“The crisis will be upon us. It is not in the future but right now and everywhere you look,” said Amitav Ghosh, addressing the issue of climate change extensively at the Express Adda here on Saturday evening.
In conversation with The Indian Express Deputy Editor Seema Chishti, Ghosh said dealing with climate change requires the participation of every segment of society, and writers such as him could build awareness by creating narratives around it.
The author of notable books such as The Shadow Lines, The Hungry Tide and, most recently, The Ibis Trilogy, just launched his new work, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.
The problem of climate change that many calculated would take years is upon us, said Ghosh. “Look at Delhi, the heat wave and the drought, the deluge in Chennai — the impact is multiplying all across. I’m sure there are many experts in the room, but what interests me is how I deal with it as a writer,” he said.
In the book, the writer, who divides his time between New York and Goa, writes about how the bourgeois sensibility is a challenge in tackling climate change. “What the change has bared to us is the enormous crisis of imagination. It is the crisis of writing in the first place,” he said.
Ghosh noted that governments now function like corporates and are driven by a one-point agenda. “That’s what politicians talk about all the time — growth, growth and growth. It’s not like they can address anything else. The entire model of running a polity is now borrowed from industry. They speak of themselves as CEOs, they conceive of themselves as CEOs. Why should one be surprised that Donald Trump has made such a splash? He is actually a CEO, a businessman. I can predict with absolute confidence that, in India, some mega-billionaire will be standing up and saying, ‘I can run this better than the political class’. That lies in the future,” he said.
The author regretted that even contemporary religious systems and organisations are fixated on consumerism. “Some small Hindu religion groups have declared an interest in climate change. Some small Muslim groups have declared an interest. Even the Dalai Lama has spoken about it. But I’m afraid to say that the reality is that the religious groups are fixated on consumerism. It strikes me as a strange thing,” he says.
However, Ghosh said, some significant work has also come out of the churn — one such work being that of professor V Ramanathan, who is part of Pope Francis’s Council for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
One of the central themes in Ghosh’s novels has been migration, which the author said is inextricably linked to climate change. “My interest in migration really began when I began to write The Glass Palace. My whole family has a history of displacement. My ancestors left Bangladesh in the 1950s because of a climate event — a river had shifted course and our village had drowned. We finally moved to Bihar, to Chhapra,” said Ghosh.
“The other experience was when I left India to go to Oxford in 1978. I remember how wrenching it was. Travel wasn’t so common. I started to think how it would be like for a woman from rural Bihar, who suddenly finds herself uprooted, moving to a place which she has been told is a place of demons. I mark them as heroes.”
Ghosh also discussed the role of an author, writer, poet or an artist as a commentator on contemporary politics. “What we have set in motion is a society of spectacle where we are all dragged into this continuous tamasha. I feel that it’s important for me as a writer, a novelist and thinker to keep some distance between myself and the spectacle that is unfolding around me, and yet, here I am,” he said. “The most mysterious thing in the world today is the way writers, artists and intellectuals are more political than ever before. They engage with so many issues, be it gender or personal freedom, and yet, this wider thing that is unfolding around us, we don’t address. This is what I want to address.”
Were there still things to be hopeful about, Ghosh was asked. “In India, if you look at the response at the level of governance, it is beyond shocking. In the past, one of the sacred beauties of the State in the Indian tradition was the provision of water. Now we have a political class that doesn’t care at all about these fundamental things,” he said.
The Express Adda is a series of informal interactions organised by The Indian Express with people at the centre of change. It has featured earlier actors Shah Rukh Khan and Kangana Ranaut, economist Amartya Sen, and sports stars such as Saina Nehwal and Rohit Sharma.