Sunday Book: The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh

One of my favourite books of all time is ‘The Hungry Tide’ by Amitav Ghosh.  It tells the story of a young scientist who goes into the Sundarbans of Bangladesh to find a rare and endangered dolphin. The Sundarbans are one of the lowest lying areas of Bangladesh - part of the Bengal Delta, vulnerable to rising sea levels and super-storms. At the climax of the novel the heroine finds herself trapped, with her lover, out in the mangrove swamps by a typhoon and experiences the destructive fury of a tropical hurricane.

Now, Amitav Ghosh has turned to non-fiction to bring climate change and ‘the unthinkable’ prospects for vulnerable populations, to the attention of the literary world.

Why, he asks, are so few writers incorporating extreme climatic events into literary fiction?  Why must it always be confined to the genres of dystopian, or speculative fiction? Or it is listed in the new genre springing up ‘Eco-fiction’.   Among the few writers who do address it are Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver and, of course, Amitav Ghosh himself.

There are others, not mentioned by Ghosh - Joni Rodgers excellent novel The Hurricane Lover, written out of the experience of hurricane Katrina, is one of those that springs to mind, and you may be able to add a couple of names to the list.

But, generally, as in the population at large, the realities of our future and that of our children, as well as the extreme weather events of our present, are largely ignored.

Climate change is nothing new. Amitav Ghosh’s family were themselves ecological refugees when, in the 19th century, the Padma river suddenly changed its course, washing away the village they lived in the land that surrounded it. Anyone born in the Bengal Delta is used to a shifting landscape.  What has changed is the degree of change and the human element of its causation. We are in the ‘Arc of Acceleration’.  There is also the difference that populations are no longer free to move in response to it.  They become refugees and nobody wants them.

The Sinking Island Project
The Anthropocene, Ghosh asserts, ‘presents a challenge, not only to the arts and humanities, but also to ... contemporary culture in general’.  Fiction that addresses it, is not ‘of the kind that is taken seriously by serious literary journals’.  The ‘literary novel’, Ghosh writes, has, as part of its history, ‘been disdainful of plot and narrative’.  Emphasis has been laid on the subtleties of human interaction - ‘style and observation, of everyday details, traits of character, or nuances of emotion’.   Big exterior events that strain credibility have no place in literary fiction as it is defined.  And this is despite the fact that these events are becoming part of our everyday experience.

Amitav Ghosh uses the word ‘uncanny’ to describe our experience of climate change.  Not the goose-bump inducing supernatural, but the feeling we have when something familiar and predictable suddenly presents with ‘new menace and uncertainty’. What concerns him most is our 'imaginative failure', as writers and artists, in the face of it.

A big section of the book discusses our disconnection with the natural world - a process that began a long time ago.  Once, he writes, our ancestors were very wary of the natural world, particularly the ocean.  They chose to live in locations at a safe distance from the sea.  Now these ocean views, or riverside retreats, are high-status locations - a symptom of our disconnection and hubris.  We build with a reckless disregard for nature, indifferent to, or believing we can control, its risks.  ‘Property values,’ he says, ‘would almost certainly decline if residents were to be warned of possible risks - which is why builders and developers are sure to resist efforts to disseminate disaster related information.’
An image of dystopia
Then he moves on to the politics of climate change, where even to talk about it risks a major confrontation with its deniers.  Is this why serious literature avoids it?  Amitav Ghosh asks serious questions.  What is the place of the non-human in the modern novel?  Why has the literary imagination become ‘radically centred on the human’ to the exclusion of all else?

In another chapter Ghosh looks at the politics of carbon and the part that corporate consumerism played in the fate of Mahatma Gandhi.  ‘Gandhi understood . . . that the universalist premise of industrial civilisation was a hoax; that a consumerist mode of existence, if adopted by a sufficient number of people, would quickly become unsustainable and would lead, literally to the devouring of the planet.’  Consumerism enriched people.  Gandhi’s enemies brought him down.

Ghosh proposes no solutions to the situation except to identify the fact that it must be a collective response.  Although we are all ultimately responsible for climate change, since we have all contributed to it in some way, it is corporations and governments, global organisations, that have to make the changes that can rescue us.  He castigates the mass media for its bias due to the fact that ‘large sections are now controlled by climate sceptics and by corporations that have vested interests in the carbon economy’.

He stresses the urgency of the problem: ‘every year that passes without a drastic reduction in global emissions makes catastrophe more certain’.   But offers a fervent prayer for hope:
‘I would like to believe that out of this struggle will be born a generation that will be able to look upon the world with clearer eyes than those that preceded it ... that they will rediscover their kinship with other beings, and that this vision, at once new and ancient, will find expression in a transformed and renewed art and literature’.

This book has taken my mind for a walk and made me think quite deeply about the role of writers and publishers and diseminators of the written and spoken word in what Ghosh calls the ‘Great Derangement’.  Highly recommended.

The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh
Published by Penguin Random House, India


  1. One of the writers I most respect in the whole contemporary literary world. I've long considered him Nobel prize worthy. Not sure if I'm up to this though but I'll look out for it when book browsing. I hope it gets the attention it deserves though.


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