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 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.”

 

I am taking my Alexa rank to the next level.

Zone of Fire

 

I have a certain disdain for picking up recipe and cookery books. Let’s just say, since I barely get into the kitchen to make anything, such books become mere showpieces for me. I don’t get to cherish them the way they’re meant to be. But, I’ve started to develop a soft corner for non-fiction books on food, books that curate experiences related to food and lives of people.

As always, I’ve come across numerous gems at the Delhi Book Fair and in August, three years ago, I came away, giddy with happiness, with Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. With a focus on the adventures in the culinary underbelly, the book exposes the younger years of Bourdain’s life as a chef, filled with sex and drugs, and traces his career from being a dishwasher (we all have to begin somewhere) to the renowned chef, novelist, and television show host he is now.

Bourdain has always been a chef without a filter, not in the Gordon Ramsay-kind of a manner, but someone who does not hold back on his thoughts and opinion. He says it like it is. For him, his cooking life has been one long love affair, and through this book, he wanted his readers to get a taste of the life that a normal diner does not get to see, or appreciate. With a couple of friends in the industry of late, I know it is a slug fest being in the kitchen for over fifteen hours in a day, constantly standing or being near the flame, and it can be such a hard life.

The book is divided into five main sections – three courses, one dessert, followed by coffee and cigarettes. Food will always be related to memories, and Bourdain talks of his first memorable food experience while on a family vacation to Europe, when he had cold soup – vichyssoise. This was quite a revelation for him. However, he and his brother, had a strange liking for the random steak with ketchup, and their taste buds had not yet developed for the finer delicacies their parents wanted to introduce them to. So in Vienne, both boys were left in the car, while the parents went to enjoy their meal sans the grousing of their boys. This was quite a wake-up call for Bourdain as it dawned on him that a meal could be more than just shoving things down, but a means of celebration. This pushed him to try everything, and by that he meant, everything.

As a child, I too had my favourites. If we went to a particular restaurant, I would always order my staple menu, unlike my brother who always tried to get me to experiment, but no luck. It was only after losing him and finding a different me in stranger lands, did I start to push my boundaries, and now I indeed am a changed person. I loathe having to try the same things, and want to experiment with a lot of different cuisines, dishes and even food items.

This post is part of the eighth annual A to Z Challenge that takes place in the month of April. The theme for this month is ‘Between Pages’. It’s my second attempt at this. Feedback is most welcome, constructive criticism, even more. Share your experiences and let’s enjoy this month of fabulous blogging.

Youth of tomorrow

There are some books that are labeled as great, but few come about to actually reading them. As always, I had happened to see A Clockwork Orange in college, and though it made for quite a riveting film, its core concept really did not sink in, till I bought myself a second hand book from Connaught Place.

A dystopian novel, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, is set in a futuristic English society where the youth is prone to extreme violence and rage. Alex, the protagonist of the novel, along with his gang of three other youngsters, roam the streets of the city picking on innocent people. They also rob a store, assault a scholar who was on his way home, they fight with a rival gang, enter a private property and beat up the gentleman while the gang proceed to rape his wife… such are the terrors they inflict on society.

The second part of the story is what I find most interesting. It comprises Alex’s arrest and subsequently convicted of murder. He is chosen to be part of an experimental test, a behavious-modification technique known as the Ludovico Technique and in exchange, he would be set free. The process induces aversion in Alex to all the anti-social activity he used to do, and while being injected with nausea-inducing drugs, he was made to watch films with a high level of graphic content. This made his nauseous, and slowly, his brain started to trigger nausea every time he came across such content, either in thought or in real life. And as one of the films had Beethoven’s Ninth symphony as its soundtrack, Alex henceforth was unable to enjoy his favourite composer and musician.

“Is it better for man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?”

The reason I like this book is because of the central theme – ‘freedom to choose’, and how in Christian teachings we are taught that God loves us, hence He gives us the freedom of choice, but we must bear the consequences of our words, actions, and thoughts. So, in this book when Alex is conditioned to be repelled by bad deeds, one wonders what is more important, to be forced to be good or to be bad but have a freedom in that choice?

The narrative is exceptionally interesting and fast-paced for most of the story. While it may take you time to get the hang of Nadsat talk, but once you do, boy o boy, what a brilliant story shall you unravel. And I think, somewhere, with the characters conversing in Nadsat, it makes the impact of the grossly unappetizing sections in the book a little less dire.

This post is part of the eighth annual A to Z Challenge that takes place in the month of April. The theme for this month is ‘Between Pages’. It’s my second attempt at this. Feedback is most welcome, constructive criticism, even more. Share your experiences and let’s enjoy this month of fabulous blogging.

X-Mas Tales

When it comes to Christmas and winter, there are certain stories I keep reaching out to and although, like every year I couldn’t read it this year, I plan to get back on track this coming winter. Stephen King, the undisputed king of horror, makes for a fabulous read during this time. You may think it to be weird, but trust me, when the temperature dips low and the world is already tucked in bed, and you’re left with the King in your hands and a world that’s slowly going out of control.

A book I first read as an ebook, The Shining by Stephen King taught me that digital books are not meant to be looked down upon or even despised for that matter. And during my first job, when I had to wait before work started, I got hooked to reading digital books. Considering the size of The Shining, it’s a wonder I managed to finish not just this one, but a host of other books too.

Unfortunately, I happened to see the movie before I read the book, and like most cases, there were so many concepts that sprung to mind only after I read the book. Books have a way of explaining to readers what really goes on inside a person’s head, it’s much easier to break the fourth wall in a book. I realized, after watching the entire movie, that I had no clue to the exact concept of the ‘shining’.  Based in the fictional Overlook Hotel located in the Colorado Rockies, Jack Torrance along with his wife and child, take up residence for the winter. Jack who has a streak of violence and alcoholism in the past, is in desperate need of the job to pay for his writing, while he uses the opportunity to connect better with his family.

The ‘shining’ is actually in connection with Jack’s son Danny, who unbeknownst to his parents, is able to read minds, see premonitions and has telepathic abilities. The hotel they stay in is haunted, and previously, even a young family that had stayed here earlier, the father had fallen under the spell of cabin fever and had murdered his family.

Many wonder why Stephen King is so great, and while they may rattle off his other titles, for me, it’s this book. Fear literally creeps up your back, it does not come bounding towards you. You wouldn’t even realise how and when, in the daily humdrum of settling in at the hotel, do certain things look a little different and how even the seemingly harmless topiary may be alive after all.

This post is part of the eighth annual A to Z Challenge that takes place in the month of April. The theme for this month is ‘Between Pages’. It’s my second attempt at this. Feedback is most welcome, constructive criticism, even more. Share your experiences and let’s enjoy this month of fabulous blogging.