The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 22, 2002
Time Off

Poppies are both sacred and profane
Manohar Malgonkar

THE word poppy seems to have undergone some dizzy swings of fortune over the last century. Held in high esteem for decades, it went downhill and took on a rank odour. Now it seems poised to acquire a touch of holiness again.

Its elevation from ordinariness to sanctity began in the year 1915. World War I was well into its stride and the slaughter of British soldiers engaged in trench warfare was in full flow. That was when the London magazine Punch published a short poem by a little-known English poet, John McCrae, whose last two lines are in the form of a cry emanating from dead soldiers:

If ye break faith with us who are dead. We shall not sleep

Though poppies grow in Flanders Fields.


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Those lines gripped the imagination of the British public, and the poppies that grew in Flanders Fields became associated with dead British soldiers. That slaughter of soldiers went on for yet another three years before the war ended. By then, poppies had become a symbol of keeping faith with dead soldiers, so much so, that they began to be worn on one’s dress on Armistice Day every year — an essential part of a solemn ritual which developed into a tradition, along with church services and a minute’s silence.

Post-war editions of the Oxford English Dictionary actually use the word ‘sacred’ in defining the poppy; and it was this meaning that acquired currency in the English-speaking world.

In the Raj, which took pride in observing the rituals of the home country with oriental pomp and ceremony, Armistice Day somehow percolated even to schoolchildren: for several days before it, schoolboys could skip classes by volunteering to sell paper poppy flowers in their neighbourhoods. We began to look forward to it and called it Poppy Day.

Since that first Great War, there have been several other wars, great and small; and more millions of dead soldiers. But November 11, remained as the day for remembering all dead soldiers, solemn and sacred. And then came America’s Vietnam and the anti-war hysteria which metamorphosed into a wave of counter-culture. It was a spontaneous rebellion of the very young against many of the rules of behaviour observed by their elders; and the hippies, skinheads, and Carnaby Street were its superficial manifestations. But it had a darker and more sinister underside too, and that was a growing addiction to drugs.

Fads come and go. The Hippy cult is now no more than an intriguiging footnote of social history, and counter-culture turned out to have been a blank cartridge. Skinheads are a curiosity, not a craze, and Carnaby Street is no longer the Mecca of youth fashions in clothes and accessories. That remains is the drug culture, now grown to menacing proportions because it has been seized by powerful criminal gangs as a business venture, and because the poppy, or actually the opium which the same plant produces, is one of the main sources of the world’s supply of narcotics, the flower too, by association, has tumbled off its high pedestal and become a polluted world.

As it happens, poppies were never commercially cultivated as flowers, but for the opium. And opium has been used as a soporific and an intoxicant since ancient times. In India it is smoked in chillums which are pipes made of clay, or drunk in the form of a tea. It was this brew made highly potent, which was traditionally imbibed by Rajput warriors before they set out on those desperate death-or-glory charges against impossible odds.

In the richer houses in the Hindi belt, visitors are even today asked whether, instead of tea or a soft drink, they would not like a glass of thandai, which is the champagne of opium brews. For, it is made with full-cream buffalo milk and enriched with an almond paste and a touch of saffron. In fact over much of India, there is a day, or rather a night, set aside as an occasion for a festival of thandai: The first full moon after the rains.

Friends and neighbours are invited for an outdoor party. There is singsong and rich food, but the drink of the occasion is thandai, usually served in silver goblets. It is a delicious concoction, and deceptively like an extra-rich children’s milkshake. But beware, beware. Just say no after that first glassful, for it is highly potent, capable of suppressing inhibitions and of giving you a monumental hangover.

Barely a hundred years ago, India was the world’s biggest producer of opium. When the East India Company began to rule India, it declared the production and sale of opium to be its own monopoly and began to export large quantities of it to China at highly profitable rates. The Chinese Emperor, alarmed at the manner in which the people were becoming addicted to the drug, banned its import, and thus gave cause to the company to declare war against China:

It was called ‘The Opium War’. What right had the Chinese rulers to prevent their people from opium-smoking, and thereby cutting off the company’s most lucrative trade?

Such is the logic of the narcotics trade: perverse, contorted, above all self-serving. It is our right to make money from the sale of drugs to those who want them, and no government can stop us from either growing what plants we want to and selling their yield to those who will pay for it. That is what the drug barons of Columbia are saying, and so are Afghanistan’s farmers.

Who would believe it that Afghanistan is Europe’s major supplier of opium? Only two years ago, it was producing more than 4000 tonnes of it annually. That was when the Taliban stamped down on it with their customary ruthlessness, so that in A.D. 2000, production fell down to 300 tonnes. With the ouster of the Taliban and the farmers free to grow whatever brought them most money, poppy cultivation has burgeoned and this year’s opium yield is more than 3000 tonnes, with a street value of more than a billion dollars’.

Not that the cultivator himself sees much of the real money. Still he makes about ten times as much as he would by growing, say, rice or wheat. He certainly doesn’t want to give up planting poppies just because of governmental pressure or the horrified protests of western countries seeking to control the narcotics trade.

In a land that has been a battlefield for 20 years, a frontier spirit holds away. Most Afghans are disdainful of authority. The farmers among them who have toiled hard to grow a crop that brings them good money, are in no mood to stop growing poppies because the civilised world wants them to do so. All right, they say. We’ll grow some other crop, but only if we’re compensated for our loss of income. In other words: pay us what we get for growing poppies, for not growing them.

No matter how unreasonable — or just — this demand is, no Government can submit to it. The standoff continues, while more and more Afghan farmers take to growing poppies.

As though this situation was not a serious enough challenge to a patchwork Government seeking to rebuild their country, brick by brick, out of the rubble of a civil war, the mullahs of the land have given it a bizarre twist. They’re calling upon the farmers to go all out for opium growing, so that part of the profits can be used for buying arms for the purposes of Jehad!

So there it is. A word which, for centuries, had only one meaning: a flower in the grass, became a symbol for remembering dead soldiers. Then the narcotics culture brought it down with a crash. Is the poppy now poised for yet another change of meaning, as the life-blood of religious wars?