Amitav Ghosh unpacks colonization and global warming in The Living Mountain-Art-and-culture News, Firstpost
Amitav Ghosh’s new book is set in a valley where indigenous people from warring villages live off the bountiful riches of a sacred mountain. Their lives are disrupted by outsiders who force their way into the valley and treat the mountain as nothing more than a resource.
Image by author Amitav Ghosh, courtesy of his publisher Fourth Estate/Photo credits: Mathieu Genon (L) and cover page of his book, The Living Mountain (R)
Author Amitav Ghosh is to be commended for the consistency with which he writes about global warming as a moral issue, not just an ecological one. After books like The Great Disruption: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), Jungle Nama: A History of the Sundarbans (2021), and The Curse of the Nutmeg: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (2021), who delve into this subject, he returns with The living mountain: a fable for our time (2022).
The fable as a literary genre is an inspired choice for a time in human history where the literal is valued over the metaphorical, and the imaginative is snubbed in favor of the hyper-rational. Unlike the Jataka tales, the Panchatantra, and Aesop’s fables, Ghosh’s fictional universe has no animals or birds. What he has at the heart of his book is a “living mountain” called the Mahaparbat, which is a source of livelihood for indigenous peoples. The mountain gives them food and medicine. They worship him with songs and dances.
Their story is told by a woman named Maansi who likes to read. Having grown up in Nepal, she now lives in New York. She works as a sales manager for a branded clothing line called Anthropologaia. Her company chose “Anthropocene” as the fashion theme of the year. The story appears to him in a dream that is more like a nightmare. It is about the impoverished inhabitants of a remote valley who suffer a terrible fate. Maansi is so overwhelmed by their suffering that she needs to meet with her therapist to process her response.
When the therapist advises Maansi to write everything down, she accepts the suggestion. However, it does not stop there. She wants to share her writing with someone she trusts, so she contacts someone she knows from being part of an online book club. The identity of this person is never revealed, so we don’t know if it is Ghosh or someone else.
In the dream, Maansi visualizes herself as a young girl raised in a valley that is home to “a cluster of warring villages”. Although they spend a lot of time and energy fighting with each other, what they have in common is their respect for Mahaparbat. Their ancestors taught them to treat this snow-capped mountain as sacred, to honor it but never to step on it. They are not superstitious. They appreciate how the mountain meets their economic and spiritual needs. Each year, when the snow recedes, the elders of these villages collect nuts, mushrooms, honey and herbs from the mountain and sell these products to visiting merchants.
A gripping story usually has a conflict that needs to be resolved, and Ghosh’s book is no different. Trouble begins to brew when the villagers encounter a stranger who is overly interested in their mountain. He’s upset that he can’t access it directly, but he extracts answers to all his questions, and he takes copious notes when the Elders speak. Ghosh, Ph.D. in social anthropology, recognizes the colonial origins of his discipline. The stranger in Maansi’s story reminds us of early anthropologists who were complicit in the production of knowledge used to justify colonial rule across the globe.
The sanctity of the mountain is eroded when an army of Anthropoi shows up in the villages. They see it as a resource to be exploited and plundered. They have no emotional bond with him. They think that the villagers are wasting all the wealth of the mountain. This extractive mindset underscores the relationship between colonization and capitalism. Since the Anthropoi have no respect or gratitude for the mountain, they fail to see it as a living presence. They draw from the mountain but do nothing to replenish it. They have to pay for this imbalance.
Read the book to find out what’s going on. Some readers might draw parallels to British rule in India, especially because we grew up reading how the British took raw materials from India to fund technological progress and economic prosperity in their own country. Other readers might think more locally and reflect on what happens when tourists flock to places like Himachal, Uttarakhand, Goa and Kashmir. While tourism generates income, the environmental impact cannot be ignored, especially when a huge amount of waste is generated and tourists do not respect local cultures and ecosystems.
Published by Fourth Estate and illustrated by Devangana Dash, this book also discusses the place of faith in our lives. He invites us to reflect on what we lose when we see ourselves as separated from nature. Why do human beings consider themselves superior to all other species? Is the ability to control, manipulate and exploit evidence of superiority? Shouldn’t we be more invested in cultivating the power of compassion? If we are more powerful, don’t we have a responsibility to care about the species we share this planet with?
The book does not equate faith with belief in a supernatural being sitting in a watchtower. The villagers are natives. Their understanding of the sacred is immediate, tactile and creative. Through this book, Ghosh highlights how the history of colonization is also linked to the history of missionary activity that degrades indigenous cultural practices, plays the game of divide and conquer, and disconnects people from their environment. It should be read widely, especially since it delivers a powerful message in less than 50 pages.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, journalist and educator who tweets @chintanwriting