‘Parables For A Planet In Crisis’ Podcast

Amitav Ghosh on capitalism, climate change and a planet in crisis | The Hindu On Books podcast

Here is a transcript of the conversation between author Amitav Ghosh and host Amit Baruah, Senior Associate Editor with The Hindu .

(This transcript has been edited for clarity and length) 


Amit Baruah : Hello and welcome to The Hindu’s “On Books” podcast. I am Amit Baruah, your host for this episode, and my guest is none other than celebrated writer Amitav Ghosh, whose fiction and non-fiction works have influenced several generations of people.  Welcome to The Hindu’s On Books podcast, Amitav.  

Amitav Ghosh:  Thank you very much. It's a great pleasure to be with speaking with you today. And thank you very much for having me.

Amitav, you paint a rather bleak picture of a world hurtling towards greater environmental disasters, a near end of civilization scenario, where extraction of resources and inequalities make a living planet, a very, very tough proposition.

Well, things are not good. If you just look around the world, you know, things are really not good. I try to be optimistic. I try not to be, you know, predictor of, of doom and disaster. And I think on the whole, even this book is in some ways, you know, more optimistic than not, but things are really not good. And, you know, just today I saw one of the Pacific island nations, the president of that nation, at COP 26 said, you might as well bomb us, and I think that was, that was a very, very sound statement, in fact, because, actually, you know, this planetary crisis is a kind of war.

‘The Nutmeg’s Curse’ review: Listening to nature’s voice


It is a process of violence. But it’s not a conventional war. But as the argument I make in my book is that it is precisely a kind of bio-political war, akin to the bio-political wars of the past.

When you speak of the extraction of nutmeg from the Banda islands, and the Jallianwala Bagh, if I might call it that, committed by Dutch colonialists, you appear to be pointing to the continuity of resource extraction and consumption by dominant nations. That seems to be a process, which seems to be very much on.

Let me say, first of all, that, you know, what happened in the Banda islands actually has very few precedents in Asia. In Jallianwala Bagh, I forget the precise number of people who were killed, but it was in the, in the range of a few 100.  What happened in the Banda islands is just inconceivable. The Dutch arrived there in 1621. They basically eliminated the entire population of the islands, killing several thousand and enslaving the rest in order to gain control of a resource whereas you know, these other atrocities like Jallianwala Bagh, or whatever, actually, you know, like it’s a kind of police violence. But in, in the Banda islands, the violence was completely aimed at a resource; the violence was committed in order to gain control of a resource. And that's the pattern that we see more and more around the planet. I think it's a crucial moment in a way, where this violence directed at people, ultimately, also becomes violence directed at the environment to create a process of extraction. And these processes of extraction are, in fact, incredibly violent. You know, if you think of, let's say, bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri region -- bauxite mining is one of the most violent processes of extraction that there is.  In order to make a small amount of aluminum, you basically just destroy an entire mountain and the entire ecosystem that exists there. It's a horrifying thing.

You suggest that the colonial massacres by the Dutch of the Bandanese people actually qualify as genocide. Is this recognition of colonial wrongs something successor states should be addressing?

Genocide is a word, I think, often used too loosely. In the early drafts of the book, I very much avoided using that word. But then I had to ask myself, why am I avoiding using this word? You know, what is it that I don't want to say? And so, you know, I looked at the Journal of Genocide Studies and so on. It's not just me, but several specialists have come to that conclusion -- that it was a genocide. Genocide is violence aimed at a particular population or ethnic group. That is exactly what it was. This particular instance succeeded in eliminating the entire population of those islands. Fortunately, a small number of Bandanese managed to escape. And they were actually helped by all their neighbors, you know, on the other islands nearby. So, they escaped to these other islands, and they've, on those islands, they have their own settlements, and they've thrived actually, you know; they've done well. The Bandanese were very enterprising people; they created these transoceanic networks of trade and so on. And, then one day, just over a period of a few weeks, they're just completely wiped out But we have to remind ourselves that, you know, the same thing was happening at the other end of the planet, you know, in the Americas.  

So, the question remains whether these colonial acts need to be addressed by successor states?  

I think it's important, Amit, to remember these histories if we think of history as something that is worth recalling. In the case of the bow of the Bandanese, that entire history was just completely forgotten and papered over, by you know, by various narratives of progress or something like that. I've read, pretty much all the sort of literature there is, you know, on the Banda islands in, at least in English. And, you know, this massacre is just either not talked about, or not referred to, for the most part. So, it does need to be remembered. I think it’s very important to remember these [massacres] because otherwise we end up really with these narratives whereby, you know, colonial violence is fitted into some kind of exculpatory narrative of progress. So yeah, I mean, it was terrible. They did these terrible things, but they also built railroads, you know. And it's the kind of thing which ultimately leads to someone like [former Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh going to Oxford and saying, more or less, oh, thank you for having colonized us. I mean, you know, it was just such an appalling thing for him to say, it made me sick to my stomach. And, you know, at the time, Arundhati Roy wrote something about it. It was important that she did because people can't be allowed to get away with these things. We need to remember these things, because actually, what we discover now, is that this kind of colonizing so-called progress is the mechanism that has brought to this planetary crisis.

You quote Immanuel Wallerstein as saying that 95% of all written history was that of five nations, Britain, France, the United States, Germany and Italy. Has this situation dramatically changed in the current period? Aren’t the dominant still dominating the writing of history?

That's an interesting point. Again, there's a very important nuance there. Yes, the dominant are still dominating the writing of history.  If you go to major departments of history in, in the United States, for example, global history is just a very small part of any faculty of history here.  These faculties are overwhelmingly dominated by people who are writing about the history of the United States or of Europe. But, you know, it's precisely because the history of the United States is so closely documented, that it has made possible a completely alternative telling of these histories. So, here in the United States, for example, the 1619 project, really, absolutely revolutionized the ways in which people have conventionally understood this history. Similarly, there's a book that I'm reading right now, by the anthropologist David Graeber, the late David Weber, sadly, and an archaeologist, David Windrow. The book is called The Dawn of Everything. And again, you know, this is an amazing, amazing book, which completely rewrites, you know, the history of the Enlightenment. It shows that, in fact, everything that is presented as the gift of the Enlightenment, such as ideas of freedom, equality, and so on, actually, derives from the indigenous American critique of Western culture, you know, that was what planted these ideas at the heart of what's called Western civilization.  So yeah, you know, I just find it incredibly thrilling that I am living and writing and reading at a time when really all conventional understandings of these histories are being overturned. And we are seeing a completely different reality. But it's important not to forget that these rewritings, these revolutions in thought, are ultimately being made possible, not purely by intellectual movements, but really, ultimately, by the intervention of the Earth itself. The Earth is showing us that these presentations of history, these readings of history as a narrative of progress are actually completely wrong. What we see in the world around us today is completely the opposite of what we've been taught.

But isn't it true that the entire colonial experience in a sense has vanished finished and is not visible in the histories that are often written today?

Actually, Amit, that is not at all the case. As you know, I've been writing about opium for a long time, you know, in my novels, ‘The Ibis Trilogy’. And I'm actually writing about opium again now in a non-fiction book. So, I very much engaged with that history. The British started growing opium on a largescale under the East India Company in the late 18th century onwards, and basically what is now Bihar and eastern U.P., this is the Poorvanchal region. It's important to remember that this Poorvanchal region was historically the richest, the most culturally fecund part of the Indian sub-continent. Every major early empire in India came out of the Poorvanchal region. Pataliputra. I do not need to remind you of that history, Kalidas was from this region. So, this was, in fact, the most productive part of India. And this was exactly where the British chose to create their opium industry with the idea of essentially sending opium to China and to Southeast Asia. There have been recent studies, which show that, in fact, the legacy of opium in this region is exactly that of a resource curse. The districts in which opium was grown under the East India Company, and later by the British Raj, to this day have much worse indicators than neighboring districts where opium was not grown -- in terms of school performance, in terms of all other life indicators are these districts to this day, have a greater level of social distrust, political violence. Essentially, what this colonial opium industry did was to transform the richest, most productive part of the Indian subcontinent into exactly what we now call the ‘Bimaru’ states. These states are to this day labouring under the opium resource curse and this is probably never going to be reversible. In order to grow opium, the British in these states also created this incredible machinery of surveillance -- large numbers of spies and informers to prevent opium smuggling or opium black marketing. So, they introduced a level of violence and social distrust into this region the effects of which linger to this day.   You can also read Shashi Tharoor’s book on what colonialism did to this country. When I was growing up in India, I remember that there was a kind of embarrassment about the large princely states, whether we speak of Indore or of Mysore, or whatever, we thought, we were always told that these places were despotic or badly run. Now, we see in fact, these states, actually, on many levels, performed much better than British India. The reason for this kind of embarrassment about these princely states was exactly this, that, you know, somehow the whole discourse of nationalism, ultimately, also bought into the British narrative of progress. What their argument was very often is that we can deliver more progress than you have delivered. In that sense, the whole nationalist argument also bought into, you know, the colonial narratives of progress, which is why Manmohan Singh went to Oxford and said these things. What we see and the effects of those also linger to this day, the kingdom of Travancore, for example, performed incredibly well in terms of literacy and so on. This was also true of Indore and of many other places. Of course, there were some badly run states as well. But many states actually performed very well. And of the rulers of the states, many of them were extremely in, in that sense, progressive in that they wanted technology, they wanted education and so on. So, you know, we like to think that its 70 years afterwards, because we live in a presentist society. But the effects of these things linger for linger for centuries -- time doesn't just erase the past, you know -- time cannot do that. The human past stays with us for a very long time.

Amitav, you refer in ‘The Nutmeg’s Curse’ to the subduing of nature, and the fact that this concept became, as you call it, a ‘basic tenet’ of modernity. Do you think it's possible to shed such an outlook in order to build alternative systems?

Yes. Is it possible at this particular point? I really don't know. Because, you know, if you take a country like India, largely because of Mahatma Gandhi in the years after independence, India was not really an extractivist, sort of neocolonial state, which it has now become. India's middle classes are now cheering on ‘extractivism’ more enthusiastically than anybody, anywhere else. It's like, they've succumbed to this logic of drill, baby drill, you know, at all costs. So, it's really hard to see that there could be any kind of reversal of that. We just have to remind ourselves that we were not like this in the past -- this is something we've recently become.

Since COP 26 is going on and knowing your interest in these issues, do you feel that something might eventually come out of it? Or, is it just another large gathering that has been happening for a long time?  

Yes, they have been happening for a long time, and they've delivered very little so far. The Paris Agreement was much celebrated. And it was agreed that the rich countries would create a fund to help vulnerable countries, a fund of $100 billion, not even a 10th of that was actually delivered. So, it's very hard to be, how shall I say Pollyannaish, about, about this entire process. But in relation to this particular meeting, you know, in a sense, it failed even before it began. Because the Presidents of three of the world's most important players in relation to environment -- President Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro -- none of them were there. These are the countries that actually hold the future in their hands. So, already there, you can see a sort of massive devaluation of the process. We may not like to speak about it, but it's the elephant in the room. I think people are trying to put a happy face on this meeting. I feel very strongly for the young people who are going there, demonstrating, trying to create change. Our entire political systems have failed a future generation, our entire political systems are built upon the short-term and upon the kind of ‘presentism’ you know, where all that is taken seriously, you know, electoral cycles, or four years or five years, or whatever. And it's this ‘short-termism’ that is really bringing the world deeper and deeper into crisis. It's a very dismaying and dispiriting thing. I'm generally quite a sort of optimistic sort of person, but these last few days it's just so depressing seeing what's going on there [in Glasgow].   

Your fiction and non-fiction books have inspired so many people to read, write and engage. How useful has your academic training been in your writing?

My training was in anthropology. It's been very useful in many ways but so has my training as a journalist. The reason why I was in the Banda islands is because in many ways I am like a journalist. I like to go to places and see what's happening as it were. That's my first instinct. My first job on leaving college was as a journalist at‘The Indian Express’. I think I learned a lot from that. Similarly, you know, this book, most of all, is a book which engages with history. And, you know, my reading in history has been very important. But, ultimately, I think I would not be able to write this book if I were an academic. Although I've had that kind of training, I am not an academic. And I think that shows very much in in my books. My books are outside the academy. They're outside those sorts of, you know, the sorts of silos that are built within the academy. And I really feel that I would not be able to write as I do had I been an academic.

Before I let you go, please tell us about your next book. 

I’m trying to finish this short book on opium and the China trade. And, you know, how profoundly both of these changed India in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and how in effect, really, Indian modernity was shaped by these factors.

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2022 5:35:38 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/podcast/amitav-ghosh-on-capitalism-climate-change-and-a-planet-in-crisis-the-hindu-on-books-podcast/article37406677.ece