My thanks to Harper Collins India and NetGalley for a review copy of this story.

The Living Mountains: A Fable of Our Times by Amitav Ghosh is a short work, less than novella length, which explores a range of themes including colonialism and the attendant exploitation of people and resources, devaluing of traditional knowledge, de-sacralisation and disenchantment, and greed and commercialisation which become a vicious cycle destroying the very ‘spirit’ of nature.

The story opens with the narrator and his online bookclub friend Maansi, two people who only interact on books and know little else of each other, discussing possible themes for the next year’s reading. Maansi proposes the ‘anthropocene’ a term both are unfamiliar with and volunteers to come up with a reading list. After some silence from her for a while, the narrator receives a message about a book she read on the theme being so very different from what she’d expected the ‘anthropocene’ to be, one which triggered off a tale, part dream, part memory of a story her grandmother had once told her, and it is this she shares with the narrator.

The story is of a people who lived under the benevolent protection of a mountain, the Mahaparbat, which gave them all they needed to live happy, contented lives, and which was treated as sacred and never interfered with.

It would protect us and look after us—but only on condition that we told stories about it, and sang about it, and danced for it—but always from a distance.

But that was until someone from the people called the Anthropoi arrived, who coveted the treasures of the mountain, dubbed its people ‘credulous and benighted’ for not having taken them, colonised, enslaved and exploited, belittled their knowledge and practices, setting off a chain from which there could be no return.

The savants of the Anthropoi were unmatched in their wisdom and they decided that since we were not making any use of the mountain’s riches, they were fully justified in seizing them and taking whatever they wished.

And when the colonised finally rebel and reclaim their space, starting to follow in the path the colonisers have set before them as model, once again they are found fault with, and all blame for any harm placed on them.

We are the Anthropoi, we always know best.

They would not admit that it was not the manner of climb that was to blame for our troubles—it was the climb itself.   

By the time the value of their knowledge and their approach is reached, it is seemingly too late…

This is a short but powerful and effective story in that it is able to convey so much and set one’s mind thinking on a range of issues (which—and I say this only from reviews I’ve read, since I’m yet to get to the book—the author has explored earlier in his nonfic—The Nutmeg’s Curse), in its few pages. A disconnect with, and disrespect for nature are still norms by which we live (irrespective of all claims to the contrary), and while their impacts in the form of the pandemic and climate concerns ought to have taught us a lesson, ought to get us to rethink the relentless greed, the exploitation, the destruction that we still perpetuate, the book raises the question of whether we have really learnt our lesson (no), and more so, is the lesson we’ve learnt the right one?

I loved how the author put forth the notion of the life-force, the spirit of the mountain (as a stand in for nature more broadly), which has been destroyed as a result of unthinking human intervention. I couldn’t help but think of Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis here which too, explored this idea of animals losing their powers to talk and so on, and trees losing their spirit because of human intervention.

A very relevant book, and one that needs to be not only read but acted on as well.

8 thoughts on “Review: The Living Mountain by Amitav Ghosh

  1. A fine and passionate review. If this not-quite-a-novella is able to persuade even a few doubters and naysayers – maybe those with a smidgeon of poetry left in their souls – about what’s imminent if we don’t collectively change direction, then it will have achieved something precious.


    1. I’ve read the Glass Palace as well which I liked and The Hungry Tide though in the latter there is some animal cruelty that was very upsetting. I do keep planning to pick up more of his work too, but haven’t gotten to it yet. I read an excellent review of his Nutmeg’s Curse on Shiny which has put that one on my shopping list

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It is indeed. I think somewhere since humans have lost that connect with nature, we tend also not to feel that life force in it and we need to rethink that attitude


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