In the year 1815, Mount Tambora, near Bali, erupted. It was the biggest volcanic eruption in human history; so much debris was shot into the air that it blocked out the sun. It caused great storms and tremendous perturbations in the weather and 1816 came to be known as the year without a summer.
At the time, Lord Byron — wishing to escape scandals in London — took off to Geneva, accompanied by his secretary, Polidori. In Geneva, they met with Percy Shelley, and his wife Mary. One day, as they sat together in the particularly gloomy weather, with an incessant downpour, Lord Byron proposed a plan: to write ‘stories of the supernatural’. He began, but did not finish a story — Polidori took it up, and it was published as The Vampyre — the first vampire story. Byron wrote a poem called Darkness while Mary Shelley started the novel that would come to be known as Frankenstein.
In Geneva, in 1815, Byron, Polidori and the Shelleys may not have been aware that the weather that inspired them to write their dark stories was caused by a volcanic explosion thousands of miles away. But the anecdote — which is included in Amitav Ghosh’s new book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable — demonstrates how a catastrophic event pertaining to nature, to the environment, can inspire literature.
Ghosh's book is based on a series of lectures he delivered at the University of Chicago last fall. In it, he examines why climate change — perhaps the greatest crisis mankind might face in the years to come — has received so little attention in the genre of literary fiction.The Great Derangement is as much a call to action on the issue of climate change, as it is an examination of the modern literary novel and how it came to be.
One afternoon last week, Ghosh met with us in Mumbai. The Great Derangement had been launched here the night before and there has been tremendous interest in the book because it describes how vulnerable the city is to climate change, and how unprepared to deal with its consequences.
For instance, from the window of the room in which we are seated, at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Colaba, you can see the Gateway of India. On any given day, you will find revellers walking along its promenade. On this afternoon, there are several hundred visitors, splashing about in the rain and the spray from the sea.
In his book, Ghosh vividly describes what might happen if a Category 4 or 5 cyclone were to come hurtling in over South Mumbai. The sea would come rushing in, over the Gateway and the Taj, he writes. And while the chances of a such a cyclone hitting Mumbai are small, Ghosh points out that climate change does influence cyclonic activity; the Arabian Sea — while calmer than the Bay of Bengal — is no exception.
To examine Ghosh’s interest in the problem of climate change is to go back to his origins, to the time his family fled from their home by the banks of the Padma when it flooded. He speaks of memories coloured by the knowledge that the river that nurtured you could also destroy you, and of the chain reaction his forbearers’ migration had on his own life.
Today, Ghosh lives in Goa and New York, but the influence of those early years has continued.
“The landscape of Bengal is very active. It's constantly in motion, constantly changing, rivers change their courses. No one can stop it. In Bengal, people lived through the agency of nature or natural phenomena before the rest of the world. But now we're all caught in it,” he says.
There is a more specific event that Ghosh refers to as well, which made a deep impression on his mind — far deeper than the Tambora eruption and its consequences on Byron, Shelley et al. In 1978, as a 21-year-old MA student in Delhi, and working part-time as a journalist, Ghosh was walking back to his hostel one day, when a freak tornado hit that part of town. The aftermath he describes, is shocking.
Ghosh says that he often thought of writing about the tornado,but never did — although natural disasters and phenomena of other kind have featured prominently in his fiction, most notably in The Hungry Tide.
In fact, it was just after The Hungry Tide was published that Ghosh wrote a series of articles on the 2004 tsunami and its effects on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for The Hindu. He tells us of the experience:
What he saw in the aftermath of the tsunami, made Ghosh ponder over why we were building cities so close to the sea, why we chose to be in such close proximity with what might lead to our destruction.
In The Great Derangement, Ghosh makes the point that this wasn't always the case — that older cities like London and Kochi weren't as open to the sea as newer ones like Mumbai and New York, that came up as a result of post-17th century colonialisation. These cities are also the ones which are believed to have been “made” by migrants — is it that those who were not from the place, but made it their home, were less wary than the original inhabitants of what might be safe places to build on?
“If you look around the world, at the cities that are most threatened by climate change, almost all of them are founded in this post-17th century of colonialism..." Ghosh says. "Essentially when people assumed control of a place without having lived there a long time. So they're not really aware of the dangers of those locations. They chose them for other reasons. Th British chose Mumbai because it was an island and could be easily defended, had easy access to the sea and so on. So for a colonial power, an island is a good place to build in, so that’s true of Mumbai, New York... people hadn't built major settlements in estuarine regions (before that) but because of the peculiar pattern of development that has followed from that time on, Mumbai has become — as one analyst put it — an enormous concentration of risk."
He adds: "So many of India’s important financial institutions are located in South Mumbai: the Reserve Bank, the Stock Exchange, the harbour that deals with 40 percent of India’s export trade. So all of this is concentrated here. Suppose you had even a minor cyclone, it would make many of these facilities unusable for several days. What would be the risk for India’s financial system? At the very least, there should b a Plan B. These institutes need to have back up locations on the mainland. We need to understand that the threats are real, and that the threats are intensifying."
Among the concerns that Ghosh has voiced in The Great Derangement is why the climate change crisis hasn't informed more of our literary writing today. He examines a complex network of factors, including 18th century ideas of Enlightenment, the development of printing technology, and the constraints of language itself (he admits that the parts about the tornado and the tsunami were hardest to write in his book). He also observes that the modern novel, like modern politics, has become focused on “individual moral adventure”. However, Ghosh’s own novels — from The Hungry Tide to the Ibis trilogy (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, Flood of Fire) — have avoided that restriction. As much as they are about individual adventure, they occur in a context in which geopolitical forces, nature and processes like migration play an important role.
But Ghosh does not believe that his fiction is an exception in that sense. "If you look at 19th century novels, many of them were like that. If you look at Moby Dick, the characters are written in relation to the world around them," he says. "If you see the work of George Elliot... most Indian writers before the modern period, were in on way or another, in deep connection with natural phenomena. It’s really a thing that has happened over the last few decades, as greenhouse gas emissions have mounted, as human beings have become ever more closely enmeshed with the changing climate, we have also become ever more blind to it, and this is one of the great historical ironies for which I think our descendants will not forgive us. They'll look back at us and ask, what were you doing at that time? It’s always said about the Second World War that children would turn to their parents and say, what did you do? Similarly, I think a day will come when our cities are under water, when large parts of our countries have become unlivable because of drought and heat waves, this is what our children will say to us — did you even notice that this was happening?"