Driving down to meet Amitav Ghosh at a south Delhi hotel earlier this week, I recall a vignette from his life that I seem to have read or heard somewhere. It paints a portrait of the artist as a struggling writer, living in a barsati (rooftop apartment) during a blazing summer in the city, while working on his first novel, The Circle Of Reason (1986). I am not entirely sure if this is a figment of my heat-addled brain, a romantic cliché about the hardships of the writerly life that I had conjured up during my ride through the fiery early morning streets. So I ask him about it as we settle into the air-conditioned comfort of our meeting room.
“I did indeed live in the ‘servants’ quarters’ of a building in Defence Colony and wrote my first two books on a small typewriter there,” Ghosh confirms, delighted by the memory. “I think of those days a lot, especially since I spent a large part of my life in Delhi. When I come back to the city now, I notice how rapidly things are changing.”
Over three decades ago, when Ghosh lived in Delhi as an up-and-coming writer, the city was inhabited by about four million people. Today, as he returns here to release his latest book and receive the prestigious Jnanpith award, the population has swelled to six times the number. “At a certain point, the life of a city becomes unmanageable when there is too much pressure on it,” Ghosh says, quoting these rough estimates. “There is already huge water stress; tankers are being brought in to supply water. But a time will come when there won’t be anything left to fill them up.”
The propulsive force of the grim reality that he describes drives the plot of his new novel, Gun Island, published in India this week. Set far away from Delhi, it travels from the marshy, flood-prone Sundarbans delta on the south-eastern fringe of West Bengal to the city of Venice, which is known to be sinking slowly, in Italy. While tracing this vast geographical trajectory, the plot also describes an ambitious arc of time, connecting our present-day ferments caused by climate change with those that unfolded more than 300 years ago, during a phase of global cooling described as the Little Ice Age by scientists. Yet, in spite of these leaps of time and place, the story that Gun Island tells remains alive and prescient, featuring ecological crises such as the “dead zones” in oceans (large stretches of water where marine life cannot survive due to pollutants from factories and refineries), mass beaching of whales and dolphins, and devastating wildfires. “My book arose out of a sense of urgency,” Ghosh says. “It is very much about the world that we live in now.”
The reason behind the predicament that Delhi faces, as indeed most metropolises across the world currently do, is captured, with an unforgettable intensity, in an outburst by the feisty Giacinta Schiavon, a world-renowned scholar and historian of Venice, who is one of the most arresting characters in Gun Island. The “world of today presents all the symptoms of demonic possession,” she tells Dinanath Dutta, the narrator, towards the end of the book.
Dinanath or Deen (the name he goes by), an expert on folklore from Bengal and a rare-books dealer based in Brooklyn, gasps at her choice of words. But Cinta, as she is called by friends and familiars, carries on with a quiet conviction. “Everybody knows what must be done if the world is to continue to be a liveable place…and yet we are powerless, even the most powerful among us. We go about our daily business through habit, as though we were in the grip of forces that have overwhelmed our will; we see shocking and monstrous things happening all around us and we avert our eyes; we surrender ourselves willingly to whatever it is that has us in its power.”
To the inveterately rational-minded Deen, phrases like “demonic possession” smack of superstition. And yet, he cannot simply dismiss the substance of Cinta’s assertion. A middle-aged man, depressed by his failing luck with women and his dwindling, antiquated line of work, Deen has, by this point in the story, experienced far too many coincidences to remain stubbornly rooted to material reality. But with his gift for suspense, Ghosh saves the best for the last. At the end of his adventures halfway around the globe, Deen will witness a scene that is nothing short of a “miracle”, the kind of grand finale that brings to mind the magic accompanying the conclusion of Shakespeare’s great comedies.
Like all Ghosh books, Gun Island is plotted over an expansive historical canvas, but it moves with the compulsive force of a thriller. Readers familiar with his earlier work will meet in it some of the cast of The Hungry Tide, his 2004 novel, which is also set in the Sundarbans. The overlaps notwithstanding, the two books could not be more different, and deserve to be read independent of each other.
In the early pages of Gun Island, we encounter, yet again, Kanai Dutt, who has not changed much from his younger self in The Hungry Tide (“a glib, vain, precocious know-it-all who relied on his quick tongue and good looks to charm women and get ahead in the world”). If Kanai’s role is to urge Deen to undertake his quest and set the ball rolling, it is with the return of Piyali Roy, or Piya, the scientist who studies marine mammals, that the plot of Gun Island begins to thicken.
“When I started writing it, I never thought Kanai or Piya would be part of the book,” Ghosh admits. Gun Island, he says, began life one day when he was sitting in his study, churning legends, myths, histories and folklore in his mind. The seeds of these thoughts were also nourished by the protracted periods of time Ghosh has spent in the Sundarbans and various parts of Italy over the last couple of years. The scenes he saw, the stories he heard from their inhabitants, and the literature he read about them came together to create the heady cocktail that is the plot of the novel. “Compared to my other books, which usually take three-four years to write (the Ibis trilogy was completed over a decade), I finished this one quite quickly, in about a year and a half,” Ghosh says.
The novel opens with a subject that he describes as one of his “obsessions”: etymology. In the beginning is a word and that word is “bundook”. Used to mean “gun” in many languages spoken “from Cairo to Calcutta”, it sparks off the fantastic journey Deen undertakes. And from early on in the book, the word begins to get entangled with age-old myths and folklore, such as the story of Chand Sadagar and the vengeful goddess Manasa, which is part of the ancient poetic traditions of undivided Bengal.
Chand Sadagar was believed to be a prosperous merchant, who lost all his wealth and loved ones, including his son Lakhindar, for refusing to swear his fealty to Manasa. Outraged by his impudence, she sank Chand’s cargo and sent a snake to kill Lakhinder on the night of his wedding. Finally, it fell upon Behula, Lakhindar’s wife, to bring her husband back to life with her steadfast devotion, like Orpheus in the Greek myths, and by promising Manasa to convince her father-in-law Chand to worship her. Part of Bengali oral lore for centuries, the story has survived into our time through numerous retellings in jatra (rural folk theatre), movies, TV serials and other forms of pop culture.
With his singular genius, Ghosh reinvents this old wives’ tale about a journey to the ends of the earth for the sake of love. He picks out its salient tropes—the gift of returning to life from the jaws of death, the reunion of lovers separated by the sleight of fate—then adds his unique spin, transposing them to situations and contexts that are recognizably contemporary and universal.
“All my life I have been writing about merchants,” he says. “At the heart of In An Antique Land is a merchant, the figure of the merchant also looms over the entire Ibis trilogy.” Merchants are indeed ubiquitous in the annals of history, forging connections between cultures and people. It was during the late medieval era, to which a significant strand of Gun Island harks back, that Marco Polo and other Venetian merchants travelled to the East. Around this time, ideas from Europe also began to move eastwards, Ghosh adds—in the form of the translation of René Descartes’ writings into Persian, for instance. But the persistence of these ancient connections hit close to home when he was in Venice some years ago. “Everywhere I turned to, I could hear Bengali,” he says. “Even the dialects that are spoken in places like Madaripur (where his family comes from), Shariatpur and Faridpur in Bangladesh.” Such is the influx of migrants into Italy that he later came across several mosques and temples for Bangladeshis in cities like Palermo.
In the 17th century, laskars (sailors and militiamen) from Bengal went to Italy to work in the shipyards. Over 300 years later, the desire to travel from the East to the West persists, though fuelled by circumstances that are now markedly different. The term “migrant”, in contemporary parlance, conjures up heartrending images of boatloads of people on perilous seas, desperate to cross over to lands of promised safety. Or of thousands of refugees forced to live in sub-human conditions in camps and ghettos across cities in the West. But the truth, as always, is far more nuanced, and not always readily evident.
“Most people assume that migration is a function of poverty,” Ghosh says, “but it is often actually a function of connectedness—one that also requires a certain degree of affluence to come through. For instance, to be able to pay the dalals (middlemen) at different stages of the journey, a migrant would need at least $10,000—that’s a few lakh rupees—to start with.”
While speaking to boys and men from Bangladesh, Pakistan and North Africa working in Italy, Ghosh realized that their stories did not lend themselves to one homogenous narrative of destitution. The character of Palash, for instance, though marginal to Gun Island, stands out as an example of the type of migrant who resists being explained by the theory of economic deprivation. The “centuries-old project” that began in the “early days of chattel slavery”, Ghosh writes towards the end of the novel, “has now been upended”. In “the service of commerce, (the European imperial powers) had transported people between continents…ultimately changing the demographic profile of the entire planet,” he goes on. “But even as they were repopulating other continents, they had always tried to preserve the whiteness of their own metropolitan territories in Europe.” With technological advances creating an inescapably globalized world, the patterns of migration are now being sharply reversed.
“We don’t adequately appreciate the degree to which technology, especially the smartphone, has disrupted contemporary life,” Ghosh says. “All ideas of localism and rootedness are gone now. We live in an impossibly interconnected world.” In Gun Island, Tipu and Rafi are the twin beneficiaries of this sudden expansion of small worlds, enabled by the internet and social media. Even in the swamps of the Sundarbans, where they eke out a living by doing odd jobs, they dare to dream big. “It is often mistakenly assumed that migrants have a humanity different from the rest of us,” Ghosh says. “But they, too, have an imagination like any other human being—one that’s being shaped by technology.”
This notion of interconnection, in his expert hands, also plays out at other levels of the story. As in most of his books, Ghosh structures a tightly woven plot in Gun Island, where human and animal, memory and history, past and present, are threaded together deftly. But the most striking feature of the novel is perhaps the coexistence of the real and the imaginary, natural and supernatural. Especially with regard to the animal life in the novel, Ghosh keeps himself open to what he calls possibilities of “extraordinary communications”.
Legends and myths are replete with examples of magic that happens in the midst of very mundane lives. Arion, the lyre-player from Greece, is rescued by a shoal of dolphins after he is thrown overboard by pirates. Following the prophecy of the three witches, Birnam Wood “comes” to Dunsinane in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Chand Sadagar gets back his lost fortunes and dead son after paying homage to Manasa and building a shrine to her.
“I read a lot of science, especially climate science, but I don’t think science is the only way to understand reality,” Ghosh says. “It doesn’t exhaust our knowledge of the world.” As Cinta assures Deen, “Whatever is happening to you is not ‘possession’. Rather I would say that it is a risveglio, a kind of awakening…you are waking up to things that you had never imagined or sensed before. You are lucky…some unknown force has given you a great gift.”
To all of us alive in this moment—with the awareness, or in denial, of what feels like an apocalypse unfolding in slow motion—Ghosh’s book is just such a precious gift, a call for a new awakening.