Amitav Ghosh: 'The World Of Fact Is Outrunning The World Of Fiction'

Sep 16, 2019
Originally published on September 16, 2019 6:19 pm

In 2016, Amitav Ghosh was working on his novel Gun Island, and imagined a scene in which a wildfire was advancing toward a Los Angeles museum. About six months later, that scenario played out in real life, as the Skirball fire burned near The Getty Center in December 2017. Ghosh says he felt "completely shaken."

"To see things that you've seen in your mind sort of playing out in real life — it's just so disturbing you know?" he says. "But that is the world that we are in. The world of fact is outrunning the world of fiction."

Ghosh believes old legends have a lot to teach us about how to think about the cataclysmic effects of climate change. "Fiction allows us to look at the world in a different way," he says. "And I think that is really the crisis of contemporary fiction: that it finds itself — at this catastrophic time for humanity — it finds itself unable to look at the reality around us."

Ghosh often sets his own fiction at the blurry boundary between land and water. His latest novel stops in several of those places — from mangrove islands on the border of India and Bangladesh to the canals of Venice, Italy. Gun Island is a modern retelling of a Bengali myth that Ghosh grew up with. The goddess at the center of this myth is named Manasa Devi and she's not just a goddess — she's also a sort of interpreter, connecting humans to the natural world.


Interview Highlights

On Manasa Devi

She is the goddess of snakes and all poisonous things. And the stories around her all revolve around her curious kind of battle with this figure called the merchant. ... There's this sort of conflict between them and she wants him to become her devotee and he won't. And she sends all these kinds of terrible calamities upon him — droughts, and famines, and great waves — and finally he flees overseas and she pursues him overseas. And finally he comes back and he sort of capitulates. ...

It's an amazing story in the sense that I think it ... conceptualized a conflict between the profit motive and nature. ... It's clear that this basic conflict was perfectly well understood by our distant ancestors.

On how old legends resonate with what we're seeing today in the natural world

I wrote this book The Great Derangement which is about literature and climate change ... it's about why climate change is so difficult for modern writers and for modern literature. And at the end of writing that book I decided that I needed to read more pre-modern literature. ... I suddenly saw it through new eyes. I realized that what these old legends were about were exactly what we are living through today, you know, catastrophic floods, droughts, famines, storms. ...

What really struck me, what was very moving to me, is that in those times they could address these issues so much more directly than we can today. At that time people could respond — you know, they could create paintings, they could create buildings. I mean, in Venice, the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, which is its greatest landmark, is actually a commemoration of a great catastrophe ... the plague. When we have these catastrophes unfolding around us, we don't seem to be able to even imaginatively grapple with what's in front of us.

All the science communication in the world hasn't got us moving anywhere really. - Amitav Ghosh

On talking about climate change from a spiritual place rather than a scientific place

Climate scientists have played a very, very important part in alerting us to what's going on in the world. We owe them a great debt. But in a way, that framing of what's happening today has also proved its own inadequacy. ...

We have to rise up in our hearts to appreciate the enormity of the changes that are upon us. I mean all the science communication in the world hasn't got us moving anywhere really. So I do think that we have to be able to open up those parts of our lives, or those parts of our minds, or those parts of our consciousnesses that can actually accommodate different ways of thinking about the world.

Matt Ozug and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The author Amitav Ghosh often sets his books at the blurry boundary between land and water. His latest novel stops in several of those places, from mangrove islands on the border of India and Bangladesh to the canals of Venice, Italy. The book is called "Gun Island." It's a modern retelling of a Bengali myth that Amitav Ghosh grew up with. He uses this ancient story to reflect on contemporary themes of climate change and migration.

The goddess at the center of this myth is named Manasa Devi. She's not just a goddess. She's also a sort of interpreter, connecting humans to the natural world.

AMITAV GHOSH: She is the goddess of snakes and all poisonous things. And the stories around her all revolve around her curious kind of battle with this figure called the merchant. You know, his name is actually Chand Saudagar (ph), or the merchant Chand.

SHAPIRO: That's his name in Bengali.

GHOSH: Chand Saudagar in Bengali, yes. And there's this sort of conflict between them, and she wants him to become her devotee, and he won't. And she sends all these kinds of terrible calamities upon him - droughts and famines and great waves. And finally, he flees overseas, and she pursues him overseas. And finally, he comes back, and he sort of, you know, capitulates. But it's an amazing story in the sense that I think it poses, as it were - or it conceptualizes a conflict between the profit motive and nature, you know?

SHAPIRO: Because the merchant wants to make money...

GHOSH: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...And the goddess is sending these natural phenomena to try to get him to pay attention.

GHOSH: That's right. That's exactly it. I mean, that's it. She wants him to pay attention to the world around him, to the natural world around him. So it's a metaphor for that, you might say. So, you know, it's clear that this basic conflict was perfectly well-understood by, you know, our distant ancestors.

SHAPIRO: When did it occur to you as an adult author that this story you had known as a child actually has really strong connections with what we are seeing today in the changing climate - I mean, apocalyptic weather, animals in unfamiliar places, kind of the world turned upside down?

GHOSH: Well, you know, I wrote the book "The Great Derangement," which is about, you know, literature and climate change.

SHAPIRO: It's a nonfiction book, your last book.

GHOSH: It's nonfiction, yes, about why climate change is so difficult for modern writers and for modern literature. And at the end of writing that book, I decided that I needed to read more pre-modern literature. And, you know, there it was. I was - I suddenly saw it through new eyes. I realized that what these old legends were about were exactly what we are living through today - you know, catastrophic floods, droughts, famines, storms.

SHAPIRO: Seems like the goddess got your attention.

GHOSH: (Laughter) She certainly got my attention, absolutely. And, you know, what really struck me, what was very moving to me is that in those times, they could address these issues so much more directly than we can today. At that time, people could respond. You know, they could create paintings. They could create buildings. I mean, in Venice, the basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, which is its greatest landmark, is actually a commemoration of a great catastrophe. You know, if the plague - when we have these catastrophes unfolding around us, we don't seem to be able to even imaginatively grapple with what's in front of us.

SHAPIRO: Would you read a section of the book that kind of talks about the power and importance of stories? This is on Page 141.

GHOSH: Yes. (Reading) At that time, people recognized that stories could tap into dimensions that were beyond the ordinary, beyond the human, even. They knew that only through stories was it possible to enter the most inward mysteries of our existence, where nothing that is really important can be proven to exist, like love or loyalty or even the faculty that makes us turn around when we feel the gaze of a stranger or an animal. Only through stories can invisible or inarticulate or silent beings speak to us. It's they who allow the past to reach out to us.

SHAPIRO: Do you think you're able to do things through fiction, the stories that you're telling in books like this, that nonfiction, that journalism, that research can't accomplish?

GHOSH: Well, I kind of have to believe that - don't I? - because I'm an author.

SHAPIRO: It's your chosen field, right.

(LAUGHTER)

GHOSH: I'm a writer of fiction. I live in fiction. It's my world. It's my life's work. But, yes, I do believe that. I do believe that fiction allows us to look at the world in a different way. And I think that is really the crisis of contemporary fiction - that it finds itself at this catastrophic time for humanity. It finds itself unable to look at the reality around us.

SHAPIRO: The characters in your book explore a tension between science and spirituality. Do you feel like you're doing the same thing here by talking about climate change in the context of myths and goddesses?

GHOSH: Well, it's certainly very different from talking about climate change within the framework of science, which is - or technology...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

GHOSH: ...Which is what we normally get. But let's face it. You know, I mean, science and technology, climate scientists have played a very, very important part in alerting us to what's going on in the world. We owe them a great debt. But in a way, that framing of what's happening today has also proved its own inadequacy, you know? We can see that, in a way, we have to rise up in our hearts to appreciate the enormity of the changes that are upon us. I mean, all the science communication in the world hasn't got us moving anywhere, really.

So I do think that, you know, we have to be able to open up those parts of our lives or those parts of our minds or those parts of our consciousnesses that can actually accommodate different ways of thinking about the world. So I'm not really thinking about spirituality or goddesses or anything. What I'm really trying to confront, if you like, is the uncanny - you know, the uncanny in the world around us, how it exists around us and the ways in which we relate to it.

SHAPIRO: How do you define the uncanny?

GHOSH: Well, I'll give you an example you'll know. You'll remember that there's a chapter in the book that's set in Los Angeles. We're in a museum, and suddenly there's a wildfire that advances towards this museum. And you may remember that something like that did happen. I think it was in 2017, the Getty Museum suddenly had a wildfire racing towards it.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

GHOSH: It had to evacuate and so on. But, you know, the really weird thing is that I had - I wrote that chapter six months before it happened.

SHAPIRO: Wait; really?

GHOSH: Yeah. It was so uncanny.

SHAPIRO: And you set it at the Getty Museum.

GHOSH: I didn't name it, but, yeah, that was what was in my head. A couple of friends that had read the manuscript, and they wrote to me and said, how does this feel? And I could only say to them that I feel completely shaken...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

GHOSH: ...You know, because to see things that you've seen in your mind sort of playing out in real life, it's just so disturbing, you know? But that is the world that we are in. I mean, the world of fact is outrunning the world of fiction.

SHAPIRO: Amitav Ghosh, thank you for talking with us.

GHOSH: Thank you so much, Ari. It's been a great pleasure.

SHAPIRO: His new novel is called "Gun Island."

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM MISCH'S "THE JOURNEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.