Book review of The Living Mountain
by Ananya Sarkar
(Kolkata, West Bengal, India)
The Living Mountain
FOURTH ESTATE 2022
Pages 35, Price INR 399
Tracing Back the Planetary Crisis
Literary stalwart and Jnanpith winner Amitav Ghosh’s latest book The Living Mountain is a cautionary tale with no single hero, which encapsulates the complex dynamics between human beings and the natural world. The slim volume deftly braids magic and reality to depict the history of environmental exploitation that has precipitated the climate catastrophe confronting us in modern times. An easy read but not devoid of depth and gravity, The Living Mountain seeks to spread greater awareness regarding the planet that in turn, can inspire a change in world views and a more positive action.
The story opens with the unnamed narrator and his book club buddy, Maansi, deciding on the subject for the year – “anthropocene”. Since the term is unfamiliar to both of them, Maansi volunteers to pick out a reading list and share it with the narrator. However, after a prolonged silence Maansi sends a message about a book she had read on the theme. She had expected it to be packed with relevant information and logistics but instead, found a disturbing story unravelling the meaning of anthropocene. This triggers off the tale, part dream and part memory of a story heard from her grandmother, which she shares with the narrator.
The story is of a people who live in “a valley that was home to a cluster of warring villages high in the Himalayas”. They are under the gracious protection of the Mahaparbat or Great Mountain and despite the differences of the warring villagers, they all revere the mountain and consider it “the most alive”. They had heard from their ancestors that the mountain would provide them with sustenance and take care of them on the condition that they maintained the oral traditions of singing, dancing and telling stories about it. Also, they were not to mount on its slopes.
The Mahaparbat is inevitably rich as its streams nurture the Magic Tree which produces wondrous nuts, flowers, mushrooms, honey and the like. The Valley people exchange some of these gifts with traders from the Lowlands once a year to acquire necessary goods. However, they never let any outsiders enter their Valley.
There is a looming sense of foreboding regarding something disruptive that can happen to this pristine world. And soon enough, the technologically superior Anthropoi arrive, hungry to assault the mountain and reap the maximum bounty of nature. (This also marks the establishment of Anthropocene or the Age of Man.) The resulting disaster that unfolds is a sharp retelling of the problematic history of progress.
The story of colonialism here bears a parallel to The Nutmeg’s Curse (2021). Just as the trade of nutmegs from the Banda Islands near Java paved the way for Western colonialism with far-reaching consequences, here too the scented nut attracts the Anthropoi. Also, disturbing the dynamics of the natural world does not go well. Inspired by the Anthropoi’s feat, when the Valley people or Varvaroi eventually join the race to plunder the mountain for commercial gain, avalanches and landslides begin to wreak havoc. Due to this, vast numbers of villagers lose their lives.
The Living Mountain was originally written as a part of an anthology which included pieces by several leading climate specialists. The editor of the anthology, pre-eminent historian Julia Adeney Thomas had appreciated the story and written back to the author about how she would like it to be taught in every school around the world. It was later reworked on by Ghosh during 2021 to hit the stores as a standalone book this year.
The illustrations by Devangana Dash and the cover image of the book help to manifest the story more poignantly. The Living Mountain is also available in Hindi translation – Mahabarbat – by Naved Akbar and as an audiobook narrated by Ranjit Madgavkar and Pallavi Bharti.
To round it off, The Living Mountain explores the ongoing planetary crisis in a fantasy-like manner while looking unpleasant truths in the eye. The spirit of the mountain, which stands for the life-force of Nature, is not to be ruthlessly harnessed or condescendingly patronized. It is the source of sustenance and thus will always have the greater power, even though things may appear otherwise. This is what stays in the mind when at the end, in the face of unthinking human intervention by the Anthropoi, an old native woman lividly utters, “Have you understood nothing of what it (the mountain) has been trying to teach you? Nothing at all?” *****