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When Amitav Ghosh issues a warning, it's time to listen

Last updated on: August 31, 2016 23:01 IST

'We know many things are going to happen.'
People should be preparing for sea level rise, for increased cyclonic activity, for drought.'
'One reason I wrote the book is to alert people to the dangers that they face.'
'For example, Mumbai faces enormous threat.'

Amitav Ghosh, one of India's finest writers, discusses climate change, with Rediff.com's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.

Soon after The Great Derangement: Climate Change And The Unthinkable, his latest book released, the areas of Bihar where Ghosh's family resettled after leaving then East Bengal are battling fearsome floods.

Illustration on climate change

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

 

Weather and water have been an essential part of the narrative of Amitav Ghosh's life.

Almost like a relative. Also a lead character in many of his books.

Water particularly.

It followed him around wherever he went. In Kolkata the cloudy Hooghly formed the backdrop of his early life. Alexandria, where he studied, had the Nile delta that edges the Mediterranean. Oxford was on the placid Isis river, a portion of the upper Thames. Delhi, merely the distant Yamuna. When he moved to New York, the Atlantic Ocean and the Hudson river wound their way into his life.

For anyone who has had occasion to look out their window at the horizon to where water meets the sky, there are instances when the scene can perturb you. The thunderous heavens or a rising ocean is as discomforting as a calm blue sea is soothing.

But for an author, with as poetic a pen as Ghosh's, every sight of a roiling river and a seething sky, during his travels in this era of inexplicable and alarming climate happenings, would have set his imagination aflame. And perhaps provided inspiration for the next book.

This time, it did not beckon him to write a semi-fictional account of a historic rebellion occurring against the raw landscapes of Bengal's riverine tiger forests. Or about opium-powered voyages down the Ganga.

Instead, it produced a slim, neat volume, abrim with thought-provoking views on climate change. It links, unusually, the embarrassing neglect and boredom we show for the apocalypse awaiting our materialistic, selfish souls with literature, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism. And it offers gentle rebuke.

A submerged statue of Lord Shiva stands amid the flooded waters of river Ganges at Rishikesh in 2013.

IMAGE: When a swollen Ganga flooded Rishikesh in 2013, it did not spare this massive statute of Lord Shiva. Photograph: Reuters

 The intriguing, startling connections The Great Derangement (that released in India a day after his 60th birthday) constructs between wealth and weather, cyclones and our psychopathy, Flaubert and floods and more, make it a book that jolts a whole variety of pedestrian notions out of your brain and forces you to look at the problem differently. Mainly because Ghosh lays the arguments out neatly in clear prose.

Yes, it is a work of non-fiction. 'Obviously,' you say. 'Climate change is not the stuff of novels!' Shhhh, don't utter that assumption aloud lest Ghosh hears you. One of Derangement's radical points demands why climate change has been so summarily shoved into the province of non-fiction.

Why didn't an Ishiguro or another modern great novelist breathe life into a tale where climate change was an essential part of the storyline? If global warming is a more familiar theme of our everyday life -- rather than something abstruse belonging only in the territory of science, and in books not novels -- we would know how imminent it is, feels Ghosh, and stop it.

But he concludes that didn't happen as the 'orderly bourgeois' Western world 'banished' conversations around cataclysmic weather occurrences in fiction because everything about fantastic weather events, eclipses, deluges, antediluvian floods, fierce bitter winters -- the bullies of Nature -- were more the stuff of epics from 'dithyrambic lands' (read: Pagan people) and definitely not real enough to be part of modern fiction.

Talking about the absence of cultural references to the phenomenon in Derangement, he asks: 'What is it about climate change that the mention of it should lead to banishment from the preserves of serious fiction? And what does this tell us about culture writ large and its patterns of evasion?'

'In a substantially altered world, when sea level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York, (Mumbai) and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time,' he asks, 'will they not look, first, and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance?'

'And when they fail to find them, what should they -- what can they -- do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognising the realities of their plight? Quite possibly then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.'

'But in the era of global warming, nothing is really far away; there is no place where the orderly expectations of bourgeois life hold unchallenged sway,' Ghosh adds. 'It is as though our earth had become a literary critic and were laughing at (Gustave) Flaubert, Bankim (Chandra Chatterjee), and their like, mocking their mockery of the 'prodigious happenings' that occur so often in romances and epic poems.'

The Indian Army rescues flood hit villagers in Gujarat.

IMAGE: Troops rescue villagers in Gujarat, August 2015. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Indian Army

It isn't surprising that climate change is a concern dear to Ghosh's heart. Water and weather were part of the trajectory of his ancestors' lives. It rudely jostled them out of their likely picturesque village on the great Padma in current day Bangladesh in the 1850s when the tempestuous river changed its course and saw them migrate to Chhapra in the far western part of the then Bengal Presidency, before moving to Calcutta where Ghosh was born into a military family.

Climate change perhaps gnaws away at Ghosh's spirit for many more reasons. Like it would be distressing to discover that the area your forebears hailed from may very soon not exist on a map again.

There is a strong probability that the Padma hamlet in Bangladesh (a country that contributes approximately a mere .4 metric tonnes per head per year of emissions that are causing global warming, compared to say America's 17*), where it all began for the Ghosh clan, could be destroyed in a few years and underwater in another 60, effectively then making Ghosh and family a species almost as unearthly as Martians!

Amitav Ghosh at the launch of his latest book, The Great Derangement

IMAGE: Amitav Ghosh at the launch of The Great Derangement. Photograph: Hitesh Harisinghani/Rediff.com

An interview with the silver-haired, affable writer unfolds on a monsoon morning at the Taj Palace hotel, Mumbai. The weather, quite aptly, intrudes into the conversation -- banks of clouds and an ominous grey sky peep in.

Inside, a series of tiny signs -- the whispering air conditioners, the army of little bottles of mineral water, the incessant, harsh sound of a marble slab being sawed in the distance, the luxurious environment -- remind us that the conspicuous consumption that we engage in, every second of the day, is indirectly responsible for the fiercer than normal monsoon we are seeing beyond the picture window and living through this season.

Floods have inundated entire swathes of villages, killed scores in north India and drowned rare one-horned rhinos. While we are faintly concerned about climate change and how it will affect maybe Fiji, the Maldives and our children and grandchildren's lives, we still end up lackadaisically paying lip service to the issue in our own lives. All the time.

Ghosh disagrees. "You could change as much as you like -- you could give up everything. I could give up everything. We could hold this (interview) out in the open. It would make absolutely no difference!"

"We are speaking here of gigantic things which create impacts which actually none of us can control or even effect as individuals," he says. "To think of it something that can be solved by individual actions is really to let collective institutions off the hook."

"For example one of the largest sources of emissions in the world today are actually these burning forests in Indonesia. Why are these forests being burnt? It is in order to create palm oil plantations. Who wants this palm oil? A lot of it is going to Europe as bio-diesel. But bio-diesel is not necessarily any more environmentally friendly than any other kind of energy source. Those are issues that you and I can hardly impact. Those are issues that have to be acted on collectively."

People help a man carry his two-wheeler on a cycle cart as they wade through a waterlogged subway in Chennai.

IMAGE: People help a man carry his two-wheeler on a cycle cart in waterlogged Chennai, 2015. Photograph: PTI

Ghosh admiringly raises the example of Mahatma Gandhi in Derangement. He walked the talk and was a man who 'invested himself, body and soul' in the 'politics of sincerity.' In the manner of Gandhi, don't we all need to do more than talk the talk?

"We have to work towards and be prepared for a change in our ways of living," he says, "But it is foolish for us to imagine that you and I could bring this about through individual action."

"Let me give you the example of California. California is going through this epic drought, a long-lasting drought. It is drought is partly caused by human impacts, partly caused by climate impacts, as in fact most things are today. As a result of which water rationing has been put in place..."

"Think about water rationing, about any kind of rationing in a place such as a California, which is so consumerist, where people are so insistent on their right to spend whatever they want and their right to use natural resources."

"Yet, in California people have adapted quite well because they had to. I think that is the perfect analogy. Rationing can't be left to individuals. Rationing has to be a collective decision," he emphasises.

 Volunteers supplying water bottles to residents stuck in a water logged society in Mumbai during the infamous July 26, 2005, floods

IMAGE: Volunteers supply water bottles to residents marooned during the July 26, 2005 floods in Mumbai. Photograph: Adeel Halim AH/Reuters

It has been a hectic month for Ghosh. Innumerable interviews, launch events, travel and the socialising that happens around a book release. Ghosh doesn't look tired, but his answers are slightly mechanical. Our dialogue shambles ahead.

Awe returns when you remember a passage you read less than a day ago in Derangement when Ghosh talks about materialism fuelling the earth's destruction: 'Culture generates desires -- for vehicles and appliances, for certain kinds of gardens and dwellings -- that are among the principal drivers of the carbon economy.'

'A speedy convertible excites us neither because of any love for metal and chrome, nor because of an abstract understanding of its engineering. It excites us because it evokes an image of a road arrowing through a pristine landscape; we think of freedom and the wind in our hair; we envision James Dean and Peter Fonda racing towards the horizon; we think also of Jack Kerouac and Vladimir Nabokov.'

'When we see an advertisement that links a picture of a tropical island to the word paradise, the longings that are kindled in us have a chain of transmission that stretches back to Daniel Defoe and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: the flight that will transport us to the island is merely an ember in that fire.'

'When we see a green lawn that has been watered with desalinated water in Abu Dhabi or Southern California or some other environment where people had once been content to spend their water thriftily in nurturing a single vine or shrub, we are looking at an expression of a yearning that may have been midwifed by the novels of Jane Austen.'

While he had innumerable reasons to worry about weather change, what compelled him to finally write about it, especially in this dramatic vein? Could this book for instance have come along, say, 15 years earlier? Or did it need him to hit 60 to have this take?

"I think that's true. I would not have been able to write Derangement 15 years ago. Simply because, amongst other things, the urgency that now exists didn't exist in quite the same way 15 years ago. Or at least our awareness didn't exist in the same way..."

"It was something I always wanted to write about. I think just seeing all the sorts of climate catastrophes that are building up around the world, it made me increasingly concerned. Most of all, I think, reading about the problems that lie in India's future is what really made feel that I had to say something about it."

"There is another issue also -- which is of preparedness," he adds. "We know that many things are going to happen, some of them are predictable. Sea level rise is predictable. People should be preparing for that -- for sea level rise, for increased cyclonic activity, for drought. If anything, what I would like to do, which is one of the reasons I wrote the book, is to alert people to the dangers that they face. For example, Mumbai is a city that faces an enormous threat. And the city should prepare."

Villagers being rescued during the Kashmir flood in 2014.

IMAGE: Villagers rescued during the Kashmir floods in 2014. Photograph: Umar Ganie

In Derangement Ghosh describes, in grim detail, the possibility of India having a permanently semi-submerged Mumbai soon. That should have Mumbaikars as anxious as Venice or Nauru of ocean rise and increased cyclonic activity.

A day before my interview, he was at a Mumbai radio station and responded to questions from local listeners on how 'Bombay represents a great concentration of risk' in this respect. He was taken aback -- he laughs in disbelief as he recounts it -- how most of his audience had not thought of this scenario, even though it was not improbable at all, with the July 26, 2005, flood providing a prescient warning of the city's future.

The conversation turns to the fraught times we are living through and other calamities the world is facing. And how they might all be connected. Terrorism. Poverty. Weather. The supremacy of the gun. Migration.

"See, these things are not actually separate even though they manifest themselves in different ways," says Ghosh. "When we look at what is happening in the world today, it is not as though things are as bad as they were, for example, in the Second World War."

"When we speak of war," he points out, "we can also see a solution. We can see the end of a war. In this particular case, what makes it actually feel so difficult is that is hard to see an end. It is not like a war, hard to see that there is any solution to (these) things."

"There are even more direct connection, for example, (between) terrorism, migration and so on. There are climate impacts which will lead to intensifying migration," he says. "There was a great drought in Syria in 2008. This drought led to many, many people moving to the cities. They could no longer make their living from the countryside. And this had a deeply destabilising effect on Syria. Of course, there were many, many political (issues), so we don't know really how to separate one problem from another."

"In India, this year, because of the drought hundreds of thousands of people have moved from various drought-stricken areas into cities. Fortunately it has not had a destabilising effect on the country yet," he says. "But if this process intensifies, who knows what will happen because no city can keep on absorbing unlimited numbers of migrants."

"All these issues may have consequences we can't anticipate," says Ghosh. "I can foresee circumstances where we solve (the issues) in relation to terrorism. But it is very hard to see how we can solve the long-term drought in Syria. How do we solve that?"

"We have to prepare for the problems that lie ahead. We all know that large parts of Bangladesh are going to go underwater. Large parts already are going underwater. This in itself is leading to a lot of migration. You know those factories that collapsed in Bangladesh (the Rana Plaza, Dhaka, on April 2013 that killed 1,130 people). A lot was written about the collapse and so on. Very little was written about the fact that most of the people who were working in those factories actually had to abandon their land and move to the city because of the intrusion of salt water. The land had become uncultivable."

"So if the world were a rational place we would be saying: How do we deal with the great numbers of migrants that lie in the future? What are the sorts of institutions (needed)? What are the provisions we can make for them? Where can they be resettled?" he asks.

"These are questions that the international community either doesn't want to ask or is unprepared for. We deal with migration as and when it arises. But these impacts are going to intensify over the future, and we really have made no provisions for dealing with them."

*International Energy Agency's 2010 chart

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / Rediff.com
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