost a twelve-line poem, perfectly rhyming. It knocked my socks off. My mother was ecstatic.

She said the boy, H, had done it without any help and that she was really proud of him. Even though my mother has taught hundreds of students by now, every achievement gets her smiling. Another motivation to keep working harder, and spending days and nights toiling over marksheets and registers, exercise books and craftwork. It takes a toll on her, and there are bad days. But every day, she gets up charged to take on the day ahead.

I have zero idea how she does it, especially handling small children. I have little to no patience, and since there are quite a number of teachers in my family, my generation of kids had vowed never to be one.

In classes eleven and twelve, we had to spend a few days each year teaching underprivileged children after school hours. It seemed like a fun activity as we got to spend our time in an activity different from everyday academic life, and it was always an opportunity for us to hang out together at the end of these hour-long sessions. The children who came from an affiliated home were of all ages, right from kindergarten to class eight.

My student was a strapping young boy, who incidentally was also older than me. Studies were quite the struggle for him. I had to teach him the alphabets and numbers, how to construct simple sentences and learn new words. But progress was very difficult. After toiling for two years, the little improvement I noticed over this period of time definitely struck me. I still remember his face, and his heartwarming smile. And every correct answer that he gave would make me very happy, and these were the moments I realised the joy of teaching. It’s a special feeling knowing you’re touching another’s soul, changing the other person’s life in some manner, whatsoever. While I may have been quite the short-tempered and agitated person around little children (I still am), with him, I was calm.

While I may have been satisfied with a sliver of a teaching experience, I am sure every day when we slog at work and the little recognition we get or when we do something we’re proud of off, the real joy of being at work, in our workspaces, in our careers, make us happy. I remember the day when a client had written to my editor telling her how my feature in the magazine made them think of me as one of the ‘better writers’ they have read, it brought me great joy. Sometimes when I edit and overhaul even a small copy, but to my satisfaction and happiness, I beam with pride on the inside. And such instances push us through the bad days, those days when everything seems to go wrong and when we doubt ourselves and life choices.


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The Forty Rules of Love – Transcend to another level

“Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead, let life live through you.”

They say one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I am guilty as charged when it comes Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love. Being a cynical pessimist, I always look at the word ‘love’ with a wary eye, and despite being told by many that ‘love’ here wasn’t the typical romantic love, I still kept my distance.

Till three months ago on a trip to my favourite bookstore with an erstwhile friend P who casually remarked that the book was a must read. Huh. I quite didn’t expect my equally cynical friend to have even read the book. So, there must be something here. After much hemming and hawing, and still finding people around me going gaga over it, I finally borrowed it from my good friend M, who was only too happy to see me give this a shot.

But I was majorly disappointed. Fair enough the story of Ella Rubinstein and Aziz Zahara was beautifully entwined with that of Rumi and the mystical Shams of Tabriz, while the “forty rules” were scattered throughout the story in a wonderful manner, yet I did not feel as uplifted or blown away by the book. Now it would be fair enough to say that my mental makeup during the time I read the book was far from comforting, yet I tried my best but the book failed to leave a mark.

Ella, for me, symbolised a person trapped in a seemingly perfect world, where she neither lived to her fullest nor could she break free on her own. She was chained to the cage with her so-called ‘safe’ thinking. And soon the freewheeling Aziz, whose book she had to write a report on, entered her world. His book Sweet Blasphemy makes her question her life and her life choices. It seemed like a pretty straight-forward, typical ‘romantic’ story where Ella gets swept off her feet by someone she’s not even met and is communicating through email. And she is soon ready and ‘empowered’ to let go of her old world and embrace a new self and life. There’s nothing revolutionary here, right?

It was only after I started another book that I found myself reaching out for Shafak’s book once more. I flipped the pages and this time I read the rules more deeply. In fact, I’ve taken to writing them in my notebook, and as I slowly wrote each rule carefully, I’ve been able to think more clearly about them. And now the beauty of the ‘rules’ dawns on me.

One issue that I mainly faced with the book, and that I still do, is the concept of God. Off late I’ve been flooded with thoughts that can be best described as starkly different to what I’ve been brought up on. And this is why some rules make me feel like I’m staring at a blank wall unable to fathom what to do, or even understand. Some other rules feel like they have no value addition for me. Christianity and Islam have much in common, and even some concepts tend to overlap each other. However, some other rules brought a smile to my face, and they’ve been worded so wonderfully that I wish others would pay heed to them too.

And as always, I leave you with my favourite quote:

“The quest for Love changes us. There is no seeker among those who search for Love who has not matured on the way. The moment you start looking for love, you start to change withing and without.”


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