Awarded the Padma Shri, the Jnanpith Award and countless other literary prizes, Amitav Ghosh is one of our most prominent writers. Importantly, he is also one of the few writers in India who have decided to broaden his canvas and focus on climate change and the environment in a meaningful way. It is not easy to move between fiction and non-fiction, yet Ghosh has been able to earn a wide readership around the world without choosing one over the other. In 2019, Foreign Policy magazine named him one of the most important global thinkers of the preceding decade.
Starting with older books like The Hungry Tide, which dealt with the reality of environmental change in the Sundarbans, through to his landmark Ibis trilogy, which followed opium routes across the world, and the more recent The Great Derangement, a treatise on the need to talk about climate change, Ghosh has consistently highlighted the complicated course of colonialism, climate change, and national identity, from the time of his classic work of non-fiction In an Antique Land.
His new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (Penguin Random House India, 2021) continues to expand on Ghosh’s concerns, this time in a small group of volcanic islands east of Java, Indonesia. In the small yet compelling tale of the nutmeg, he reminds us that it was only farmed in the Banda islands prior to the 16th century, through his lucid, compassionate narrative; when the Dutch arrived and decided to mine this commodity, they rapidly conquered the islands and nutmeg was soon priced exorbitantly in its own home. What follows is a classic parable, whose fallout many of us will recognize in places like Kodaikanal.
This month, Ghosh spoke to The Kodai Chronicle from his home in Brooklyn, New York, about the need for big stories from small towns, his visit to Kodai in the ‘80s, its own reckoning with the legacy of colonialism on the environment, and the importance of dealing with wildfires in the mountains.
Edited excerpts follow.
Rajni George: Amitav, I’ve been reading all the great press. It seems like your message is hitting home, that people have been ready to receive the ideas in your book.
Amitav Ghosh: When you say that, I must admit that I am rather surprised; as you can see, the picture I’ve painted in the book is rather a dark one. But yes, I think people can see that the state of the world is very dark. In that sense, perhaps it has struck a chord.
RG: I read in a recent interview in The LA Review of Books that you feel it has been easier to write non-fiction than fiction at the moment.
AG: It’s true, I was able to write this book since it is non-fiction. Because, you know, there was a lot of research going into it. I think that writing fiction, as far as I can tell, in this particular period has been very difficult for friends of mine who are writers. Some of them say the reason it is so difficult is because they took a certain amount of energy just from seeing people on the street, just from casual encounters, and all of that is gone now. That has been very difficult for a lot of people.
RG: Yes. And yet there were these larger issues that connected all of us. I wonder if there is a sense of strength in the connection to the larger ideas that empowers your non-white reader now—or widens that gap. Is it empowering to make that connection, or more depressing?
AG: (Laughs.) Look, my audience will always be fairly limited. To put it in the broader Western context, how many people are going to read books like mine? But you know, there is a very wide interest in these issues right now, especially among young people, those studying at university and college. There’s been a huge growth in this new concentration called environmental humanities, and a lot of them read and engage with my books in very passionate ways.
In Singapore, there are three major universities and all of them have big environmental humanities concentrations; I know because I’ve been invited to them all. I don’t think that we’ve had that in India yet. There’s a new private university coming up near Chennai, Krea, with Mahesh Rangarajan, the very eminent economic historian, as its chancellor, and they are going to place a lot of emphasis on these issues.
RG: Yes, and people around the world are studying climate change literature as well, as an area of specialisation.
AG: Yes, I think that’s been something that has also been expanding a lot.
RG: We started The Kodai Chronicle partly because, as creative people and non-specialists, we found it difficult to talk about these issues and wanted to engage with them. I was wondering if there were any surprises that came of interactions with readers of your books with environmental concerns.
AG: You’ve made a crucial point there. It’s very important for people not to feel that they don’t have the right to talk about these issues because they haven’t mastered the expert literature. One of the disasters that occurred in relation to the awareness of climate change around the world is that it has come to be completely dominated by experts, and experts are often very territorial and very fierce about defending their turf and keeping others off it. But look, this is the reality that is affecting all of us. I mean, look at Chennai. If your house is flooded, do you not have the right to speak about it? Come on, what nonsense. If you are in Uttarakhand and have a river flowing through your village, do you not have the right to speak about it?
In the Nilgiris and Kodaikanal, I really encourage you to write about the wildfire situation. That is something that is not talked about at all. If you look at global wildfire statistics, India is way up there. I remember two or three years ago, taking a plane from Mumbai to Colombo, and all along the Nilgiris you could see these huge plumes of smoke rising and there’s no coverage of it anywhere. It’s very important that you and your associates start paying attention to these issues. As we’ve seen in India, the mainstream media is so completely focussed on Bollywood, cricket, Delhi, and Mumbai that nothing else gets attention.
RG: Yes, this is why we feel the need for a publication which talks about what is happening at the edges of things, on the margins. I wanted to ask you how small towns play into the narrative of climate change? In your book, the story of the Banda Islands, a very small geographical area, had such a large impact.
AG: In relation to climate change, there are two aspects of it. One is, of course, mitigation globally, which is the kind of thing that people discuss at the Glasgow Climate Change Conference and so on. But there is another aspect of it, which is trying to create resiliency where you live, within your own habitat, dwelling spaces and so on. Everyone must recognise that they have to take note of these things. If you happen to live in a coastal area and the sea is a kilometre away, you have to be prepared to move. If you are in a wooded area in the Nilgiris, you have to be prepared for wildlife prevention. If you live in the mountains, you have to think of resiliency in terms of water. As far as I can remember, Kodaikanal doesn’t really have a problem with water shortages, does it?
RG: Not compared to other places, but yes, when tourists fill the town there are shortages in May and June. And, of course, some privileged people have more resources for water harvesting; others may not, and still line up for water. We have had more rain than is usual, this year.
What are your memories of Kodai like? When was this visit?
AG: This was back in 1987. I wasn’t married, didn’t have children.
RG: Just before The Shadow Lines!
AG: While I was writing The Shadow Lines, actually. I wrote a part of it in Coonoor. My friend and I took a public bus from Coonoor to Kodaikanal.
RG: That must have been a long journey—down and then up again!
AG: Yes, it was. But it was really interesting. We had a nice trip. Being in Coonoor was wonderful. A lot of people I know live there, at least part of the time.
RG: Yes, there have been a lot of people moving to hill stations. Have you visited a hill station recently?
AG: People are leaving cities because they have become unliveable. I haven’t been to a hill station in a long time. But as I remember, coming into Kodaikanal, even way back then, it was completely deforested. There were clumps of trees, but approaching Kodai, a lot had been deforested.
RG: Reading about the region of Maluku [literally ‘mountain island’] in The Nutmeg’s Curse made me think about sky islands like Kodaikanal. British foresters planted eucalyptus, pine and Australian wattle, fast-growing exotics that were lucrative, in the 1800s. The Nutmeg’s Curse echo lessons from this equally small place. You see the fallout of colonialism two centuries later.
AG: Yes, absolutely. That’s exactly what we are seeing. Completely misbegotten ideas in relation to forests. For them, forests were a kind of machine, from which humans would profit. A horrible story.
RG: We have a lot of naturalists studying this area, documenting cases where shola species eventually reoccupied the old plantations. Does this offer some hope? It may not be happening fast enough, of course.
AG: Yes, and it’s hard to believe it can happen fast enough.
RG: It’s useful to reach out to other mountains to understand more, isn’t it; they may have similar issues that do not receive enough attention, or lack the infrastructure to deal with them; problems like waste management.
AG: Yes, these are important issues. This last disaster took place in Uttarakhand, with the dam breaking and the floods occurring downstream—I was in that area a lot as a schoolboy. We were often taken there on trips and treks. I was so struck looking at the video footage. The surrounding hills are just completely deforested. It’s unbelievable! Of course you were going to have disasters like that, because it was the forests holding everything in place.
RG: It’s incredible that people couldn’t anticipate it would happen; it’s as if they didn’t care.
AG: You know, it’s the myopia of engineering. They just see their problem as stop the water, put so much concrete, etc. They never factor in the other things. All of this happens in a wider context, and they never seem to pay attention to that.
RG: I remember being in Bhutan and seeing the landslides there. Things seem to work differently there.
AG: At least in Bhutan they are making a very serious effort to address these issues. The ruling family are very engaged with climate change and environmental issues. In fact, at the Bhutan Literature Festival [Mountain Echoes] some years ago, the former king phoned me and said how much he liked my book and so on.
RG: Praise from those who are in a place to make change based on your words—this is wonderful.
AG: Yes, exactly, it is.