A story wrapped inside another like those tales of old. A passage from shell to kernel through a dream, perhaps a half-remembered account from childhood. A retelling of the chequered history of progress in the form of a wonder tale. Amitav Ghosh’s new book, The Living Mountain, is all of these and more.

Book club buddies, Maansi and an unnamed narrator, fixing up their year’s reading list for “anthropocene”, lead us into this compelling fable which is not only engaging but also a pointer about the stories that need to be told today. “Maansi and I had an odd relationship,” the narrator tells us on the first page, setting the pace for the book which quickly segues into the main story which begins in a valley of the Himalayas.

The first person narrator (Maansi) is now a young girl in one of the warring villages of the Valley with a towering mountain overlooking their settlement. This snowy mountain is the Mahaparbat or the Great Mountain, and its peak is “almost always wreathed in clouds”.

While the villagers were often at war with one another, all of them revered the mountain, which provided them sustenance. They had heard from their ancestors that among all mountains of the world, their Mahaparbat was the “most alive” and would take care of them, “but only on condition that we told stories about it, and sang about it, and danced for it”. Also, they were never to set foot on its slopes.

Ghosh tells this tale of the Valley people, and those who arrive there soon after, at a brisk pace. Shorn of distracting detail and embellishments, the deceptively simple prose flows like a clear mountain stream. The Mahaparbat is evidently rich as it nurtures the Magic Tree which feeds the people of the Valley, providing them delicious fruits, scented nuts and honey. The villagers exchange some of these gifts with people from the Lowlands, but they never let these traders enter their Valley.

Enter the Anthropoi

At this point the reader will begin to feel that something untoward is about to happen because the strands of this narrative will be echoing with a strange familiarity in their mind. Soon enough a strange “new kind” of people called Anthropoi appears on the mountain pass, brought there by the scent of the rare nuts, and they express their eagerness to explore and learn about the Valley and the Mahaparbat.

This is not The Nutmeg’s Curse, Ghosh’s groundbreaking work of scholarship about colonialism and the Anthropocene, but the symbolic value of the scented “nut” attracting the Anthropoi to the Great Mountain is hard to miss. Reading this book we will remember how trade in nutmegs from the Banda islands near Java, which are in the shadows of the volcanic Gunung Api (Fire Mountain) opened up a trajectory of Western colonialism with far-reaching effects.

While the envoy of the Anthropoi is not granted access to the Valley, he gathers as much information as he can about the Mahaparbat from the elders, and leaves with an ominous promise: “I am sure we will see each other again.”

From here on the inevitable begins to happen as the Anthropoi are back in some years, not only for the scented nuts but also because,

“Their savants had studied all that was told to their envoy, and they were convinced that unbeknownst to us, great riches – minerals, metals and the like – were hidden within the mountain. We were unaware of this because we were a credulous and benighted people, who believed that our mountain was alive.”

The people of the Valley refuse to allow the hordes of Anthropoi to climb and exploit the riches of the mountain, but despite a valiant fight they are overpowered, conquered and subjugated. Some of them, the narrator says, were “reduced to quiescence” with drugs and here we see how the story of the opium wars, and Ghosh’s earlier engagement with the subject, is reflected in this narrative which is, after all, a fable about colonialism and its long shadow.

Influencing change

The Living Mountain is a slim volume but it brilliantly allegorises the history of exploitation of colonised people and the natural environment, showing how greed and dreams of endless growth, ultimately precipitated the biggest crisis of our times. These chronicles of the subjugation of the Valley people, the exploitation of the Mahaparbat by the Anthropoi and eventually the Valley people or Varvaroi themselves joining the race to catch up, till things begin to fall apart, till avalanches and landslides begin to maim and kill, present a sharp and unmistakable rendition of the origins and prognosis of climate change.

The beauty of this fable is that it achieves a lot without sounding heavy or moralising. Though there are not many surprises as the reader will catch on to the metaphors and the allegory pretty quickly but the simplicity of the prose and the ease with which it is told will help her connect with the underlying facts at a deeper level. This we hope can subtly influence changes in behaviour, attitudes, world views and also inspire positive action for the planet.

Which is what stories of our climate ravaged times should be doing. Nick Admussen, in his “Six Proposals for the Reform of Literature in the Age of Climate Change” talks about the failure of present day culture in telling the right stories that could prepare us to understand and address the planetary crises we face today. Admussen writes, “Yet we lack the ability to visualise these problems, to locate their source in our own actions and lives, to tell and transform the stories of the interactions between our behaviour and our biome. This is not a failing of science, the science is quite clear: it is a failing of culture.”

In The Living Mountain Amitav Ghosh tells such a new story, a redemptive fable with no single hero, which while acknowledging our entanglement with other-than-human natures, explores our forgotten connections with the planet. Such stories are, however, not new.

Indigenous communities from around the world have always had a cache of these tales that provided them meaning and ways to live in harmony with the natural environment. Reading this book, one is reminded of “How the Trees Stopped Talking”, an old story from Estonia and Finland about kinship, harmonious living, and finally greed overtaking wise counsel. Something similar happens in Ghosh’s book too.

Stories that connect

What sets it apart, however, from the old tales is that The Living Mountain is framed as a story of our times. It begins in the present with book buddies discussing the Anthropocene, and its allegories stay riveted to the history of colonialism and the false belief in progress and limitless growth.

Again, through Ghosh’s use of names like Kraani (perhaps from the kerani or clerk, who was the cog and the wheel of colonising powers) for the “ferocious soldiers” of the Anthropoi, Varvaroi (maybe from the Bengali “borbor” or barbaric) for the Valley people who joined the race to climb the mountain, and the Anthropoi (the humans responsible for ushering in the Anthropocene), Ghosh has strewn his narrative with codes and hints of the time and issues anchoring this fairy-tale like narrative.

Finally, the importance that the author accords to stories themselves, especially the stories, songs and dances of old, in understanding our connectedness with the planet and all life, becomes apparent from the plot as in the final scenes we find a lament for those lost tales. “But to our dismay, we found that we had forgotten the old stories and songs and dances. We too had come to believe that they were foolish and fantastical and had no place in the Age of the Anthropoi.”

As things go from bad to worse, someone, an Adept, has to be found who can remember those lost tales. Someone who can hear and listen to what the mountain has to say. Will they be able to seek out one of the vanished Adepts? What will be her message? Read the book to find out.

The Living Mountain is an important fable for our times. It is an engaging and delightful read designed to appeal to readers of all ages.

Rajat Chaudhuri’s work includes climate novels, edited anthologies, translations and a cli-fi video game. He can be found here on Twitter.

The Living Mountain: A Fable For Our Times

The Living Mountain: A Fable For Our Times, Amitav Ghosh, HarperCollins.