As a civilisation, we have always been more fixated on when the end of world will take place, not so much as where it will begin.
If Hollywood movies or The Simpsons are anything to go by, the lethal meteor shower or armada of bloodthirsty aliens will probably first make contact in North America. But in the likelier (albeit less dramatic) event of our race dying out due to climate change, the centerstage of Armageddon would probably shift somewhere towards South or South East Asia.
Lately, scenes from movies like The Day After Tomorrow or Contagion have begun to bear a spooky resemblance to real life events of raging storms, wildfires, flooding and pandemics, lending some credence to a new genre of speculative fiction called climate change-fiction or ‘cli-fi’.
Today books being published under this category generally span from sprawling narratives where a dying or turbulent river turns the wheels of fate or apocalyptic dramas that traverse the wastelands of our own excesses. There are even children’s books about the climate crisis.
The environmental disaster has always loomed like an ominous shadow in some way in our literature — droughts, famines, industrialisation, erratic monsoons, polluted air and wars raged over water have been omnipresent tropes throughout so many literary works produced in our country since time immemorial.
The fact that human beings first settled close to water, the inundation of historic towns in biblical floods, and water quality being the lifeblood of any community; the presence of water bodies, especially rivers, cannot be denied as a symbol coursing through the veins of most dystopian narratives.
As far back as 1990, Arun Joshi published a novel in English titled The City and The River, which relayed a thought-provoking and existential conflict between The Grand Master who controls the water of the city and the Boatmen who treat the river as a sacred mother. This book was a brilliant precursor to our present times with its underlying themes of environmental stewardship, capitalist greed and water conflict.
India's continuing over-reliance on an increasingly erratic monsoon for its water needs is only going to aggravate the pressure on water resources, which are already challenged by climate change.
In 2004, Amitav Ghosh cast the net of his climate-fiction novel The Hungry Tide into the deeply troubled waters of the Bay of Bengal. One of his main protagonists is Fokir, a crab fisherman, who is skilled at reading the tides. Fokir is instrumental in helping Piyali, the America-returned marine biologist, in her quest for finding a rare endangered river dolphin.
Through the eyes of Fokir, Piya and a translator named Kanai, we see one of the most heart-rending depictions of India’s coastal communities ever put into writing.
Historically, the Bay of Bengal region has been ravaged by some of the world’s most fatal cyclones, and rising temperatures will only induce storms to hold more moisture and inflict more damage. A large flotilla of densely inhabited coastal countries such as India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand are at imminent risk of drought, flooding and food insecurity.
Ghosh’s novel, though a contemporary frontrunner, is by no means an anomaly in the open waters of speculative fiction with respect to climate inequality experienced by South Asian countries. The Hungry Tide is, in fact, a prescient tugboat towing numerous other cli-fi writers in its tailwind.
Animal’s People, Indra Sinha's unflinching novel that was published in 2007, is set against the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy. A bone-chilling critique of the effects of neo-imperialism on low income or developing countries, the novel follows Animal, a young victim of the gas explosion who is forced to walk on all-fours because of his broken spine and awaits redressal of his wrongs like all the other working-class Bhopal citizens. The ‘apokalis’ or apocalyptic force is a palpable, breathing entity that drives this narrative forward, reminding the reader of who bears the real brunt of corporate impunity and globalisation. As the book says, “All things pass, but the poor remain. We are the people of the Apokalis. Tomorrow there will be more of us."
Another book that invokes the apocalypse as a backdrop is All Quiet in Vikaspuri, a graphic novel by Sarnath Banerjee published in 2015, that follows a man’s expedition to the center of the earth looking for the mythical river Saraswati to put an end to the bloody water-wars. This story draws a realistic parallel with the drying Yamuna river and the resulting rationing of water during most summers in South Delhi.
It is no longer easy to ignore the inequalities when it comes to the impacts of climate change on a global scale. In the past few years, the questions of which countries contribute more to carbon emissions and what they owe to climate-vulnerable ones have become a hotbed for political discourse. And the notion of accountability doesn’t even graze upon the fact that developed countries often outsource their high-emission industries to countries where the environmental restrictions are understandably lax to allow for economic development.
Author Rajat Chaudhuri — who wrote the cli-fi novel The Butterfly Effect in 2018 — has commented on the probability of violence in the form of armed conflict increasing as the temperatures rise across tropical countries already struggling with hot summers, crop failures and underdeveloped economies.
In a statement in 2022, the Indian Meteorological Department claims that the north Indian Ocean saw close to 15 cyclonic disturbances in the last year, more than our annual average of 11. Aside from triggering extreme weather events, global warming has also fermented a host of new diseases, posed a threat to energy security and conceived a new breed of climate refugees fleeing from South and SouthEast Asia.
In a robust, time-traveling novel The Light at The End of The World by Siddhartha Deb released this year, “A.I. and otherworldly creatures” predict the destruction of the planet in a four-part saga set in different Indian cities and time periods. The first instalment follows a former journalist chasing down abandoned conspiracies in the grimy labyrinth of Delhi, where the fog has come to represent a paintbrush “erasing a countryside already erased and erasing a nation that has failed by every measure”.
According to the Commission for Air Quality Management, Delhi logged its best Air Quality Index in the first half of this year since 2016, the year of The Great Smog when a downwind of burning crop stubble from Punjab and Haryana had enveloped the capital in a poisonous haze that persisted through a long, unrelenting winter.
The infiltration of the fictional realm with the jarring reality of our dying planet is not necessarily a bad thing. Until now, only non fiction has borne the burden of spreading awareness about the climate crisis. But the magic of storytelling has long been prophesied to awaken the dormant consciousness of a civilization. Perhaps more imaginative (if dystopian) stories are what we really need to poke the beast from its lair and help it see the light at the end of the world.
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