In our geography textbook of Grade VI or VII, there was a mention of the harsh summer months people of Rajasthan living around the desert belt have to endure. Our south Indian teacher's forehead would be thrown into creases, every time we would flip through those pages. “50 degrees, students… almost a 15 degrees higher from here,” she would tell us in a voice dripping with anxiety. Her voice, reverberating in my ears today, after a lapse of almost two decades, sounds cautionary. Such, too, is the impact of Amitav Ghosh’s recently released book The Living Mountain.
In the aftermath of our Prime Minister’s curious promise of panchamrita at COP-26, India is battling rising mercury that has shot up the power demands to a staggering 40 per cent. In a stratified society like ours, the poor and underprivileged took the highest hit when consecutive heatwaves jolted northern India. But even the rich and elite couldn’t bypass its effects as a rise in road accident cases, relapse of schizophrenia and acute exacerbations of manic-depressive psychosis were reported during these months. That, coupled with a rickety infrastructure, negligible funding and lack-lustre attitude of the authorities, provides ample evidence of India's stance on climate change remaining slippery.
Beginning from The Great Derangement which dealt with broad sociopolitical issues concerning the environment to The Nutmeg’s Curse, Amitav Ghosh’s apprehensions of an imminent environmental collapse are quite palpable.
However, spanning just 37 pages, The Living Mountain belies the expectations with which one goes to Ghosh — the inimitable prose with which he takes us to the intimate recesses that his characters inhabit and the unspooling that follows. Here, Ghosh is more direct, his voice quite urgent and the prose shorn of meretricious imagery.
The book begins with a conversation between the narrator and his friend Manasi contemplating the theme for their book club in the coming year. They stumble upon the word — Anthropocene — that Maansi believes to be in vogue. The subtle humour that trickles in by means of how elaborately both of these avid readers treat the word — intonating it in various ways — then eventually finding its pronunciation online — seems to highlight the ignorance with which the elite classes have been approaching this issue.
The book then unfolds in a dream sequence that Manasi observes. We are introduced to a place whose natives prosper under the benevolent shade of a mountain, Mahaparbat. It offers them the commodities needed for a happy, contented life. One is reminded of the legend of Krishna who balanced the Govardhan on the tip of his little finger to protect his community from flood and rain.
The idea and ideology represented by this particular community, however, is one of those who value natural resources and feel grateful for their sheer presence. “It would protect us and look after us — but only on condition that we told stories about it, and sang about it, and danced for it — but always from a distance.” Joyous in their meagre existences, they might have appeared docile, trusting the teachings of the older clan — the Adepts — almost without applying logic, like a sacrament, but who knows if they are wiser than the technologically best advanced amongst us?
However, good things don’t last for long. We witness another group which comes for a few seasons to survey the bountiful mountain. The natives bar them from trespassing initially, but the group returns armed, and successfully invades the mountain.
Eventually, the mountain is robbed of the life that throbbed on it, but Ghosh doesn’t settle for this linear end. The distinction between victim and perpetrator fades in due course, as we realise that it is the mountain alone that is left to survive the pain.
The ambiguity of the denouement which leaves amid the loss a sliver of hope, urging the reader to rethink and speaking to their sense of moral responsibility, is, perhaps, the greatest strength of the book.
But the author's argument doesn't stretch beyond a simplistic, cautionary tale. For most climate enthusiasts, this is yet another story of interconnectedness between capitalism and colonialism and their lethal impact on the environment. It reads almost like a summary — offering us only a skeleton — that can be, at best, thought of as a catalyst to begin the conversation around climate change. With the effects of climate change manifesting around us, such a conversation is already ongoing. What then this book adds to the prevalent discourse remains unknown.
The Living Mountain
By Amitav Ghosh
pp. 48, Rs.399