‘The Living Mountain’ is a beautifully told story within the structure of a fable


A new story from internationally renowned author Amitav Ghosh, The Living Mountain is a cautionary tale of how we have systematically exploited nature, leading to an environmental collapse. He has also unravelled the core of the global narrative and our understanding of the climate catastrophe once again.

The book is exactly 35 pages long, filled with amazing black ink illustrations done by Devangana Dash in between the pages, and is published by HarperCollins. The book is a story of “Mahaparbat”, The Living Mountain, and indigenous valley dwellers who live near the mountain. Disaster unfolds when humans assault the mountain for commercial purposes.

The story begins with the narrator and his online book club friend Maansi who grew up in Nepal but now lives in New York. Where she worked as a salesperson for ‘Anthropologaia’, an up-and-coming line of designer clothing. Two people who only interact with each other through books and know very little about each other are discussing potential reading themes for the coming year. Maansi proposes ‘Anthropocene’ a term both are unfamiliar with, and volunteers to come up with a reading list. After some silence from her for a while, the narrator receives a message about a book she reads on the theme of being so very different from what she’d expected the ‘Anthropocene’ to be, one which triggered off a tale, part dream, part memory of a story her grandmother had once told her, and it is this she shares with the narrator. Amitav Ghosh is an articulate, wise, and incisive writer and this book repaid careful reading.

Those who have been following Amitav Ghosh’s work over the last few years will know what a determined move he has made toward writing on climate change. Since the Great Derangement in 2016, all his works, fiction or non-fiction, have been only on man’s systematic destruction of nature in the name of progress and development. The climate crisis asks us to imagine other forms of human existence a task to which fiction, Ghosh argues, is the best suited of all cultural forms. His book serves as a great writer’s summons to confront the most urgent task of our time.

Not resting on that, author Amitav Ghosh is on a mission to show us how man, not many centuries ago, had an extremely congenial relationship with the earth and took care of it with the help of its customs and rituals, firmly believing that the earth looks after them and nurtures them. Hence, «Mother Earth.» His most recent books, ‹Gun Island› and ‹Nutmeg›s Curse,› were exhaustive narratives pointing out this very, albeit erstwhile, relationship with the earth; The Living Mountain is an extension of the same narrative.

Author Amitav Ghosh writes in the book– “In my dream,” said Maansi, “I was a young girl, growing up in a valley that was home to a cluster of warring villages, high in the Himalayas. 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 that 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 – and always from a distance. For one of the binding laws of the Valley, respected by all our warring villages, was that we were never, on any account, to set foot on the slopes of the Great Mountain.”

It tells the tale of a Mahaparbat in Nepal, deeply revered and feared in Nepal through the times, but which falls victim to man’s greed and ill-placed sense of power, is ravaged by expeditions, only to turn around and decimate all reiterating, in that final blow, that man was and remains insignificant. Written in Amitav Ghosh’s inimitable style, ‘The Living Mountain’ is underlining at once the enchantment of nature, and the urgent need to establish a lost balance between the natural world and the human one.

This book is a tale about the indigenous valley dwellers who live and prosper in its shelter; the assault on the mountain for commercial benefit by the ‘Anthropoi’, humans whose sole aim is to reap the benefits of nature; and the disaster that unfolds as a result. It is a relationship that has turned problematic today, because of man’s inadequate understanding of nature, and because of the relentless human endeavours to harness, utilize and exploit natural resources. Ghosh examines our inability at the level of literature, history, and politics to grasp the scale and violence of climate change.

In The Living Mountain, Amitav Ghosh captures the complex dynamics between humans and the natural world within the short span of a few thousand words. It is a relationship that has turned problematic today, because of man’s inadequate understanding of nature, and because of the relentless human endeavor to harness, utilize and exploit natural resources. The extreme nature of today’s climate events, Ghosh asserts, makes them peculiarly resistant to contemporary modes of thinking and imagining.

This is a fable that is especially relevant in a time when everyone is battling a pandemic and facing a climate catastrophe: both of which have their roots in one’s insufficient understanding of their relationship with nature, and the sustained appropriation and abuse of natural resources. Ghosh is using every possible narrative to convince us to retrace our steps, reforge our relationship with the soil and go back to the harmonious living of olden times. He is alarmed, and rightly so. The Living Mountain will resonate strongly with readers of all ages.

For the unacquainted, Amitav Ghosh won the 54th Jnanpith award in 2018, India’s highest literary honor. Ghosh’s ambitious novels use complex narrative strategies to probe the nature of national and personal identity, particularly of the people of India and Southeast Asia. He has also written non-fiction works discussing topics such as colonialism and climate change. Ghosh was born in Calcutta in 1956, and grew up in India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka; he studied in Delhi, Oxford and Alexandria. He is the author of several acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction including ‘The Shadow Lines’, ‘The Glass Palace’, ‘The Hungry Tide’, the ‘Ibis Trilogy’, ‘Gun Island’, ‘The Great Derangement’, ‘The Nutmeg’s Curse’ and ‘Jungle Nama’.

(Ashutosh Kumar Thakur is a Bangalore-based management professional, literary critic, and co-director with Kalinga Literary Festival. He can be reached at ashutoshbthakur@gmail.com)