Three years after making a forceful plea against the effects of environmental degradation, globally acclaimed author Amitav Ghosh returns to the subject by once again focusing on the Sundarbans, which he terms critical for the well being of West Bengal and neighboring Bangladesh and lamenting that nations around the world are not responding adequately to the global scourge.
“The Sundarbans are very important for the ecology of the Delta region of Bengal and the Delta region of Bengal is very heavily populated, it includes about well over 200 million people. Here we have to also say that the Sundarbans extend from West Bengal into Bangladesh and the Sundarbans are absolutely crucial to the well-being of these two regions,” Ghosh, who received the prestigious Jnanpith Award for 2018 here on Wednesday, and whose latest work “Gun Island” was released the next day, told IANS in an interview.
“For one thing they absorb the fury of cyclones so they are an essential line of defense against the Cyclones and the Bay of Bengal historically has been what you could call a ‘storm breeder’. The single greatest natural disaster of the 20th century was actually the Bhola cyclone which hit Bangladesh in 1970 and possibly killed somewhere between 500,000 and a million people and it directly precipitated the break-up of Pakistan. It was the precursor to the Bangladesh War of Independence (of 1971).
“So we should not forget that these kinds of climate events actually have very significant repercussions at many different levels, including politics and civic and social life. So, the Sundarbans are very essential to preserving and protecting Bengal from the furies of the Bay of Bengal but the Sundarbans are also important because the mangroves are a very important breeding ground for fish and fish forms a very large part of the diet of people in the Bengal Delta and if the Sundarbans were to go away there would be a dramatic decline in fish catches across Bengal. Thus in so many different ways, the Sundarbans are absolutely vital to the ecology of the Indian subcontinent,” Ghosh explained.
His sixth novel, “The Hungry Tide” (2004), focused exclusively on the Sunderbans through issues like humanism and environmentalism, especially when they come into a conflict of interest. It had won the 2004 Hutch Crossword Book Award for Fiction, among a string of honors bestowed on Ghosh, notably the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1990 for “The Shadow Lines”. A recipient of the Padma Shri, Ghosh’s “River of Smoke” (2012) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Asian Prize.
“Gun Island”, in fact, takes off from “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable” (2016). What makes it globally relevant is its theme of migration and the global refugee crisis.
In an interview to IANS two years ago, Ghosh had contended governments were only playing lip service to climate change. He said the same in his acceptance speech on Thursday. Obviously, nothing seems to have changed.
“I think this is absolutely the case. All around the world, you can see, even with someone who is not a climate denier like a Justin Trudeau. He accepts the reality of climate change, he accepts the need for action on climate change but in fact, he ends up sanctioning new oil fields, new oil exploration programs etc. You know the factor behind this, of course, is the fossil fuel industries – they are so vast and they have so much money that they can push through almost anything. It is very hard to resist their power,” Ghosh maintained.
In a way, “Gun Island” has come full circle – with a twist – from his first novel, “The Circle of Reason” (1986) that deals with the personal crisis of a weaver who is falsely implicated as a terrorist and is a commentary on communalism in the region.
How would Allu the weaver feel in the India of 2019?
“The thing about Allu is that in some ways he anticipates the India of 2019 because he is, after all, someone who crosses the sea as a migrant, who journeys to the Middle East and starts living in a Gulf country and that phenomenon, of course, has accelerated across India. Today India is, I think, the largest remittance receiving economy in the world with some 50-60 billion dollars in revenue for India comes from the Gulf region and Allu was a harbinger of that trend.”
How important is it for authors to include the theme of climate change in their writing?
“I would say, first of all, it is not that I am telling writers what they should write about, that’s not my business, writers are free to write about whatever they want. In my book ‘The Great Derangement’ I was really questioning myself and saying to myself, for me, writing is a way of engaging with the world I see around me, the reality I see around me.
“Why is it that climate change, this extraordinary reality that exists around us, why is that reality so hard to write about, what is it in that reality that resists us? And of course, I would be asking this question even if I wrote in some other language. I don’t think language has much to do with it because this region that speaks Hindi is very badly affected by heat wave so you would imagine that the writers here would want to confront this reality. Similarly, writers in Bengal are being affected in different ways, writers in Orissa are being affected in different ways, so for all of us this is an unfolding reality that we need to confront,” Ghosh maintained.