In an Afterword to his new book Jungle Nama, Amitav Ghosh astutely outlines the scope of the story he has just finished telling. “In the Before Times, stories like this one would have been considered child-like, and thus fare for children,” he writes. “But today, it is increasingly clear that such stories are founded on a better understanding of the human predicament than many narratives that are considered serious and adult.”
Jungle Nama, inspired by a folk epic handed down through generations in the Sundarbans, is a rare marvel: an ancient text wrapped in layers of myths and superstitions, reinvented by a contemporary master in the archaic meter in which it was originally composed in the 19th century.
The Sundarbans region is an abiding presence in Ghosh’s literary universe. It was the setting for his sixth novel, The Hungry Tide (2004), and is the mystical scaffolding on which the plot of his latest, Gun Island (2019), turns. In Jungle Nama, he introduces the reader to the legend of Bonbibi Johuranama (“The Narrative Of Bonbibi’s Glory”), recorded in at least two printed versions from the 19th century.
Composed by Munshi Mohammad Khatir and Abdur Rahim Sahib, respectively, the texts were written in Bengali, in a meter called the dwipodi poyar, or the two-footed line. Both poets recount the triumph of Bonbibi, the goddess of the forest, over Dokkhin Rai, an evil spirit, who assumes the form of a tiger to feast on any human who enters his terrain. She is the protector of all those who depend on the forests for their livelihood—irrespective of religion, caste and community. To this day, shrines dedicated to Bonbibi are open to all. She is worshipped by Hindus and Muslims, upper and lower castes.
Ghosh delves into the dramatic core of the story—especially the episode involving Dukhey, a poor boy, and his avaricious uncle Dhona, who throws him as bait to Dokkhin Rai—and retells it with supple dexterity. His grip over dwipodi poyar is only rivalled by the richly eclectic vocabulary he employs. Words loaned from Persian and Arabic bring his rhymes home. His narrative is infused with the fragrance of the soil, rhythms of speech peculiar to the Sundarbans. Sample this: I told him I’d serve him like a faithful khidmatgar;/ that’s why I’ve come now, to see how you are.
There’s a reason for Ghosh’s fastidious adherence to the tricky meter. Prosody is not merely a literary trope in the story; it is a metaphor for a magic shield. The “yoke of meter will give you discipline,” Dukhey’s mother assures him as she sees him off on his perilous journey with his treacherous uncle. In his direst hour, faced with near-certain death, it is this dwipodi poyar that saves Dukhey’s life.
The story of Bonbibi and Dokkhin Rai hinges on the age-old conflict between good and evil, temperance and greed. In spite of its direct message and archetypal plot, Ghosh succeeds in infusing the narrative with an urgency that’s strikingly resonant with the biggest crisis of the 21st century: climate change. It’s a theme he has circled back to in his last handful of books, fiction and non-fiction, mining it for its Medusa-like grip over our lives.
The moral of Jungle Nama is stated unostentatiously. When greed trumps need, humans are tempted to behave out of line, plundering and looting the forests, which upsets the balance of nature. To this day, fisherfolk and honey collectors pay homage to Bonbibi, the presiding deity of the jungles, before they venture into land or water. It is believed that if they fail to placate her, or exceed their rightful share, they risk retribution in the form of tiger and snake attacks.
While Ghosh situates his story in the mangrove-infested delta of the Sundarbans, he also invokes the primal, supernatural energy that lurks in the beating heart of forests—be it real ones or those growing inside the human mind. The artwork by Lahore-born, New York-based artist Salman Toor stirs up a visual symphony to deepen this duality between literal and psychological forests.
Such a collaboration of image and text has a historical echo too. The story of Bonbibi is a visually-charged living tradition, retold and reimagined by the scroll painters of rural Bengal, or enacted by performers of jatra, rural theatre. Timeless tales have a way of reincarnating themselves via generations of artists, however far they may be in time or place.