My room back home in Bombay (or Mumbai, depending on who you’ve heard it from) faces the Arabian Sea. I’ve gone to sleep listening to the soothing lull of waves since before I learned the meaning of the word, walked past couples posing against clear blue skies and admired crimson west coast sunsets, especially since my foray into Instagram. But the rose-tinted glasses (or filters, if you will) of social media can’t hide the reality of where we’re headed. I’ve seen the sea inch closer every year and witnessed the city’s crippling monsoon floods, exacerbated by poor urban planning. There’s a good chance my home will be underwater by 2050.
Oh, and I like reading. Aside from ruminating on the inevitability of climate change, I relish exchanging my anxieties for an author’s. One of my most prized books in my collection back home is a signed copy of “The Great Derangement” (2016) by Amitav Ghosh. Named one of the most important global thinkers of the 2010s by Foreign Policy magazine, Ghosh is an Indian writer whose expansive work explores environmentalism, colonialism and the significant intersections of the two.
In his non-fiction work “The Great Derangement,” Ghosh challenges us to reflect on the kind of legacy we will leave for future generations, to think about climate change and its frequent exclusion from literature. As he writes about the scope of literature, explaining how it could allow meaningful dialogue on climate change and actively contribute to sociopolitical discourse, readers are moved to acknowledge its powerful potential. His extended discussion about the role of colonialism and human selfishness in further entrenching a dismissive and potentially harmful attitude to environmental concerns taps into a rich vein of ideas that could greatly expand the dialogue on the legacy of colonization.
My other favorite Amitav Ghosh book is “Sea of Poppies” (2008), the first in his fictional “Ibis” trilogy. Ghosh weaves a cast of characters tied together by their journey on the Ibis, a Mauritius-bound ship carrying opium and indentured laborers. His poignant narratives on the crushing nature of colonialism, set against the backdrop of an incoming Opium War, follow its impact on his characters as well as their environment. From the hapless Deeti, the wife of a perpetually intoxicated factory worker, to the French orphan Paulette, socially ostracized and mocked for her association with Indians, to the landlord Neel, whose precarious financial situation leaves him at the mercy of a ruthless opium trader, the story of each character mirrors the mass exploitation of the land, left with scars that transcend time, space and generations. The turbulent journey across the Indian Ocean parallels the reader’s emotional experience, and as you sink deeper into the tale, you’ll be adding its sequel, “River of Smoke” (2011), to your reading list before you even reach the final chapters.
In an era of cursed climate conferences, slippery statistics and inauthentic activism, Amitav Ghosh’s literature is a comfort, an inspiration and a guide all at once, amidst (to borrow from his words) waters “churning with improbable events.”