Have we lost it?

Amitav Ghosh signing copies of his book at the launch event. Photo: The Hindu

[First published in The Hindu dated July 29, 2016]

The Ballroom of Chennai’s Taj Coromandel hotel, resplendent under the amber glow of 20-something chandeliers, seemed like an unlikely setting for a discussion on climate change. After all, the brightly-lit room was, if anything, a painful reminder of our conspicuous consumption of electricity, and everything else that has led to dangerous levels of carbon dioxide piling up in the atmosphere, now rendering our weather systems increasingly unpredictable. But here he was, renowned author Amitav Ghosh, who most recently penned The Great Derangement on climate change, in conversation with former West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, addressing an elite gathering on Thursday.

Amidst the clinking of wine glasses, Gandhi summed up the core question of Ghosh’s book in a manner that would have confounded most of those who are yet to read his non-fiction treatise: “Have we lost it?” The question set the ball rolling on the discussion. The convincingly-argued book aims to tell the conspicuously consuming middle and upper-class citizens of the world that they are no longer insulated from the whimsicalities of the weather, a sample of which the city itself witnessed in December last year.

We must have lost our minds to continue living the way we do despite the imminent threat of a climate catastrophe, was the message Ghosh wanted to convey through his work. The grey-haired writer invoked Gandhian wisdom on how, if all of us were to live like people in the West, we would end up devouring the world like a swarm of locusts. Gopalkrishna Gandhi recalled the words that J. Robert Oppenheimer had uttered regarding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” While the line was originally uttered in the context of the terrible impact of the misuse of nuclear science, the same lines acquired a new meaning in the light of human economic activities that are presently sending us hurtling towards doom.

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Interview: Amitav Ghosh on climate change

Amitav Ghosh. Photo: The Hindu

“We have set in motion chains of causality whose ends we cannot see”

[First published in The Hindu Books page dated July 17, 2016]

It was happening. We knew that at the back of our minds, yet we continued to ignore it, until one fine day it came to claim our lives… Climate change — the upsetting of weather patterns across the world — forms the core concern of Amitav Ghosh’s latest work of non-fiction, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. It is dealt with a touch of Márquezian magical realism as Ghosh speaks about the inevitability of the very real ecological disaster unfolding in our midst, so familiar yet unfathomably fantastic in its proportions. The book, parts of which were delivered as a series of lectures at the University of Chicago in 2015, not only raises crucial questions about our lack of intellectual engagement with this natural phenomenon but also calls for a radical dismantling of the Enlightenment-era hubris possessed by mankind, which sees “nature” as something outside of man.

In a freewheeling conversation in New Delhi, where he is a writer-in-Residence at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Ghosh acknowledges that within Western academia, and particularly at the University of Chicago where he delivered the lectures, there is a strong awareness and interest in climate change and the Anthropocene, the current era in which human activity has dominated the planet. How human-induced climate change affects our history, thought and consciousness are major questions they are grappling with. But this cannot make up for the conspicuous absence of discussions on climate change in works of literature and art, he points out.

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After the storm

Sunderbans after the cyclone. Photo: AFP

He sits on his haunches

                        Palm over the head.

The storm last night

                        Blew away his hut.

It was made out of straw

                        And some thatch,

It was no match

                        For the might

Of the raging monster.

In Sundarbans,

                        People become meals

For crocodiles & tigers.

                        I remember the ordeal

Of that woman in Gosaba 

                     Whose teenaged son

Went fishing in the brackish water,

                       When a sly mugger

Dragged him to death.

Like the ebb and flow of the sea,

                        Life and death varies

On this tiny island.

                        But what do you do

When the storm pummels you

                        And leaves,

And you still have to be?

© Vidya Venkat (2020)
[Watch me read out this poem as part of Rattle Magazine’s ‘Poets Respond’ open mic here (towards the end of the show)]

She is falling

[I wrote this poem 15 years ago while watching a tree being cut for widening the road near the IIT-Madras campus. As with back then, even now, my heart aches when I watch a tree fall!]

tree being cut
Picture for representational purpose only.

She’s falling.

She, who shade gave and fruits bore,

For the greedy ones who wanted more

Is in a thud, landing.


She’s falling.

What we can’t, for us she in the sun makes.

But we ungrateful with a stroke of the axe,

Her are killing…..


She’s falling.

Tears roll down my cheeks; helpless I’m watching

Her avian refugees in the skies go screeching.

And Earth’s seething.


She’s falling.

She, in who nestled many a beautiful creature;

She, who piously did her companions nurture,

Her fall’s appalling!


She fell.

But with it to her murderers sounded death knell.

For later, Nature rebuked. Rains stopped and dry went the well

And man saw hell.


She fell.

But taught the foolish man

To ‘live and let live’.

And in his life span ‘Take’ later, but first ‘give’.


© Vidya Venkat (2006)

Published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata.

Shadow Power


emergency chronicles

[First published in Biblio – A Review of Books dated Jan.-Mar. 2019]

On January 26, 2019, India observed its 70th year as a constitutional republic. The country celebrated the Constitution of India as a document that empowers Indian citizens to chart their own path to progress, in which their rights (‘Fundamental Rights’) are upheld and their development is guaranteed through the state (‘Directive Principles of State Policy’). However, historian Gyan Prakash urges us to revisit that moment in which this document came into being, compelling us to recognise its troubled legacy. While most analyses of India’s 21-month period of Emergency, starting in June 1975, attribute its occurrence to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian and strong-arm tactics as a political leader, in his latest book, Prakash makes a departure from this personality-centred analysis, arguing that Mrs. Gandhi’s “perfidy alone cannot explain the perversion of a system of law and politics” as witnessed during the Emergency, and that “historical forces were at work”. The framers of the Constitution left us with such a strong state that it could deprive citizens of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms at the slightest hint of any threat. And that is what, he argues, exactly happened during the Emergency.


State of exception

Drawing upon the idea of a ‘state of exception’ developed by political theorist Carl Schmitt and later, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the author explains how the paradoxical “lawful suspension of the law” was written into the Constitution of India adopted in 1950, as its chief architect B.R. Ambedkar felt that the system of constitutional democracy had to prevail over the culture of street protests. Therefore, if and when the state was faced with a threat, it could suspend the law to assume control over a situation. Now that the foreign ruler had left India, and the people were choosing their own government, it was only fair that the state was thus empowered, the framers of the Constitution thought.

Ambedkar’s exhortation that we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution after attaining Independence led him to put in place rules that in the hands of an authoritarian government could turn into a nightmare for citizens. In chapter 2, where the author discusses the framing of the Constitution in detail, he notes how once the nationalists were in power in India following the departure of the British, “they felt no qualms about incorporating the arsenal of executive powers granted by the colonial law”. Ambedkar justified copying a good part of the provisions of the Government of India Act 1935, which retained vast executive powers with the British ruling class at the time of its adoption, saying “there is nothing to be ashamed of in borrowing”. The colonial-era Indian penal code of 1860 was also retained, which included section 124A on sedition, used to quell dissent in colonial India.

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