This post was originally published on Public Books.
In the autumn of 1839, an unusually strong tropical storm devastated coastal communities along the Bay of Bengal in what was then the English East India Company’s premier settlement. A decade later, Company merchant and sometime scientist Henry Piddington coined the term “cyclone” to describe this climatological phenomenon, taking a cue from the seaborne storm’s circular movement and eerily hollow center, or “eye.” So common are cyclones in that part of the world that when a tornado—a typically smaller, terrestrial storm—ravaged the land-locked city of New Delhi in 1978, local newspapers erroneously identified the storm as a cyclone.
Amitav Ghosh was a graduate student at the time of the tornado and recounts its aftermath in a new monograph entitled The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. His first book-length work of non-fiction in decades, The Great Derangement began as a series of lectures delivered last autumn at the University of Chicago. Focused in part on fictional representations of climate change, the author begins by addressing the bewildering absence of such storms from what he calls the “mansions” of “serious” fiction—an egregious oversight, he argues, given the proliferation of similarly catastrophic storms like Hurricane Sandy. Ultimately he asks: “Is climate change [simply] too wild a stream to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration?”