To Amitav Ghosh, climate change is intensely personal and his own sudden experience of it has been so inexplicable that he hesitates to use it in his fictional writings, for fear of melodrama. Even now, while writing this work, he says, we are in enough self-denial and that The Great Derangement could only be written as non-fiction and may not have found acceptance as fiction.
His first personal experience was of an extreme weather event: a short, intensely devastating storm in which he could have been killed had he been in a slightly different place. It left him with a feeling of unreality. Although such an experience should have served him well as inspiration in his novels, the truth was too sensational for use in a modern novel with its need for realism.
There is an increasing number of such, apparently stand-alone, events all over the world. There is a great reluctance to acknowledge that they are a direct result of our own activities and our extreme, sometimes misplaced, efforts to control our own environment. These efforts, he says, while providing a sense of control to humans for the first time in history, are, paradoxically, irreversibly changing the established processes on which we unconsciously depend for stability. Our environment is more uncontrollable than ever.
This book is an explanation of the collective sense of nonchalance with which people view climate change. It reflects how changes in fictional writing parallel people’s attitudes to real-life events and their need to control their own reality.
Ancient stories used uncertainty and melodrama to bring excitement. Classics, such as the Arabian Nights, used highly improbable events to tell stories which would capture the imagination. Non-human agencies, such as wild animals and extreme weather events, provide the unexpected and unpredictable twists and turns that fuel these melodramatic events.
Non-human agents in novels are, often, based on ancient knowledge of real events. From Ghosh’s ancestral experience of life on the river banks, he tells the story of a forced migration due to changes in established patterns of a mighty river. His knowledge of the Sunderbans, a dense mangrove forest in Bengal, points to the intertwined fact and mythology of man-eating tigers: tragic and unpredictable events impacting nearly every family, which live on, in the tales of the region and in 19th century literature. The reference to the eyes of the tiger meeting the eyes of the human as it was about to attack, and the close bonding of the souls of attacker and attacked, tells of the inextricable nature of human life with its natural surroundings.
In ancient times, he argues, man accepted that there were events and agencies beyond his control. He struggled to make sense of uncontrollable circumstances through story-telling of wildly improbable events, often founded on uncontrollable facts. The word ‘uncanny’ represents the meeting of unpredictable event and uncontrollable consequences.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, humans began to assume greater control of their environment through rapidly escalating access to technology. Popular literature reflected changed attitudes by changing the acceptable form of the modern novel to reflect a highly controlled reality. For the first time, writings containing uncontrollable or less understood events were classified into genres such as fantasy, science fiction and Gothic novels. They were kept away from mainstream ‘serious’ literature.
This change in literature reflected an important change in human consciousness and attitudes to our surroundings. Our own destructive behaviour contributes to more unpredictable events than ever before; this is illustrated in several different ways. Traditional settlements, away from the reach of powerful water bodies with unpredictable temperaments, have given way to settlements closer to the water’s edge in most major cities, assuming greater control of the forces of nature. Ghosh narrates examples of early miscalculations in building infrastructure in unsuitable locations such as a now-abandoned port in Bengal and recent extreme weather events in cities like New York and Mumbai. He also links the human aspiration to control Nature to the disastrous siting of the Fukushima nuclear plant in a vulnerable location. Such a location would have been barred by traditional knowledge of weather events such as tsunamis.
These well-known examples indicate the tenacity of our need to assume control and inclination to see each such event as one-off. Ghosh reflects on the reluctance of human beings to acknowledge their own complicity in bringing about climate change events by escalating their attempts to control, while moving further on the path of danger.
This leads directly to a change in our acknowledgement of the power of extra-human agencies to impact daily life. Melodrama in novels is complemented by the avoidance of melodrama in daily life and ‘extreme’ weather events are seen as something to be controlled or denied.
It is ironical, argues Ghosh, that the very control which humans are exerting over their environment, is leading us towards more uncontrollable extreme weather events and loss of communication with wild animals and forests. A greater need to exert control and denial of the out-of-control behaviour leads to a collective denial of climate change to the extent where even fictional writing blacks it out, in spite of increasing evidence of its reality and impact.
This is a very important book, bringing climate change into the writings of one of our most popular fiction authors. While acknowledging the impediments to integrating these concepts into his past fictional works, the author has indicated his wish to use it in his future fiction as a backdrop to the recent human experience of denied calamity and the continuing impact of non-human agencies. The settings of calamity in several locations of the world, especially India, provide ample backdrop for the stories of people impacted by these calamities. The Great Derangement indicates a change in Ghosh’s writings to include the reality of seemingly unreal events brought about by climate change. The present work is of immense value to bring the reality of climate change into the mainstream of human consciousness.