Musings amid a sea of poppies

In late May, on my morning bus commute to work, I saw a familiar red flower beside the road. It had delicate art-paper petals. What act was this weed in for, at a time when the epic show of tulips in the Netherlands had just ended? The Red Poppy (Papaver rhoeas) flower brought back interesting memories from the books I had read over the years, drawing parallels on how this flower has a place in the current geopolitics of the world, as does the tulip to trading.

The world’s first stock exchange established in Amsterdam in the 17th century had tulips as one of the traded commodities. It resulted in a market crash comparable to the dotcom bubble and sub-prime crisis. But the poppy has it own legacy; it has led to uprisings, revolts, annexation and overthrows of governments. And the reason for this is clear – opium is a byproduct of poppy cultivation.

Closing my eyes, I sifted through the pages of history. This delicate flower with a slender stem appeared to offer no resistance to the winds… winds of change, perhaps.

A little more than a year ago, when I was residing in Mumbai, I was intrigued by the history of the city. I ordered an obscure book The Soul of Mumbai from an author I hadn’t previously heard of — Ivan Raskino — on my Kindle and consumed it over the weekend. As I pondered over how four businessmen — Premchand Roychand, Jamsetji Tata, Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and David Sassoon — were among the pioneers who set the ball rolling to turn Bombay from a group of seven islands (Heptanesia) to the current thriving commercial hub of India.

Among the reasons the book listed as driving the growth of Mumbai to prominence was trade. Cotton was exported from Mumbai due to the need triggered by the American Civil War. However, Mumbai was also home to British and Indian merchants who exported to China opium produced from the poppy plants in the Malwa region. The excessive export of opium to China resulted in the Opium Wars and therefore the fall of the Qing dynastic. This led to the British establishing a firm hand in China, which lasted until China got independence from the British crown. What started as an ingredient in traditional medicine led to geopolitical change when it turned into a substance of abuse due to commercialisation.

In the story of poppy plans one can’t miss Afghanistan. Ten years ago I read Descent Into Chaos by Ahmad Rashid — which, I feel, is one of the two books anyone should read to understand the situation in Afghanistan (the other being The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk). From the book, I understood the influence of the Poppy plant in geopolitics. The Helmand province in Afghanistan has been the hotbed of militias in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion. The militias operating in the region used the region’s conducive climate to scale up the pink poppy production in the region. The excess produce of poppy was sold in the illicit opium market and created a steady stream of income for the militias to fund their activities. This, however, is a story that continues and no one knows where it would end.

A riot of colours

But what does a poppy plant know? The opium it produces may end up providing medicinal relief to a patient, or perhaps it will end up funding the purchase of a grenade that will propel shrapnel into the heart of a schoolteacher.

Two weeks passed. I saw more red poppy flowers blooming until I chanced upon a patch overgrown with weeds during a morning walk. The patch was a riot of flowers, all weeds, of several hues — yellow, blue, white, purple and red. It was as though someone had randomly picked up seeds and scattered them around. Though being in the process of reading Rudolf Arnheim’s work, I believed there would exist a pattern that my eyes had failed to perceive. 

What would Rudolf Arnheim say?

After having connected the poppy plant with riots and uprisings, here was a riot where the poppy flower appeared with a positive connotation – a riot of colours. As the flowers swayed with the wind, offering no resistance, I was reminded of the title of a fictional work — Amitav Ghosh‘s Sea of Poppies. Suddenly the wind dropped, as did my thoughts. There was silence… stillness.

Looking around, I saw a colourful sight. In that moment of being present, I saw the red poppy flower for what it was — a red poppy flower.


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