Freedom Issue 2016: Profile

Author of Atmospherics

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Talking weather with Amitav Ghosh

AUTHORS TO be dwellers of the mind and wanderers of the world. The great authors, at least. And Amitav Ghosh certainly fills both boxes. To see him in the precincts of the stately Rashtrapati Bhavan is not only unusual but also bewildering. One can picture him poring over dictionaries in a library, sidestepping crowds in Goa, mocking hipsters in Brooklyn, riding pillion on a scooter in Cambodia, traversing the Hooghly or sailing down the Mekong. The pomp and circumstance of the Presidential Palace might make snivellers of the silly, but Ghosh has more spine than that.

As a student at Delhi University, he observed the Dome on Raisina Hill from afar when he used to eat chaat with friends at India Gate. Today as a resident of the palace, he appears intrigued rather than besotted. Embracing the role of the President’s guest and as the anointed writer-in-residence, he spent four days (10 to 14 July) with his wife Deborah Baker at the royal headquarters with camera at hand and curiosity in plenty. Prior to Ghosh, invitations to the live-in-residence have been extended to sculptor Subodh Gupta, and artists Paresh Maity and Jogen Choudhury, among others.

When we meet for a photo shoot at the Bhavan, Ghosh shows up in a chauffeured car to the Forecourt. It is 3 pm on the dot, and the sun singes the 32 steps that lead to Durbar Hall. The only movement of air is the whirring of the pedestal fan that has been considerately installed for the guard on duty. It is humbling to imagine that over the last seven decades, this span of red sand and flattened earth has hosted some of the most important men and women on the planet. It is here that Lady and Lord Mountbatten greeted the Maharani of Nepal and Maharaja Padma Rana when the building was still called Government House, back in 1948. It is here that Richard Nixon waved to crowds in 1969, and here at the Mughal Gardens is where Queen Elizabeth II presented the ‘order of merit’ to Mother Teresa in 1983. Considering the luminaries who have strode up and down these acres, to meet an author here suggests that he too has joined their ranks, he too merits the hospitality of the country’s titular head.

The inclusion of an artist into these circles must be celebrated by all. American author EB White said it best back in 1969: ‘One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie.’

The 60-year-old Ghosh is sounding the alarm, loud and clear, with his most recent book The Great Derangement (Penguin; Rs 399; 275 pages) But more about that later.

During the shoot, Ghosh is genial to a fault, even as he breaks into a sweat and mops his brow repeatedly with a handkerchief. He walks up and down the stairs that lead to the iconic third- century BC sandstone capital of the Ashokan Pillar known as the Rampurva Bull. Just a day earlier, the relentless tweeter had posted a photo of the bull on his account. When we are informed that we have permission to shoot in the Presidential library, he heaves an audible sigh of relief as we scurry away from the 20 Tuscan pillars and return to the building.

Ghosh sees the Bhavan as historian and anthropologist, visitor and snapshot taker. He knows it spans 320 acres and houses 340 rooms. But he also heeds its history. He says, “You look at this building and you can see the entire intention is to terrify and overawe. It was built with that in mind. In 1911, when they started building this, there were famines in the country. And you can’t help looking at it and wonder, ‘This struck you as a good way to spend your money?’ Or rather, the money of an impoverished land.”

President Pranab Mukherjee’s invitation to artists and authors to reside at the Bhavan is an important step towards democratising this stately house, believes Ghosh. The challenge, according to him, is drawing in people and maintaining the quarter’s security and protocol. He says that most people in Delhi remain ignorant that one can explore Rashtrapati Bhavan simply by registering online in advance. Public access to this building will importantly allow it to transition from an edifice of the state to a monument of the people.

In the library, when Ghosh is handed a Punch (an entire cabinet is packed with leatherback volumes of the British humour magazine) as a photo prop, he politely rejects it, saying, “I’d rather be seen with this book,” and makes a beeline for Indian Painting Under the Mughals AD 1550 to AD 1750 by Percy Brown. He manoeuvres himself atop the library stool with alacrity for a photo and opens the ancient pages of the book. As he obliges the requests of the photographers, he says, “This library is stuck in a time warp. There is nothing recent here. If you consider this is the President’s Library, it is really not that impressive.”

While the books on the shelves and the art on the library walls wouldn’t impress a clod, Ghosh notices the splendour of the floors and the detailing of the pillars. “What is interesting here is that the real artwork is the cabinets and fireplaces and ornamentation. These small details are beautiful,” he says.

AS THE SHOOT wraps up, Ghosh is ready to exit the opulence of the building and re-examine the mahaul of the surroundings. When we get into the car, he says, “What has really struck me about Rashtrapati Bhavan compound is that once you leave this grand thing, it really is like a village. There is a meadow, an orchard and lots of cultivation. There is a post office, stables, mosque, gurdwara, many temples. They grow their own vegetables. They do organic farming. They have an incredible sewage treatment plant. It is a self-sufficient complex, producing its own food. It is also interesting that the most manicured parts of the complex are holdovers from the colonial period… The parts that are buzzing are the orchards and where the cultivation is done. It is so interesting to see how this process of democratisation is happening by a natural process of life.”

No other Indian author writing in English today covers his arc of fiction and non-fiction. Despite his successes with reporting, non-fiction will remain a foray and fiction will be his permanent address

Soon as we leave the precincts of the Dome, Ghosh’s words come to life. From the outside, Rashtrapati Bhavan is all about the show, but from within, it is a charming idyll. From the exterior it would appear a lone man is holed in its confines, but it is more village than kingdom. We make our way to a pond visited by geese that is used for open-air filtration. Ghosh is especially appreciative of this sewage treatment plant that is President Mukherjee’s brainchild. The chirping of birds rends the air. The Dome has given way to windmills. The sandstone has surrendered to mud. The sterile Mughal Garden has been elbowed out by crops of green. Ghosh spots an egret and skulks behind it with his camera for quite a distance. Farm workers look on with curiosity but soon return to their work. In a rush of appreciation, Ghosh points out the fish in the pond, the plant harbouring karela and the shoots of drought-resistant crops such as bhutta. This landscape is neither manicured to affectation nor topiared to artifice. It thrums with the rhythms and cycles of nature; plants grow haywire as they must, and paths wind in and out of dust. The contrast with the pageantry and stiffness of the main building is so stark that all this seems surreal.

We talk to the driver and guide in the car who reveal that they have been living in the Rashtrapati Bhavan compound not for years, but for generations. The driver says, “Mere dada yahan aaye the, Angrezo ke saath, Bulandshahr se. Dada jamadaar thhe. Aur papa maali. Mein driver.” (My grandfather came here with the British from Bulandshahr. He was a sweeper. My father is a gardener. I am a driver.) The guide has a similar story of his mother arriving here as a nurse during Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s tenure back in the 60s. The guide says, “Yeh toh chhoti si state hai. Yahan schools, shops, bank sab kuch hai. Yahan ki baat bahar nahi jaati hai (This is a small state. Here you have schools, shops, a bank. And what happens here stays here.)” Given the salubrious surroundings, it is little surprise employees in the Rashtrapati Bhavan would choose to check-in and never leave.

As the car journeys along the compound, a tractor trundles into view, laden with fodder. The driver points to it and says that his father is on his way to feed the deer. Ghosh insists he stop the car so that he can take a photo of the driver with his father, the maali. “This place is fascinating,” he says to no one in particular. Give an author a terrain that is rich in discoveries and serendipities, and he’ll make it his own.

When Ghosh wanders through landscapes, questions of restitution often arise in his mind. If he looks at Rashtrapati Bhavan and wonders how it can be democratised and be made more of the people, he looks at the islands of the Sundarbans and sees in them ‘the rivers’ restitution, the offerings through which they return to the earth what they have taken from it, but in such a form as to assert their permanent dominion over their gift.’ (The Hungry Tide, 2004) And when he looks at modern civilisation, he admits we have never valued the bounty of the earth. The price we pay for it is nothing compared to the value of it. “There is no restitution value,” he says, “it is just assumed the world is here for us to plunder.”

While Ghosh was embedded in 19th-century history with the Ibis Trilogy over the last decade, in The Great Derangement, he plunges into non-fiction and sounds the alarm regarding climate change. The book is premised on two simple questions: are we mad and why are we not paying heed? For him, a city like Delhi “is at one of the epicentres of the derangement”. The Great Derangement is one of those rare non-fiction books that combine urgency with eloquence. Ghosh hoists a red flag over our style of living, but does so with the wisdom of an author and not the fervour of a proselytiser.

‘The climate crisis,’ he writes, ‘is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.’ The evolution of modern culture has made our single-minded focus ‘growth’. We are violent to our surroundings and impervious to our actions and their consequences. We are so impregnable that we have pushed climate change into the realm of science fiction.

Ghosh says one of the most profound reasons why it is so hard to write a story on climate change is that there is no redemption. It is a slow, steady and grinding process of decay. There is no happy ending

Ghosh elaborates, “We are saying climate change is not part of a world we live in. But it is not part of an alternate world, it is here. The heatwave that struck Delhi when the temperature hit 49 degrees, that is not another world. We’ve put climate change in the same bag of tricks as Martians. It is a failure at two levels. The failure to recognise the extraordinary and uncanny within our own circumstances. And the other is simply a misrecognition; consigning to the realm of the unlikely and impossible, something that is very much happening to us now. That is the question: why is it that when this is happening to us now, as real as a tree falling on us, why are we pretending that it is in some other realm of possibility?”

We have so successfully blinded ourselves to this reality at a personal and policy level that a world leader like Theresa May shut down the climate change department soon after coming to power in the UK. But Ghosh is not surprised by such decisions. In the book, he highlights the fact that the Anglosphere is in denial and wants to consume resources in the same way they have for 100 years. He says, “They pioneered this model of the economy, this extractive, resource-intensive, predatory model of the economy and they don’t want to accept or admit that anything might have gone wrong. And that is what COP 21 (the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris) was about. Nowhere in the Agreement is there any recognition that something is wrong… But to take it further, all governments in the world are saying one thing and doing completely different things. Obama says climate change is a big deal and all that, but at the same time, he hasn’t tried to shut down offshore drilling or fracking. Our government is a perfect example of this. We talk a lot about climate change, but what we really mean is a commercial opportunity… So what have governments become? They have become like a managerial class who are basically just doing the work of corporations for them. No matter if it is good or bad for people.”

Even if we loathe to admit it, much of modern life is premised on the pursuit of pleasure and happiness. Ghosh says that one of the most profound reasons why it is so hard to write a story on climate change is that there is no redemption. What we are going to see is what the Sundarbans’ villager sees; every day a little bit of his island is taken away, every day life becomes a little less liveable, every day the water becomes more and more salty. It is a slow, steady and grinding process of decay. There is no happy ending. Looking apologetic, he adds, “I am sorry if this has been a depressing conversation. But there is no lipstick you can put on this pig.”

With The Great Derangement, Ghosh establishes his cred as a leading public intellectual of our time. No other Indian author writing in English today covers his arc of fiction and non- fiction. His early novels like The Circle of Reason (1986) and The Shadow Lines (1988) dealt expertly with the movement of people and his moral puzzlement over borders. His non-fiction collection of essays Dancing in Cambodia and at Large in Burma (1998) took him from Port Blair (soon after the Tsunami) to New York (on 11 September). Each essay is a paragon of reportage as he sketches characters and ekes out their personalities and their milieus with the gentlest of touch.

Despite his successes with reporting, non-fiction will remain a foray and fiction will be his permanent address. He says quite simply, “Fiction for me by an order of magnitude is more demanding… There is a deep pleasure, not an immediate pleasure. Non-fiction is more like getting from here to there. Language works differently in both. In non-fiction, it is mainly conveying things. In fiction, you are conjuring up atmosphere and making a world of its own. If I weren’t working on fiction, I’d go mad. It is what keeps me sane.”

In a world going mad, we need Amitav Ghosh’s voice of sanity.

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