AMITAV GHOSH is one of the world’s most celebrated and awarded authors and thinkers. In conversation with TARA KHANDELWAL and MICHELLE D’COSTA, he talks about his latest book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, a non-fiction story highlighting the origins of our current climate crisis.
AG: Thank you for your very generous words of welcome.
TK: Your latest book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, weaves history, colonialism, migration, superstition, and much more, to tell us an origin story of our current climate crisis. As a millennial, I am really interested in this very urgent issue. Why did you choose the lens of the nutmeg to tell this story?
AG: The story of the nutmeg I take as an analogy for what is happening in the world right now. The nutmeg tree was a miraculous plant that existed only on the tiny Banda Islands and their surroundings in the Maluku province of Indonesia. For millennia, the nutmeg tree brought wealth and prosperity to these islands and the islanders. They became great entrepreneurs sailing across the Indian Ocean. Ultimately, the Dutch arrived and wanted to gain complete control of the nutmeg trade. So, what did they do? They wiped out the islanders. The islanders were destroyed because of their miraculous tree.
It is an analogy for what has happened to our planet. We were given a beautiful planet full of all kinds of miraculous things. And now we have set about destroying this gift. The story of the nutmeg and the Banda Islands is one of the earliest examples of what’s now known as the resource curse, that is, a resource that ultimately creates devastation around it. Another example is oil in Iraq or Libya. In the same way, the vast gifts of the Earth have now been exploited to the point where the whole Earth is becoming subject to the resource curse.
MDC: That’s really heartbreaking. I will never see the nutmeg in the same way again after reading your book. The first chapter is one of my favorites, because you talk about how one small incident of a lamp falling changes the course of history. You were haunted by this particular incident while you were writing the book in Brooklyn during the pandemic amidst all the ambulance sirens. Will you please narrate this story to our listeners? And what did it feel like writing this book in the middle of the pandemic?
AG: It was a very strange time. You’ve lived through the pandemic, so you will be aware how strange it was. Everything was changing in the world. New York City, especially Brooklyn, is a very lively, vivacious place, and suddenly everything went quiet. On the street you could hear a dog bark from blocks away, except for when the ambulances were racing through. And that was happening all through the night and day. My house is not very far from one of Brooklyn’s largest hospitals, and outside there were refrigerated trucks for all the bodies of the dead. It was a very eerie time of great fear, as you will remember from your own experience.
I had been planning to write this book for a long time, and just as the lockdown started, I began work on what ultimately became The Nutmeg’s Curse. Very little is actually known about what happened in the Banda Islands in those days. I first learned about it from a very short book by an American historian, Willard A. Hanna, Indonesian Banda: Colonialism and Its Aftermath in the Nutmeg Islands. That’s where I read about the lamp that fell in Selamon on the night of April 21, 1621. It really caught my attention and I thought, “How does the falling of a lamp lead to this calamity?” I wanted to see what had happened in greater detail, and I discovered that the only book that addresses this history was written by a Dutch archivist, J.A. Van der Chijs, published in Dutch in 1886.
I discovered this when, on impulse, I did a Google search and found a pdf of the book. I printed it, but it was in Dutch so I couldn’t read it. On another impulse, I typed some of the Dutch sentences into a translation app. Then mysteriously, miraculously, something comprehensible appeared. I began to spend hours, days, typing in paragraph after paragraph, page after page of this Dutch book until I was able to piece it together with some help.
TK: I love the way you describe this in the book. Was this the most challenging part of researching this book, not having access to the language?
AG: It was so frustrating, but I’ve dealt with many languages and I didn’t allow myself to be intimidated. I thought, “If I persevere I’ll be able to do it.”
MDC: I think it’s also an intellectual challenge that pushes you forward in a way.
Your book addresses some of the many violent ways in which Europeans have invaded places and impacted their original inhabitants. One shocking fact I learned was how the Lord Chancellor of England, Sir Francis Bacon, justified the massacres on the islands as having been willed by God. So, what did you discover when researching this book that was really shocking to you?
AG: When I got into the historical sources about what had happened during the colonization of the Americas, the scale of the violence was absolutely unbelievable. Between 70% and 90% of the Indigenous populations were wiped out through extraordinary orgies of violence. What happened in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Americas was quite unprecedented. The scale of that violence really has no match anywhere, honestly.
But I think it’s important to understand that climate change, the way that it is unfolding, is also a kind of violence. It’s the kind of mediated violence that has also unfolded in the Americas. The violence of the Americas was of a particular type; it was not like the Second World War where people were killed with machine guns – that technology didn’t exist back then. In fact, a large part of the violence of the colonization of the Americas unfolded via the environment. Environmental changes wiped out people’s ways of life. The environment itself became an instrument of violence. And this is what we are seeing today; the environment has again become an instrument of violence.
For example, the people in Bengal are losing their lands, losing their livelihoods, to rising waters and intensifying cyclones. Climate change is not merely a thing of greenhouse gas emissions and policy decisions. Climate change is a kind of war. We’re confronting a form of ecological violence.
But I think it’s important
to understand that climate change,
the way that it is unfolding,
is also a kind of violence.
TK: And it’s so visceral, the changes that people deal with on a day-to-day basis. I’m really interested in the way you wrote about climate – this paradigm shift. It made me think very differently. You said that literature needs to change the way climate is written about. Michelle and I were trying to think of books in which climate is front and center or the plot vehicle. In all the books we came up with, either the genre was dystopian or it was self-help or non-fiction, like Bill Gates’ latest book, which gives suggestions like a manual. Yours was such an interesting paradigm shift. So, can you tell us how you feel fiction should address climate change? You mentioned that one way is to give voice to non-human entities. Can you elaborate on that?
AG: Yes. The problem that arose in the 17th century is that the Earth came to be thought of as dead by elite westerners. Over time, across the world, people accepted this view. Farmers and fishermen don’t accept this view, nor do the Adivasis [Indigenous communities in India]. For them the Earth is alive and filled with many kinds of beings – Adivasis think of forests as living beings, and now we know that forests are living beings. But you can’t compensate for the loss of forests by planting trees somewhere else, because a forest interconnects the multiple species and entities.
Adivasis think of forests
as living beings, and now we know that
forests are living beings.
But you can’t compensate
for the loss of forests
by planting trees somewhere else,
because a forest interconnects
the multiple species and entities.
For me, the most difficult challenge facing us today is to do with ethics – what our ancestors did, what you read in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and so on. Those texts are filled with the voices of non-human beings of many kinds. The Mahabharata begins with snakes, and they are an important part of the Mahabharata. That is the greatest challenge facing us today – how we write about non-human beings of various kinds. In modern Indian literature there are writers who are giving agency and voice to these non-human elements.
MDC: Yes, another Adivasi writer I’m reminded of is Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. I absolutely love his writing, his stories are full of nature, everything comes to life. You don’t usually see that in stories that are set in urban spaces.
You have addressed climate through fiction in your book, Gun Island, and through your non-fiction. So, what are the takeaways you want your readers to go away with about climate from fiction versus nonfiction, because they are two very different forms?
AG: They are different, but they’re also not so different. Gun Island is a novel while The Nutmeg’s Curse is non-fiction, but in many ways there is a huge overlap. In Gun Island I wrote about migrants who are instances of the crisis, and I’ve written about the migration crisis in The Nutmeg’s Curse. They are interconnected in many ways. In order to really write productively about our situation, we have to forget some of these ironclad distinctions that were made in the past between fiction and non-fiction, and so on. There was always a lot of overlap between these genres.
A famous example is the work of Herman Melville. Melville used huge amounts of non-fiction in his work. He was an ethnographer, so Moby Dick is filled with information about whales. In fact, the whole story is based on an historical incident. I think we are going to have to loosen the boundaries as we go ahead.
TK: Your research also involves speaking to travelers, climate refugees. You’ve spoken about Bangladeshi migrants who move to places like Italy because of climate conditions in the Bengal region. Could you share an anecdote about this? What kind of things were foremost in their minds? What were they running from?
AG: Well, I met many Bangladeshi migrants who told me the stories of how they left. Often, agriculture had become impossible in their villages, because of the erratic rainfall, because of changes in the seasons, and so on. That’s increasingly the case across the world. Many of them were forced to leave because of those reasons, but if I asked them, “Are you a climate migrant?” none of them would accept that. I was very struck by that because Bangladeshis are well educated about climate issues. The Bangladesh government and many NGOs in Bangladesh disseminate a lot of information. We would do well to study what Bangladesh has been doing in terms of both education and resilience measures.
It was very interesting talking to these guys. I would say, “Are you a climate migrant?” and they would say, “No,” because it wasn’t just climate. It was as Margaret Atwood said, “It’s not just climate change, it’s everything change.” There were political difficulties, family issues, and so on. In these Italian migrant camps, there were lots of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, but very few Indians. I think the Indians who have been displaced by climate tend to migrate within India, except for the Punjabis. They are migrating on a large scale now, abandoning their lands. Other than that, most migration tends to be toward Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, or the West Coast.
One story I particularly remember was of a young Pakistani boy from a farming family in the Punjab. I was speaking to him in Rome, and he had fought with his father. It happens all the time, everywhere. At any other time, he probably would have gone off to another village, or to a relative, and spent a few weeks there. Sooner or later, his father would have said, “Son, please come back,” and he would have gone back. In his case, he was sulking and he went to the railway station. There he met up with a group of migrants who were making their way to Europe and he fell in with them. He made this incredible journey, half walking, from Pakistan to Iran, then crossing Iran to Turkey, where he was shot at by Turkish soldiers. From there he finally ended up in Rome. This is one of the ways in which the world has really changed.
TK: I just can’t wrap my head around that story! You know, I recently reread your book, The Hungry Tide. It’s amazing the way you brought the Sundarbans to life. You have also depicted the Sundarbans in other books like Jungle Nama and Gun Island. How have things changed in your portrayal of the Sundarbans from The Hungry Tide to Gun Island?
AG: The Sundarbans is a landscape and ecology that is being absolutely devastated. Each of the cyclones that has hit the Sundarbans in the last ten years since The Hungry Tide has made the situation incredibly dire for the people there, much more than I imagined. Cyclone Aila was a devastating blow to many people, and every year it’s gotten worse. Cyclone Amfan in 2020 was completely devastating – a lot of the reclaimed land, which was fertile, rice producing, was submerged under seawater. Those lands may not be cultivable again for years. Many people have lost their livelihoods.
MDC: Yes, it feels like a dystopian world, but unfortunately it is our reality, and it is something that we can’t escape.
TK: On that note, thank you so much for being here today and talking to us, sharing your insights. The books you’ve written have changed the way I think, and they’ve added a lot to my life. Thank you.
AG: That’s wonderful to know. Thank you very, very much.
To listen to the original podcast ‘Books and Beyond with Bound’, please go to https://boundindia.com/books-and-beyond-podcast/
Mr. Ghosh is one of the world’s most celebrated authors and thinkers, best known for his historical fiction. He holds two lifetime achievement awards, and has been awarded the Padma Shri, the Jnanpith Award, the Dan David Award, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.