Amitav Ghosh writes:
In the final part of my novel The Hungry Tide, there is a scene in which a cyclone sends a gigantic storm surge into the Sundarbans. The wave results in the death of one of the principal characters, who gives his life protecting another. This scene was extraordinarily difficult to write. In preparation for it, I combed through a great deal of material on catastrophic waves – storm surges as well as tsunamis. In the process, as often happens in writing fiction, the plight of the book’s characters, as they faced the wave, became frighteningly real. The Hungry Tidewas published in the summer of 2004.
A few months after the publication, on the night of 25 December, I was back in my family home in Kolkata. The next morning, on logging on to the web, I learned that a cataclysmic tsunami had been set off by a massive undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, the quake’s epicentre lay between the northernmost tip of Sumatra and the southernmost island in the Andaman and Nicobar chain. Although the full extent of the catastrophe was not yet known, it was already clear that the toll in human lives would be immense. The news had a deeply unsettling effect on me: the images that had been implanted in my mind during the writing of The Hungry Tidemerged with live television footage of the tsunami in a way that was almost overwhelming. I became frantic; I could not focus on anything.
A couple of days later, I wrote to a newspaper and obtained a commission to write about the impact of the tsunami on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. My first stop was the islands’ capital city, Port Blair, which was thronged with refugees but had not suffered much damage itself: its location, above a sheltered cove, had protected it.
After spending a few days there, I was able to board an Indian Air Force plane that was carrying supplies to one of the worst affected of the Nicobar Islands. Unlike the Andamans, which rise steeply from the sea, the Nicobars are low-lying islands. Being situated close to the quake’s epicentre, they had been very badly hit; many settlements had been razed. I visited a shore-side town called Malacca that had been reduced literally to its foundations: of the houses only the floors were left, and here and there the stump of a wall. It was as though the place had been hit by a bomb that was designed specifically to destroy all things human – for one of the strangest aspects of the scene was that the island’s coconut palms were largely unaffected; they stood serenely amid the rubble, their fronds waving gently in the breeze that was blowing in from the sparkling, sun-drenched sea.
I wrote in my notebook: “The damage was limited to a half-mile radius along the shore. In the island’s interior everything is tranquil, peaceful – indeed astonishingly beautiful. There are patches of tall, dark primary forest, beautiful padauk trees, and among these, in little clearings, huts built on stilts… One of the ironies of the situation is that the most upwardly mobile people on the island were living at its edges.” Such was the pattern of settlement here that the indigenous islanders lived mainly in the interior: they were largely unaffected by the tsunami. Those who had settled along the seashore, on the other hand, were mainly people from the mainland, many of whom were educated and middle class: in settling where they had, they had silently expressed their belief that highly improbable events belong not in the real world but in fantasy. In other words, even here, in a place about as far removed as possible from the metropolitan centres that have shaped middle-class lifestyles, the pattern of settlement had come to reflect the uniformitarian expectations that are rooted in the “regularity of bourgeois life”.
At the air force base where my plane had landed there was another, even more dramatic, illustration of this. The functional parts of the base – where the planes and machinery were kept – were located to the rear, well away from the water. The living areas, comprised of pretty little two-storey houses, were built much closer to the sea, at the edge of a beautiful, palm-fringed beach. As always in military matters, the protocols of rank were strictly observed: the higher the rank of the of officers, the closer their houses were to the water and the better the view that they and their families enjoyed. Such was the design of the base that when the tsunami struck these houses the likelihood of survival was small, and inasmuch as it existed at all, it was in inverse relation to rank: the commander’s house was thus the first to be hit.
The sight of the devastated houses was disturbing for reasons beyond the immediate tragedy of the tsunami and the many lives that had been lost there: the design of the base suggested a complacency that was itself a kind of madness. Nor could the siting of these buildings be attributed to the usual improvisatory muddle of Indian patterns of settlement. The base had to have been designed and built by a government agency; the site had clearly been chosen and approved by hard-headed military men and state-appointed engineers. It was as if, in being adopted by the state, the bourgeois belief in the regularity of the world had been carried to the point of derangement. A special place ought to be reserved in hell, I thought to myself, for planners who build with such reckless disregard for their surroundings.
Not long afterwards, while flying into New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, I looked out of the window and spotted Far Rockaway and Long Beach, the thickly populated Long Island neighbourhoods that separate the airport from the Atlantic Ocean. Looking down on them from above, it was clear that those long rows of apartment blocks were sitting upon what had once been barrier islands, and that in the event of a major storm surge they would be swamped (as indeed they were when Hurricane Sandy hit the area in 2012). Yet it was clear also that these neighbourhoods had not sprung up haphazardly; the sanction of the state was evident in the ordered geometry of their streets. Only then did it strike me that the location of that base in the Nicobars was by no means anomalous; the builders had not in any sense departed from accepted global norms.
To the contrary, they had merely followed the example of the European colonists who had founded cities like Bombay (Mumbai), Madras (Chennai), New York, Singapore and Hong Kong, all of which are sited directly on the ocean. I understood also that what I had seen in the Nicobars was but a microcosmic expression of a pattern of settlement that is now dominant around the world: proximity to the water is a sign of affluence and education; a seafront location is a status symbol; an ocean view greatly increases the value of real estate. A colonial vision of the world, in which proximity to the water represents power and security, mastery and conquest, has now been incorporated into the very foundations of middle- class patterns of living across the globe. But haven’t people always liked to live by the water? Not really; through much of human history, people regarded the ocean with great wariness.
Even when they made their living from the sea, through fishing or trade, they generally did not build large settlements on the water’s edge: the great old port cities of Europe, like London, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Lisbon and Hamburg, are all protected from the open ocean by bays, estuaries, or deltaic river systems. The same is true of old Asian ports: Cochin, Surat, Tamluk, Dhaka, Mrauk-U, Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Malacca are all cases in point. It is as if, before the early modern era, there had existed a general acceptance that provision had to be made for the unpredictable furies of the ocean – tsunamis, storm surges and the like. An element of that caution seems to have lingered even after the age of European global expansion began in the sixteenth century: it was not till the seventeenth century that colonial cities began to rise on seafronts around the world.
Mumbai, Chennai, New York and Charleston were all founded in this period. This would be followed by another, even more confident wave of city building in the nineteenth century, with the founding of Singapore and Hong Kong. These cities, all brought into being by processes of colonization, are now among those that are most directly threatened by climate change.
Excerpted from The Great Derangement: Climate Change And The Great Unthinkable.