As smog envelopes us, it's time to revisit Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement
When acclaimed novelist Amitav Ghosh was writing The Great Derangement, a work of nonfiction on the burning issue of climate change, many in literary circles asked him: "Why would you write about something so boring?"
Some two years down the line, as the eyes burn and lungs choke in the "gas chamber" that residents of Delhi find themselves in, his book is a fitting examination of the scale and dangers of climate change.
It was not just a few in literary circles who failed to recognise the problem of climate change; for most of us, it remained something vague. in an interview to this correspondent just ahead the launch of The Great Derangement, Ghosh had abruptly asked: "Did you notice the smog that had filled the air just before the onset of winter?"
"I think I did," I replied. "Well what did you do about it," he immediately retorted.
Ghosh's book, however, was a timely response to climate change and deserved much more attention than what it received then.
"Are we deranged," asks Ghosh in the book and argues that future generations may well think so. "How else to explain our imaginative failure in the face of global warming?" It was his first major book of nonfiction since In an Antique Land, and in its pages Ghosh examines our inability – at the level of literature, history and politics – to grasp the scale of climate change.
"In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, 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," he writes in the book.
Ghosh had added in the interview that, at first, his concerns were about the damage that we are doing to the environment – but climate change is something much bigger.
"When we are talking about environmental impacts, we are talking about specific ecological systems, about specific environments and the ways in which human beings have impacted them. But climate change is something much bigger.
"We are talking about an inter-connected earth's system, which is changing in ways that after a certain point human beings can't actually control what is going to happen and that seems to be a situation that we are already in. These changes are occurring in ways that we can no longer impact them. If you look around the world and see what writers are writing about, very few are actually confronting this issue," he had said.
He also pointed out that, in his opinion, there were no simple or easy solutions.
"What has actually happened is that we have lost the tools, and the ways of thinking, which allow us to understand or even to register what is happening around us. Even if we sometimes find ourselves in the midst of some of these changes, either we are unable to connect it to wider issues of climate change that are occurring or we are unable to think of it in an imaginative way.
"Something is happening, which is going to be, in the long run, catastrophic and yet we are unable to find some story for it," he maintained.
The fundamental point that Ghosh raised in that interview was that artists, writers and filmmakers have not really given climate change the attention it needs.
He had said that he is "not in the business of finding solutions" but pointed out that one good way to finding a solution is to "understand the gravity and magnitude of the situation we are all in".
Ghosh suggests that politics, much like literature, has become a matter of personal moral reckoning rather than an arena of collective action. But to limit fiction and politics to individual moral adventure comes at a great cost. The climate crisis asks us to imagine other forms of human existence – a task to which fiction, Ghosh argues, is the best suited of all cultural forms.
A few weeks from now, the smog may fade away and the perils of today may disappear both from the headlines and our minds. But Ghosh's book will continue to serve as a great writer's call to confront the most urgent task of our time.