Essay: On natural disasters and climate writing

ByDeepansh Duggal
Nov 18, 2023 05:04 PM IST

All the romanticisation with unseasonal rains shouldn’t make us forget that climate change wreaks havoc through heatwaves, forest fires, floods and flash rains

“On the afternoon of 17 March 1978, the weather took an odd turn in north Delhi… that day dark clouds appeared suddenly and there were squalls of rain. Then followed an even bigger surprise: a hailstorm”. In his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, celebrated author and Jnanpith award winner, Amitav Ghosh writes about an afternoon in Delhi when the capital was hit by a hailstorm. The event took the nation by surprise — glass panes were shattered, and unsuspecting people were severely wounded by shards of hail. The headlines of a newspaper on 19 March read, “A Very, Very Rare Phenomenon, Says Met Office: It was a tornado that hit northern parts of the Capital yesterday — the first of its kind…”

A hail storm in New Delhi on May 14, 2020 (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
A hail storm in New Delhi on May 14, 2020 (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

Climate Emergency In South Asia

Decades after 1978, Delhiites are accustomed to unseasonal rainfall and sudden hailstorms. In the first 11 days of July 2023 alone, rainfall in Delhi crossed 300mm, the highest since July 2003 when the capital recorded 632.2 mm of rainfall. Besides this, Delhi also witnessed floods—a first since 1978, with the Yamuna crossing the 208-meter mark (the danger mark is 205.33 meters). Besides this, unseasonal rains have caused flash floods and landslides across Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Chandigarh with over 100 fatalities.

A couple at Marine Drive in Mumbai. (Pratik Chorge/HT Photo)
A couple at Marine Drive in Mumbai. (Pratik Chorge/HT Photo)

Climate Change And Surrealism

In her novel Latitudes of Longing (HarperCollins, 2018) author Shubhangi Swarup weaves a tale of interconnected lives separated by time and space. The story is set in different ecosystems across South Asia — the Andaman Islands, the fault lines of Myanmar, a valley in Kathmandu and a Tibetan snow desert. In the novel, Girija Prasad, a scientist and conservationist, swims in the clear waters of the Andamans. Girija searches for answers to questions related to the Andamans — questions like why a particular type of tree fossil, which is only found in Madagascar and Central Asia, is also found in the Archipelago.

Miles away, a young man named Plato is incarcerated in a Burmese prison. Plato searches for his mother who he hasn’t seen in 23 years. Further away in Kathmandu, Bebo, an exotic dancer, longs for a life where she doesn’t have to worry about hunger. Next is the Tibetan snow desert where Apo, a Hamlet, wants to marry Ghazala, a Kashmiri woman he loves.

After a flash flood following a cloudburst in Leh, Ladakh. (Nitin Kanotra/HT Photo)
After a flash flood following a cloudburst in Leh, Ladakh. (Nitin Kanotra/HT Photo)

At its core, Latitudes of Longing uses magical realism to show how humans long for something they don’t have. Girija longs for answers to his scientific questions; Plato for motherly affection; Bebo for a fulfilling life and Apo for love. The planet, much like humans, longs for change with each changing latitude; as is seen with the diverse landscape and topographies in the novel. But what happens when this change manifests as climate change?

Swarup says that through her book, Latitudes of Longing, she wants to “bring about a larger appreciation of the planet”. She adds, “If you are not in love with the earth, then you needn’t fight for climate change. It needn’t be a fear-based discourse. If you don’t know the name of the tree you see outside your window, how can you claim to be climate conscious?” Swarup’s observations ring true in a world where rapid urbanization and consumerism seem to have reduced love for nature.

Amitav Ghosh at the Mumbai launch of his book, The Great Derangement on July 20, 2016. (Arijit Sen/ Hindustan Times)
Amitav Ghosh at the Mumbai launch of his book, The Great Derangement on July 20, 2016. (Arijit Sen/ Hindustan Times)

Impact of Climate Change on Wildlife

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist whose book Wild and Wilful (HarperCollins India, 2021), offers a window into the existence of 15 Indian species in dire need of conservation. A chapter is dedicated to each of the species, which requires acceptance of humans for what they are, not enslavement for what we want them to be. So far, the discourse on climate change has neglected its devastating impact on wildlife. When it comes to climate fiction, Sinha feels it is about time we found another protagonist in the story. “For too long, humans have been protagonists in climate fiction stories. We must find non-human protagonists. Perhaps the forests, rivers and climate itself can be a protagonist”.

Tribal Narratives In Climate Fiction

Sinha feels non-human protagonists can help democratize how the impact of climate change is assessed. “A hierarchy exists not just between humans and wildlife but even within humans where some voices are given more importance than others. I feel there is a need for tribal and indigenous voices which are often left out of climate and literary discourse”, she says. Braiding Sweetgrass (Milkweed Editions, 2013) by Robin Wall Kimmerer, is one such book which uses indigenous wisdom to explore the relationship between humans and Mother Earth, thereby countering mainstream scientific methodologies.

“A tribal would know far better how to live with nature than someone who dwells in urban cities,” says Sinha. One tribal voice integral to environment writing in India is Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, whose book The Adivasi Will Not Dance: Stories (Speaking Tiger Books, 2015) addresses the social and ecological damage caused by coal mining in Jharkhand. Most of the characters belong to the Santhal community. Shekhar addresses the position of women in a patriarchal society, poverty, tribal life and sex work, among other issues. For Sinha, climate writing is inherently a political act. “Climate writing can dismantle power structures and address issues in the world. We ought to decolonize the discourse and ensure equal representation of voices in the genre”.

Climate Change And Classicism In Nature

Sinha’s author bio on Amazon says she loves animals “especially, ugly animals”. It is therefore not surprising that she addresses discrimination in the natural world, where a particular species is accorded a higher status and importance than others.

“The tigers are seen as the brand ambassadors of the conservation movement. If tigers are protected, it is often assumed that conservation efforts are successful. We often pick things that appeal to us and that may not always be fair. Nature created us equal”. She elaborates that a tiger makes it to many wildlife safari photographs. “Just because something doesn’t appeal to us, doesn’t mean it needn’t exist. For instance, a snake doesn’t appeal to humans but it still has the right to exist,” she says.

Tigers in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan. (Himanshu Vyas\ Hindustan Times)
Tigers in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan. (Himanshu Vyas\ Hindustan Times)

Can Climate Writing Move The Needle?

Can novels change the way we look at the climate crisis? “We don’t need a new genre to highlight [climate change]. We needn’t pigeonhole climate writing into a box. All writing should be climate conscious,” says Swarup. One can argue that humans tend to have a myopic view of the climate crisis where any ecological imbalance is taken seriously only when it affects humans directly. The moment tragedy strikes, humans are quick to spring into a knee-jerk reaction — planting trees, going for short-term solutions rather than holistically looking at climate change.

Mitigating Climate Change With Love

Swarup feels it is imperative for us to love Earth and its vast bounty to fight the climate crisis. “You needn’t go to the Himalayas for this. You can go on a walk and look at the species of flora and fauna in your neighbourhood — learn the names of the birds and plants you see. When you realize your Amazon package might contribute to the extinction of that bird you see or the flamingos you watch on the beach, you’ll become climate conscious. If you have never seen a sea slug or a crab on a beach, you wouldn’t care if it was embroiled in a polythene bag”

Statistics show that Swarup’s observations might be true. A United Nations Development report shows a direct link between a person’s awareness and their desire for climate action. There was very high recognition of the climate emergency among those who had attended university or college in all countries, from lower-income countries such as Bhutan (82%) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (82%), to wealthy countries like France (87%) and Japan (82%). Swarup strongly believes that if we love something and appreciate its existence, we will work towards saving it.

Floodwaters of the swollen Yamuna river, at ITO, New Delhi on July 16, 2023. (Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times)
Floodwaters of the swollen Yamuna river, at ITO, New Delhi on July 16, 2023. (Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times)

Given the unawareness around climate change, it is imperative to teach young children about climate crises from a young age. Bijal Vachharajani is the author of four children’s books including A Cloud Called Bhura (Talking Club, 2019) and So You Want to Know About the Environment (Rupa Publications India, 2017). A Cloud Called Bhura is a story about four friends Amni, Tammy, Mithil and Andrew who wake up one morning to find the sky taken over by a massive brown cloud called Bhura. No one has a clue where this cloud has come from and what it is made up of.

A Cloud Called Bhura familiarizes kids with climate change not by inducing fear but through intriguing stories that are light-hearted, which sparks curiosity in kids but also deliver the message to kids in a responsible manner. In an interview to ParentCircle, Bijal said “We are at a time in the history of the planet, when children are demanding a better future for themselves, and it’s crucial they understand about the climate emergency as it impacts them the most – their present and the future”.

Deepansh Duggal writes on art and culture. He tweets at Deepansh75.

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