Reviews by Peter Reason
On Christmas day my elder son gave me a copy of The Living Mountain, while my younger son a copy of Jungle Nama. They both know I am a great admirer of Amitav Ghosh’s work. I have enjoyed his novels, yet even more been deeply influenced by his recent non-fiction work: first The Great Derangement, which explores the failure of our cultural response to climate change; and then The Nutmeg’s Curse, which takes a critical view of the history and legacy of European colonialism and the devastation it has wrought on so many cultures and on the more-than-human world (My review for Shiny here).
How do you write about climate change? How do you write ecological devastation? It is often said that the facts and figures don’t move people. This is evident in our collective failure to respond to the clear scientific evidence that we are forcing the planet’s climate away from the stability of the Holocene, faster than even the scientific models suggested, into a hotter, more chaotic state. Instead of facts and figures, it is often argued, we need new narratives, new stories, new fables that will guide modern humans to live in balance and harmony on Earth. We need art forms that portray us a in reciprocal relationship with the more-than-human world. This is just what my two Christmas present books attempt to do – slender in comparison with Nutmeg, bare of the models and statistics of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Of all people, Ghosh is one to provide such fables: a weaver of tales drawing on imagination, climate science, cultural history and much more; an Indian who lives in New York, writes in English, while drawing on many influences from the global South, offering a view from the majority world.
Jungle Nama is a re-telling of the ancient Bengali saga from the Sundarban, where the mighty Ganga and Brahmaputra Rivers flow in many streams through dense forest into the Bay of Bengal. In the beginning, the forest is under the sway of Dokkhin Rai, the fierce tiger avatar who preys on humans and seizes whatever he wants, so that
Under his rule all beings shivered in terror
day after day, they looked heavenwards in prayer.
These prayers are heard by the powerful goddess, Bon Bibi. Full of compassion, she and her brother Shah Jongoli enter the forest, subdue Dokkhin Rai, and end his tyranny by confining him within a boundary:
They drew a line, to mark a just separation,
between the forest, and the realm of human…
Every creature had a place, every want was met,
all needs were balance, like the lines of a couplet.
All was well, until humans upset the balance. A rich and greedy merchant, Dhona, decides to take ships beyond the boundary, to seize ‘honey, wax and timber, all for free’. And we know, as with European fairy tales, when a boundary is crossed, trouble is in store. After much upset and many misadventures, order is eventually restored by a further intervention from Bon Bibi. Good prevails, and human greed is show up as disturbing the balance.
Ghosh tells the story in ‘dwipodi-poyar’, the ‘two-footed line’: rhyming couplets of with a natural break or caesura to each twelve-syllable line. Dwipodi-poyar also has magical powers, for Bon Bibi will hear and respond to humans who call in this form. As the wise old mother tells her son before he sets off, if you are in danger, call to Bon Bibi for help:
Be sure to cast your call in dwipodi-poyar,
it’ll give your voice wings, it’s the meter of wonder…
The book has dramatic ink illustrations by the artist, Salman Toor, whose work is warmly appreciated by Ghosh. They contribute to a delightfully presented little volume with a timely moral message for our contemporary troubles:
All you need to do, is be content with your lot;
to be always craving more, is the demon’s lot.
A world of endless appetite is a world possessed…
My other Christmas book, The Living Mountain, also gives us ‘a fable for our times’, not retelling an ancient saga with a simple moral message but drawing out a tale of greater complexity. It is cleverly located within a contemporary conversation between Ghosh and his online friend Maansi as they explore the meaning (and pronunciation) of the word ‘Anthropocene’. Maansi’s research leads her to have a dream which she writes down for Ghosh to read.
The dream is a retelling of the themes that Ghosh explored so thoroughly in The Nutmeg’s Curse: an isolated community live simply at the foot of Great Mountain which is sacred and must never be climbed. They know the sacred Mountain cares for them, and teaches to them through Adepts, women who feel the Mountain speak through the soles of their feet. They live by working the fields and harvesting the Magic Tree fed by the streams that flow off the Mountain. The Tree provides them with many good things, which they trade with the outside world.
All is disturbed, as with Jungle Nama, when a boundary is crossed. Outsiders, the Anthropoi, want the riches they say is hidden within the Mountain. They invade, subjugate the people, and set them to work helping to climb and exploit the hidden riches of the sacred Mountain. The story is a retelling of the colonial misadventures of European powers and the consequent destruction of both cultures and ecology. Ghosh has subtly woven extraordinary detail and nuance into his story: about the subjugation of the female, how the local people are divided against themselves, how in time they are seduced into the perspective of the Anthropoi, forget the sacredness of the Mountain, and join in the race to the top. With the boundary crossed and the Sacred Mountain desecrated, profound trouble arises.
On Christmas Day I found a corner away from the family noisiness to read my new book, nodding along as I turned the pages, enjoying the way Ghosh has woven so many facets of the modernist colonial misadventure into this little book. Toward the end, I read – as you might expect – how the people – Anthropoi and locals alike – attempted to return to the ancient wisdom and practices that has been almost forgotten. Yes, I thought, I know this story, it reflects my story. But then, in the last few lines, there is a final twist, a dramatic turn, such that my jaw quite literally dropped open. I won’t give away the punch line, but Ghosh deftly shows how the ancient teachings are more profound, more far-reaching and disturbing than anything the Anthropoi – or we as readers – expect. They don’t just correct our misapprehensions but upturn our whole sense of who we are in relation to the more-than-human world.
The Living Mountain, like Jungle Nama, is a beautifully presented book, this time with elegant line drawings by illustrator Devangana Dash. I am sorry to say that Dash’s wonderful contribution is not properly acknowledged: her name only appears in tiny typeface the title page just above the ISBN number and again on the back cover. Not good enough, Fourth Estate & Mr Ghosh!
I am usually a critical reviewer, but apart from the last point I can have nothing but admiration for these two books. As my dear sons both realized, they make excellent gifts for the serious reader. Couched as they are as fables, I suspect they will reach beyond the eco-aware reader and carry a message to a wider group. Maybe, since The Living Mountain is a more nuanced story it will appeal to an older readership and Jungle Nama is more suitable for the younger reader. But both are wonderful additions to your own library and as gifts to your friends and relations.
Peter Reason seeks to link the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times. He is currently engaged in a series of experiential and co-operative inquiries exploring living cosmos panpsychism: What would it be like to live in a world of sentient beings rather than inert objects? How would we relate to such a world? His most recent publications (with artist Sarah Gillespie) are On Presence and is On Sentience http://peterreason.net/OnSentience.html; and (with Jacqueline Kurio) Voicing Rivers through Ontopoetics: A Co-operative Inquiry.
Amitav Ghosh, Jungle Nama: A story of the Sundarban by illuminated by Salman Toor (John Murray, 2021). 978-1529349351, 79pp., hardback. BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)
Amitav Ghosh, The Living Mountain: A fable for our times, illustrated by Devangana Dash (Fourth estate, 2022). 978-9354898877, 48pp., hardback. BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)