Violating the Ecotopian Promise: Reading Colonial Extraction in Amitav Ghosh’s The Living Mountain
Speculative fiction offers a critical insight into our present reality through alternative forms of representation. It incorporates exquisite facets of science, fabulation, fantasy, and magical realism to transform familiar reality in order that we think upon it afresh, as outsiders. Today, the post-pandemic market is flooded with voluminous works of speculative fiction, which invite readers and critics alike to posit culturally urgent contemporary questions pertaining to the future of humanity. The text I analyze here includes dynamic bio-wars and biopiracy, ecological crisis amid rising capitalism, and aquatic and alpine pollution due to malfunctioning industrial setups. This eventually leads to contagious viral exposure, environmental contamination, and the extensive migration of indigenous populations.
Amitav Ghosh’s The Living Mountain: A Fable for our Times (2022) is a work of ecotopian speculative fiction that our century direly needs. Traversing his earlier fiction and non-fiction works such as The Hungry Tide (2004), The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), The Gun Island (2019), and The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (2021), the author writes an interesting dream tale to chart the history of the human-environment relationship. Delineating the disastrous impacts of ecological imperialism and colonial extraction, the book attempts to capture the unanticipated stimulation of an ecocide amid the growing avidity of the masses. By the end of the tale, Ghosh presents a sharp critique of anthropocentric voracity at the cost of environmental degradation as well as the dire need for humans to reconnect with nature and its bounty.
The link between humans and the environment dates back thousands of centuries. Literary studies intensify this link with impeccable plots, fascinating narratives, and struggling characters postulating explorative ideas to spread educative awareness. This interdisciplinary bent towards environmental and ecological themes in literature has, over the years, led to the establishment of the ecocritical school of thought. However, its premises for theorizing and interpreting are not limited to reading the romantic and deep, ecological ideas of the sublime and the wilderness, but also extends to the issue of environmental struggles against the more dominant paradigms of development, science, technology, displacement of indigenous populations, and colonization. In The Ecocritical Reader, Cherly Glotfelty foresees “Ecocriticism becoming a multi-ethnic movement with stronger connections made between the environment and the issues of social justice and when a diversity of voices are encouraged to contribute to the discussion” (xxv). Further, in his 1999 essay, “The Ecocritical Insurgency,” Lawrence Buell reflects on the unleashed potential of ecocritical studies, noting: “The untapped opportunities (of postcolonial ecocriticism) are still much greater than the achievements thus far. For example, India offers distinguished traditions of environmental historiography, ecological science, and environmentalist thought as well as a rich literary archive that engages environmental issues; but ecocriticism has not, so far, tapped very deeply into it” (710). Ghosh’s later writings, including the one under present study, epitomize the ecosophical spirit that Buell discusses around two decades back. It encompasses an urgent call for the preservation of natural ecosystems while censuring the misuse of environmental resources.
“Ecological imperialism” refers to the “violent appropriation of indigenous land to the ill-considered introduction of non-domestic livestock and European agricultural activities” (Huggan and Tiffan 3). However, Ghosh’s fable features much more than the use of non-domestic livestock and agricultural farming. It depicts a categorically determined and gory plunder of the living mountain, enough to invite the reverence of nature. This macabre pillage consequently leads to the physical, psychological and, at the end, epistemological conditioning of colonized communities leading to their consequent downfall.
Extractive colonialism, or “colonial extraction,” characterizes the diplomatic mediation between the colonizers (the Anthropoi) and the colonized (the Varvaroi, or the indigenous communities) with the purpose of slashing out the latter from their natural habitat and, instead, extracting raw materials, natural history specimens, and ethnographic artefacts from the newly colonized reserve. In the essay, “Decolonizing Conservation Policy: How Colonial Land and Conservation Ideologies Persist and Perpetuate Indigenous Injustices at the Expense of the Environment,” Liara Dominguez and Colin Luoma argue that the “separation of indigenous people from their natural environment was a crucial component of colonization” (1). In fact, “the widespread plunder of natural resources was a hallmark of colonization. Nature was something that was to be commodified in order to enrich the colonial power. In turn, indigenous were treated as business enterprises, with seemingly unlimited resources to exploit” (5).
Ghosh’s shortest book ever, this slender volume of 35 pages has much to unravel about the zeal to conquer nature and its subsequent aftermath. Unlike his previous works, which present a historical account of real-life ecological communities, The Living Mountain holds a speculative mirror to the harsh reality of the present and advances a caveat against this hegemonizing cycle. Critiquing anthropological capitalism, the narrative is a commentary on the growing megalomania that, if not interrupted, may lead to an ecological crash.
Crafted as a fable that employs literary metaphors of the aesthetic and the sublime, this enthralling masterpiece engenders strong emotions of awe and wonder in its readers. The presentation of its fascinating content in prosaic stanzas further adds a creative dimension to the overall reading experience. Devangana Das’s emblematizing illustrations supplement the narrative, making it vitally comprehensive to its textual audience. In fact, each illustration could be read in parallel to the semantic idea introduced henceforth. The fable begins with the voice of an unnamed narrator introducing her book club buddy, Maansi. Both of them share a common interest in engaging in thought-provoking discussions through regular reading exercises. Each New Year, they choose a subject and commit themselves to reading and discussing it in the next twelve months. The narrative gains momentum as soon as Maansi introduces the term, ‘Anthropocene,’ for the upcoming year. ‘Anthropocene’ is a grippling term that they cannot even pronounce correctly at first, but look forward to researching and laying hold of a suitable reading list. In the meantime, the narrator waits for Maansi’s response until, one fine day, her message pops up on the screen. This message invites the readers to get ready for a captivating tale of the living mountain, the breathing Mahaparbat that protects its dedicated population from natural disasters and enemy attacks.
From here on, the fable unfolds as a dream that Maansi visualizes after digging into the term, ‘Anthropocene.’ In the dream lies the crux of the fable that the author beautifully delineates:
In my dream I was a young girl growing up in the valley that was home to a cluster of warring villages high in the Himalaya. Overlooking our Valley was an immense, snowy mountain, whose peak was almost always wreathed in clouds. The mountain was called Mahaparbat, Great Mountain, and despite our differences all of us who lived in the Valley revered the mountain: our ancestors had told us that of all the world’s mountains ours was the most alive; that it would protect us and look after us- but only on condition that we told stories about it, and sang about it, and danced for it- but always from a distance (7).
This ‘distance’ indicates a plea for cordial interactions between nature and humans. It admonishes the people of the valley (or any foreign settlers) against exploiting its scenic beauty and ecological abundance. In fact, nobody is allowed to set foot on its holy slopes, as then the mountain wouldn’t protect its people, but may instead punish them in unimaginable and horrendous ways. At the same time, the Mahaparbat is the home of exotic herbs and minerals, adding to its divine charm that the inhabitants aim to maintain at all cost. However, things undergo a drastic change when colonizers get to know about the magical resources of the mountain and attempt to plunder its heavenly abode.
On the surface, Ghosh’s fable appears as a speculative tale of colonization. With no specifically named characters (except Maansi, who recalls her dream), the narrative presents counteractive ideologies. On one side stands ‘Anthropoi’ (a term Ghosh uses for the colonizers who desire to exert anthropocentric control over the mountain), and the other side is occupied by ‘Varvaroi’ (the original inhabitants of the valley) who have faith in the power of the mountain and desire to preserve its deific status. The ideological clash between the two forms the central argument of the narrative. At first, both groups struggle to maintain the interest of their respective community. The Anthropoi dominate the Varvaroi and, despite all warnings, set foot on the living mountain to ransack its bounteous resources. The Varvaroi, on the other hand, try their level best to believe in the folklore of their sanctified ‘Mahaparbat,’ but the day isn’t far off when they, too, become victim to Anthropoi greed. And finally, the moment arrives when both join hands and target the living mountain to fulfil their avaricious intentions. The author describes this change of attitude as:
Our eyes were drawn inexorably to the Anthropoi as they ascended Mahaparbat’s mysterious, glistening snows. We watched spellbound as they pulled themselves with their ropes and tackle…The lives of the Anthropoi seemed infinitely more exciting than our own wretched existence down in the Valley…As time went by, our attitude towards the Mountain began to change- our reverence slowly shifted away from the Mountain and attached itself instead to the spectacle of the climb. Gradually as the spectacle took the place that the Mountain occupied in our hearts, we burned with the desire to ascend those slopes ourselves (19).
This shift in perspective signifies the impending anthropocentric doom that the Anthropoi and Varvaroi fail to realize. None of them actually care about the Great Mountain. What matters is who climbs higher and conquers its precipitous slopes. This eventually leads to a fanatical and competitive urge to defeat their opponent without considering the robustness of the Living Mountain. In fact, climbing high intoxicates each of the climbers and makes them desperate to reach its topmost point. In reciprocation, what untwines is the scathing wrath of the ‘Mahaparbat,’ the epitome of sentient nature itself, in the form of devastating avalanches and landslides that sweep away a vast number of valley inhabitants.
However, deep down, ‘The Living Mountain’ is a learning lesson that resonates with human actions. It bears testimony to the insatiable greed of humans, which can lead to cataclysmic consequences. This makes Ghosh’s fable a touchstone of contemporary concern, requiring uncompromising attention and a diligent acumen to be able to dissolve the disastrous hegemony of man over nature. In fact, the tale is much more than a post-pandemic cautionary speculation on the affront to truth that we chose to peripheralize or, more precisely, ignore. In fact, it calls for a persistent understanding of the ecological misconduct that we have unconsciously added to our everyday activities. Thus, The Living Mountain manifests as an extant truth that we are born with and continue to reap its harvest. It reiterates itself in each one of us through Maansi’s dream, which we still fail to think upon.
Still, we cannot miss the author’s ustopia as we read the final sentences of the fable: “How are you? she cried. How dare you speak of the Mountain as though you were its masters, and it were your plaything, your child? Have you understood nothing of what it has been trying to teach you? Nothing at all?”. These sentences add a two-fold perspective to the fable: first, they highlight the harsh repercussions that anthropocentric greed meets in the face of an environmental catastrophe and, second, they anticipate a promising transformation of human ideology through eco-friendly actions. In short, the fable provides a remarkable opportunity to the readers to reprimand ecological mismanagement and encourage the sustainable use of environmental resources.
Macroscopically, Ghosh’s fable encapsulates the epistemological essence of sustainable development. It creatively directs its audience to explore the United Nations’ agenda of Sustainable Development Goals 2030, thus making it equally interesting for development policy critics. In particular, it focuses on Goal 15 of the charter, which promises to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt the reverse land degradation and halt diversity loss” (“Sustainable Development Goals 2030”). This acts in conjunction with the Indian Biodiversity Act (2002), which “provides for conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of its components and fair and equitable sharing of all benefits out of the use of biological resources, knowledge and for matters connected therewith or incident thereto” (“Indian Biodiversity Act”), the Rights of Nature, which is “grounded in the recognition that humankind and Nature share a fundamental non-anthropocentric relationship” (“Rights of Nature”), and other similar manifestos implemented by global governments. Each of these memorandums reaffirm our ‘Mother Earth’ and its ecosystems as a common expression that we equally share and which, therefore, must be treated with respect by all.
A lucid expression of Ghosh’s perspectival agency, The Living Mountain creatively acknowledges the interrelation between humans and ecology. It re-establishes our neglected connection with Mother Earth and calls for the revitalization of the ecosystem. The author, through a circular and fantastical narrative, laments the poignant deterioration of the planet. Through this engaging fable, Ghosh records a contemporary global scenario of environmental adversity that caters to the massive outreach necessary for the optimal protection of our ecosphere. The Living Mountain is a remarkable read for those interested in speculative fiction and ecotopian narratives. It motivates its audience to adopt eco-friendly practices of preservation and sustenance. Entangling the past, present, and future into a well-knit web, this fable sets the groundwork for a sustainable human-nature interaction today, tomorrow, and henceforth.
Buell, Lawrence. “The Ecocritical Insurgency.” The John Hopkins University Press, vol. 30, no. 3, 1999, 699-712.
Dominque, Lara and Colin Luoma. “Decolonizing Conservation Policy: How Colonial Land and Conservation Ideologies Persist and Perpetuate Indigenous Injustices at the Expense of the Environment.” Land, vol. 9, no. 65, 2020, 1-22.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Living Mountain. HarperCollins Publishers, 2022.
Glotfelty, Cherly and Harold Fromm. The Ecocritical Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. The University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Huggan, Graham and Helen Tiffin. “Green Postcolonialism.” Interventions, vol. 9, no.1, 2009, 1-11.
“Indian Biodiversity Act.” The Biological Diversity Act, 2002- India Code. https://www.indiacode.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/2046/1/200318.pdf. Accessed 28 August 2022.
“Rights of Nature.” Rights of Nature Law and Policy. http://www.harmonywithnatureun.org/rightsOfNature/#:~:text=Rights%20of%20Nature%20is%20grounded,actions%20that%20respect%20this%20relationship. Accessed 19 August 2022.
“Sustainable Development Goals 2030.” Sustainable Development- The United Nations. https://sdgs.un.org/2030agenda. Accessed 25 August 2022.