Amitav Ghosh

Laureate Erasmus Prize 2024

Theme: imagining the unthinkable

The Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has awarded the Erasmus Prize 2024 to the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh. He receives the prize for his passionate contribution to the theme ‘imagining the unthinkable’, in which an unprecedented global crisis – climate change – takes shape through the written word. Ghosh has delved deeply into the question of how to do justice to this existential threat that defies our imagination. His work offers a remedy by making an uncertain future palpable through compelling stories about the past. He also wields his pen to show that the climate crisis is a cultural crisis that results from a dearth of the imagination.

Born in Kolkata in 1956, Ghosh studied social anthropology at Oxford and divides his time between India and the United States. He has produced a vast body of work, made up of both historical novels and journalistic essays that carry the reader across continents and oceans. Each work is grounded in thorough archival research and succeeds in transcending boundaries and time periods with literary eloquence. Ghosh makes major themes such as migration, diaspora, and cultural identity tangible without ever losing sight of the human dimension.

Nature has been an important character in his work ever since he conducted research into the tidal landscape of the Sundarbans for his book The Hungry Tide and witnessed how climate change and rising sea levels were ravaging the area. Drawing from the rich history of the Indian subcontinent, Ghosh describes how, in that part of the world where he was born, the effects of natural catastrophes have been inextricably linked with human destiny for a very long time. In his compelling Ibis trilogy, set against the backdrop of poppy cultivation and opium wars, he shows how colonialism has left equally deep scars in the landscape.

In his non-fiction book The Nutmeg’s Curse he traces the current planetary crisis back to a disastrous vision that reduces the earth to raw material, soulless and mechanical. In his essay The Great Derangement he challenges readers to view climate change through the geopolitical context of war and trade. Through understanding and imagination he creates space for hope, a prerequisite for change. Thus, Ghosh propagates a new humanism in which not only all people are equal, but humanity also abandons the distinction between man and nature.

Ghosh has won various prizes, among them the 2018 Jnanpith Award, the highest literary prize in India. In 2019 he received an honorary doctorate from Maastricht University and was ranked by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the most important global thinkers of our time.

Photography: Ivo van der Bent and Mathieu Genon