Authors are part of the climate change problem

By catering to an affluent set cut off from the reality of the poor, the South Asian literary community hides the true costs of climate change.

Omair Ahmad

IN Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement, the author has asked why one of the major issues of our time - climate change - has been neglected by the literary community. In South Asia the answer is easy to see. By catering to an urban, prosperous and global community, authors and publishers produce books that allow us to ignore the damage taking place in the lives of the marginalised. The literary community is not innocently unaware, but actively complicit in a process that allows us to ignore the damage that climate change is doing to the lives of the poor.

The poor pay the costs of climate change

Let us be clear as to what 'the problem' is. Pollution is a classic example of market failure, where the true cost of a process is not captured in the price attached to it. The carbon dioxide generated by transport, deforestation to make way for roads, the costs of the plastic wrapping when it is disposed off, all these are not part of the price of the cherries imported from Australia that you pick up at a grocery store.

These are what economists call 'externalities' - costs or benefits paid by somebody who did not choose to be part of the transaction. And somebody does pay the cost of these externalities, whether it is a beautiful village in Sikkim threatened by a glacial lake or an influx of mosquitoes, or villagers in West Bengal suffering from arsenic poisoning. Frankly, you do not even have to go so far. The heatwaves which become more extreme every year claim the lives of people living in the cities of South Asia all the time.

The striking similarity among all who pay the costs of these problems is that they are the poor, the people living in villages and the outer periphery. They are the marginal people of the countries - precisely the people who much of the literary community is not only divorced from but actively running away from. This is true across Asia, with very few books even touching on the subject of water.

The production of literature is measured by three main things: numbers of books sold, awards, and recognition both locally and globally through speaking activities at book festivals and the like. All of these, in one form or another, exclude the participation of the very people most affected by climate change.

The myth of an aspirational readership

Working at one of India's most widely read news magazines, I would often be frustrated when my editor shot down a story idea by saying, 'This is not what our readers want.' In his mind, there was this mythical magazine reader who could afford to pay the 30 rupees for the weekly shot of news we provided. This reader was not interested in what happened to the small-town boys who became criminal dons in Bombay, nor in the lives of neglect most of India's sportsmen lived in, no matter how many awards they had won - unless they were cricketers, of course. These mythical readers were interested, though, in the new Rolls-Royce just launched in India, priced at about 40 million rupees, or just about $1 million at that time, in 2007.

These mythical readers are also who the literary publishers cater to - aspirational, middle-class consumers who are far more interested in wasteful spending, even if only in their imagination, than in sustainable living. The grim challenges - or even small victories such as Chhewang Norphel's artificial glaciers in Ladakh or a technological breakthrough to create a new arsenic filter - related to climate change are not the stuff of novels that publishers feel will sell. It may be that they are right, but if these stories are not commissioned, if they are not published and promoted, how will we ever cultivate the authors who can tease out the complexities of life in this increasingly fragile environment?

The problem with literary awards

Beyond publication are the literary awards, and the major problem with these is that there are hardly any important ones in small countries. The 'big names' of Indian fiction (and many of these are Indian only in origin, not by citizenship) - whether they are Salman Rushdie, VS Naipaul, Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, Jhumpa Lahiri or Amitav Ghosh himself - have largely won awards outside the country. It is hard enough to translate the difference between the poor or the rural and the rich and urban within India; to make the jump and be able to explain these issues to a 'global' audience is nigh on impossible. It is little surprise that Naipaul is unable to explain, or even comprehend, the rural areas he describes in his Area of Darkness. Adiga's Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger does not even try, and calls the village from which the protagonist fled merely 'the darkness'.

Roy's and Ghosh's books have local dynamics. In particular, Ghosh's earlier books such as The Calcutta Chromosome, The Shadow Lines and The Hungry Tide may pave the way to highlighting the value of local dynamics, but for most new writers, walking in the footsteps of the Literary Greats is to walk away, to the urban and the global. Cosseted in air-conditioned spaces which keep the rising heat at bay, they write for an audience similarly cosseted, and both ignore the slow tragedy unfolding outside.

Voices in the margins

The success of one type of fiction in directly addressing this issue - the ironic graphic novel All Quiet in Vikaspuri by Sarnath Banerjee - is the exception that proves the point. The tongue-in-cheek telling of a Delhi scarred by 'water wars', as the capital of India dries out and various middle-class and upper-middle-class housing colonies face off in combat, works because of how ludicrous it seems. The real-life residents of these colonies do not have to look for water. They can imagine a scenario of travelling kilometres for the precious liquid only as satire.

Another type of fiction, that undertaken in local languages, also shows promise. The work of Mahashweta Devi, one of the great Bengali authors, has consistently looked at the issues involving tribal communities and the marginalised poor. But even this type of literature - often called 'regional literature' - is often urban in nature, hiding the true costs of climate change playing out in the dry fields and the floods that hit the rural areas the worst.

Literary festivals and problematic funders

There is the last refuge, that of book festivals and book launches, where authors meet a wider public (often trying to merely sell or publicise their books). These are paradoxical spaces, as they are at the intersection of the privileged and (theoretically) all the people who want to attend. While it is possible that uncomfortable questions are raised at such venues, it is also clear that such events need funds. When they turn to the very companies and enterprises responsible for pollution and blatant destruction of habitat, it becomes hard to believe that the platform will criticise such practices. An ode to uninhibited consumption is unlikely to lead to stories of caution and restraint.

These structures incentivise the creation of a literature that discourages exploration of the issues of climate change. This can change - just as feminist literature, once a marginal subject, became a part of mainstream literature. But it will change only when we recognise the problems in terms not just of the choices that individuals make, but also of the incentive structures that help nudge literature in this direction. It is only then that we will be able to confront and change the terms of debate.    

This article is reproduced from The Third Pole (

*Third World Resurgence No. 312/313, Aug/Sept 2016, pp 35-36