The Great Derangement Book Review

A non-fictional book by Amitav Ghosh

Awaken you dormant literati for the world is a changing – for the worse! This seems to be the call from one of the finest writers of our time, as he raises the lack of consciousness and concern amongst thinkers within the world of literature, history and politics, on a subject that should be captivating our attention more than just a passing thought. And Amitav has taken the lead in what should have been an all-pervasive instigating concern.

The Great Derangement has been dogging Amitav Ghosh for some time now as he silently watched, as most of us, the extremities of climate change impacting our planet. As a writer, what bothered him more was the absence of topic outside the world of non-fiction that should have been centric across all intellectual thought.

This is a return to non-fiction where the author catches our attention in his inimitable thought-provoking narrative of literary expression, as he begins to highlight global climatic change patterns and the sheer lack of preparedness in facing the inevitable.

That Cyclone in Delhi

The first-hand experience of climate change starts with the author’s introduction to mother nature’s vicious side, as he lay cowering for protection in an unfamiliar balcony that one afternoon in March of ‘78 in North Delhi.

Walking back from Delhi University library to his hostel room, Ghosh headed straight into an unprecedented and most unexpected cyclone that took just minutes to express its ferocity. Moments later, the devastation around shook Ghosh and left a lasting impact, enough to bring focus to the reality of climate change and its potential impact.

Threat from the Seas

Amitav Ghosh makes a forceful case of our planet undergoing climate change now rather than a threat into the future. He reinforces his case by taking up the comparison between the seas surrounding India.

2015 was the hottest year, but what is equally unusual – but not drawing adequate attention – is that the relatively calm Arabian Sea has actually witnessed more cyclones in 2015 than the Bay of Bengal, which traditionally experiences vicious cyclones almost every year.

True, that the cyclones of Arabian Sea hit Yemen, which in itself is very unusual and rare, the fact that Mumbai could well be on the forefront of a future cyclone, makes the book stand out for its concern.

Should that ever happen, according to Amitav Ghosh, 11.5 million residents of Mumbai will find themselves trapped with nowhere to go.

He contends the eastern coastal states of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal are better geared to face cyclones than the west coast, which stands vulnerable and grossly underprepared to handle a similar fury should it happen on that side of India.

The Crisis is here and now

Change is happening and it is happening now. According to Ghosh, the absence of recognition of the extremities in climate patterns is our Great Derangement – our legacy to coming generations, as we continue to live in the urban fallacy of our times, ignoring the inevitable. And that bothers the author, as it should all of us.

Ghosh makes an interesting point about how colonialism and imperialism actually delayed the carbon economy from taking roots in Asia, including South Asia, since the imperial powers were interested to take raw materials from India to feed their growing carbon economies. In a sense that helped Asia delay, if not escape, the fallout from the carbon economy, but now the dilemma is upon us, as we increasingly face the consequences of urbanization.

Cultural Consumption – the Root Cause

The author is deeply disturbed by the fact that root cause of climate change is cultural consumption, driven mainly by developed economies and that the consumption patterns of developed nations actually contradict the efforts to fight climate change at a global level.

What is needed is not just greater awareness of the impact of cultural consumption but a united fight against it. The problem is, as per Ghosh, that this fight cannot happen at the individual level but can only make an impact if governments come together to address the problem unitedly.

The narrative makes a compelling case by referring to the paradigm shift by nations towards renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, but according to Ghosh, neither technology nor alternate sources of energy will solve the problems on a global scale without leaving its negative impact on the planet.

COP 21 in Paris was a result of political haggling between the developed nations and the rest but the author laments the fact that all nations have ignored cultural consumption as the real problem and focused all attention on reducing the carbon footprint. This, according to Ghosh, cannot happen by only focusing on renewable sources of energy and not reducing cultural consumption.

Case for Instigating Fictional Imagination

For readers expecting the book to be an authoritative compilation of factual research, this may come as a slight disappointment. The purpose of this work by Amitav Ghosh is more of an appeal to the collective consciousness of fictional writers who have given this serious topic a miss in their literary expressions. In that, this book is indeed thought provoking and insightful, which may now kindle the imagination of other authors of stimulating fiction to take up the case.

The cause is not just for writers, it’s for our planet and the legacy we shall leave behind. Worth a thought.

And finally, the Author

To avid readers of quality fiction, Amitav Ghosh needs little introduction. The US-based Bengali novelist has created a niche for himself through a fine collection of fictional works which include:

  • Sea of Poppies – shortlisted for Man Booker Prize in 2008
  • The Calcutta Chromosome – Arthur C Clarke Award in 1997
  • The Circle of Reason – Prix Médicis étranger Award in 1990. This was his debut novel.
  • The Shadow Lines – Sahitya Akademi Award and the Ananda Puraskar
  • The Glass Palace
  • The Ibis Trilogy – Opium War, River of Smoke, Flood of Fire

Some of his non-fictional works include:

  • In an Antique Land
  • Dancing in Cambodia and at Large in Burma – a collection of Essays
  • The Imam and the Indian

Amitav Ghosh has earned his place among the finest writers the subcontinent has produced and was honoured this month when he was invited to stay at the Rashtrapati Bhavan as Writer-In-Residence.