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There is a drought, but people are still happy to watch cricket: Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh on his many concerns — migration, climate change, metamorphosis of words and the power of stories — that telescope in his new novel Gun Island.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jun 16, 2019, 04.45 PM IST|Original: Jun 15, 2019, 11.03 PM IST
Ghosh makes another point: Refugees are turning centuries of European project on its head.
Amitav Ghosh returns to the tide country of the Sunderbans in his new novel Gun Island. Half earth and half water. We chance upon characters whom we met 15 years ago in the ebb and flow of The Hungry Tide.

The young cetologist, Piyali Roy, is now greying at the temples and still carrying in her the terrors of a storm that slammed into her on an island. There’s a cameo by the frail but formidable Nilima Bose who runs an NGO. There’s even a dolphin that reappears. The little boy Tutul, who sat in the prow of his father’s boat, is now a young man who calls himself Tipu. But Ghosh pre-empts any attempts at calling Gun Island a continuation of The Hungry Tide.

Leaning back in his chair in a black shirt and dark blue trousers, a small scowl forming above his white French beard, the 62-year-old says: “There are some characters who overlap but that is about it. There isn’t much of a connection between the books. When you have lived with these characters for a long time, they don’t really go away. They are still somewhere in your head and at some point they come back. That was certainly the case with this. These characters just returned.”

Gun Island moves between two lands that sway in the waters: Sunderbans and Venice. Sunderbans poses a question through a 17th century fable of and shrine for Bonduki Sadagar, the “gun merchant”, who is driven out of Bengal and takes a journey through lands mysteriously named as Taal Misir Desh (Sugar Candy Land), Rumali Desh (Land of Kerchieves), Shikol Dweep (Island of Chains) and Bonduk Dwip (Gun Island), pursued by the snake goddess Manasa Devi. Venice provides the answers. Between Sunderbans and Venice, the novel stretches like a slithering riddle.

In 2016, after his mammoth Ibis Trilogy was published, Ghosh was at his study in Brooklyn, trying to write an article on Venice, when suddenly links between India and Italy opened up. “I had been re-reading pre-modern Bengali poetry, especially the legend of Chand Sadagar and its many iterations. I wondered, What is the meaning of these legends. Where do they come from and where do they lead? I guess that is how this novel really started off.”

Sadagar, the merchant, is a recurrent figure in Bengali folklore. “I don’t think merchants really figure as folkloric characters anywhere else. Certainly, not in India. It is a very curious thing, particularly because Bengalis are not known as traders. There isn’t any legend of Bonduki Sadagar, though. That’s mera.”

It is not often that Ghosh warns a writer not to give away spoilers for one of his books, but he does so this time. For, in this novel, one word holds the secret to the legend — bonduk, gun. It links two faraway islands, it is a word that has travelled along the Silk Route, it is a word that holds in it the origin story of a city. Here, Ghosh is in his elements.

India's Merchant of Venice
A sadagar's story that winds its way into Venice - this could be India's version of The Merchant of Venice, a riposte to William Shakespeare's play. But Ghosh's Venice is not Shylock's nor Antonio's. Ghosh imagines 17th century Venice - which is around the time the Shakespearean play about the Venetian merchant and the Jewish moneylender was being staged in England - as a place where Indians could have been living.

"I am sure there were Indians in Venice at that time. It was an incredibly cosmopolitan place. Venice became rich by trading with Constantinople. One of its major trades was in spices, and where did the spices come from? So there was a lot of back and forth. There were a significant number of people from Kerala who were travelling to Syria on a regular basis. And Syria is not far from Italy," says Ghosh. People are still taking that route.

Ghosh points to contemporary Venice "where almost the entire working class is from Bangladesh". At the launch of his book in Delhi, he further elaborated: "Everywhere I looked, people were speaking Bangla. I was speaking my childhood language on the streets of Venice." In the age of Global Positioning System -where everything and everyone is tagged, tracked and even targeted - people are on the move, clambering on refugee boats, crossing boundaries.

In Gun Island, Rafi and Tipu, a Muslim and a Dalit, move from India to Italy. These are people at the margins, dispossessed. "I spent a lot of time in Italy, visiting migrant camps, trying to understand what was it that made them move," says Ghosh.

"Their stories are similar to Rafi's and Tipu's. They come from Bangladesh, go through India, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran. They sit in the back of a truck for days, not able to even look outside. At night, they are allowed out and given a few chapatis. Reports of migrants who come off the boats always say they are Syrians or Africans. If you look closely at the newspaper pictures, you will see that most of them are South Asians."

Ghosh was in Palermo, Sicily, one day when a refugee boat came in, crammed with migrants, most of them South Asians. They came out on to the pier. "There they were, 10 feet from me. And I was thinking if I just take another step, I could be coming in that way. That was the strongest sense I had "that their stories were my stories."

It is not just people. Sea serpents and spiders are moving. Dolphins and whales are seeking new seas. "There is a huge displacement of people, of animals, of ecosystems. The entire natural world, as we know it, is being completely transformed in ways that are really worrying," says Ghosh. Piyali says in Gun Island: "We are in a new world now. No one knows where they belong any more -neither humans nor animals."

Temperature touched a scalding 48 degree Celsius in Delhi last week, a cyclone churned the Arabian Sea and parts of India have been hit by drought. "There are two sets of things you can do," says Ghosh, who has been persistently warning about climate change, especially in his book The Great Derangement.

"One is to reduce emissions. The other is to prepare to deal with drought and excessive rainfall. You can strengthen yourself in the face of what is obviously a global climate emergency." Are we doing enough? No, none of us is doing enough. Drought is the most important thing happening in India right now. But people are still happy to watch some cricket match. I think it just goes to show that any of us who thought that human beings are reasonable or rational really has to think again. We are none of those things."

Ghosh makes another point: Refugees are turning centuries of European project on its head. "If the coolies' colonial masters... knew everything about them... the countries of the West... now knew very little about the people who were flocking to them," he writes in Gun Island. Ghosh says the huge demographic interventions Europe put in place completely changed the two Americas and Australia.

"They exterminated 90% of indigenous populations and transported millions of people from Africa, later from Asia. The scale of these demographic interventions was staggering and it was undertaken by states," he says. Meanwhile, Europe, he writes, strived to preserve "the whiteness of their own metropolitan territories"... This entire project had now been upended".

Fear of the Migrant
But it is not just Europe that fears the migrant. Isn't the fear of the migrant at the heart of the National Register of Citizens in India? "Yes," says Ghosh.

"The migrant issue has overturned the politics of the Western world. It has been happening in India for a long time, especially in the East. For the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, too, it has been a big issue. But the great demographic upheaval is going on. In Goa, the working class now is almost completely from the East. So is it in Kerala and Karnataka."

There is also the specific fear and rejection of the Muslim migrant, which is what India's Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, too, underlines. "It is a terrible thing," says Ghosh, but elides the point. "When I was in Italy, I met a lot of young men from one district in Punjab in Pakistan. They started migrating in 2015 after a flood in Jhelum. Fifteen-twenty years ago, if you were displaced by the flood, you would go to another town, but now they go to another part of the world. Economy and ecology and technology are driving them across borders.

Even the person who is displaced by the flood has a mobile phone. It is a game-changer. Bangladesh has a high internet penetration. People know more about the world. It becomes a motivating factor in this movement." If in The Hungry Tide, Ghosh pulled back, at the last moment, from relaying the real horrors of the Marichjhapi crackdown, in Gun Island he doesn't quite put his finger on the religion of the majority of the refugees, Islam, and how the fear of the migrant in Europe is very much situated in Islamophobia.


At one moment in Gun Island, he touches on the Islamophobia that has seized parts of the West - when the rare books dealer Dinanath Datta's Bluetooth speaker switches on and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Allah Hoo pours through the aisle of an American airliner, with ominous overtones ¡X but it only freezes the passing fear of a business class Hindu passenger, not the bone-rattling dread about her identity that a poor migrant Muslim feels on a strange sea and a stranger shore.

Island & The Tide
After reading Gun Island, I went back to The Hungry Tide and then again returned to Gun Island. It pales before the Tide. It doesn't draw you into it like the sinking mud of the Sunderbans did in The Hungry Tide. It doesn't bruise you like the spores of the mangroves did 15 years ago. Instead it carries you on a light, occasionally exhilarating, ride on the serpentine scales of a riddle.

Even the characters - from Datta, who seeks to untangle the mysteries behind the Bonduki Sadagar story, to Cinta, the Italian academic who is like an intellectual sutradhar of the novel - are almost one-dimensional, mere keys to unlocking the puzzle. They are just ciphers to decipher the mystery. Gun Island is a minor work in Ghosh's oeuvre even though it affords Ghoshian pleasures in no small measure. Ghosh draws on the energies of old folktales to talk about contemporary concerns.

Which is why this novel, with its goddesses, snakebites and spiders, intimations and chance meetings, could upend the expectations of those who have been reared in the fastidiousness of realistic fiction. Ghosh couldn't care less. He said at the book launch: "Writers have always given voice to non-humans. When did we begin to suppress these voices?" Cinta echoes that: "Only through stories can invisible or inarticulate or silent beings speak to us; it is they who allow the past to reach out to us."

Gun Island is an affirmation of stories, of their continuous reclamation and renewal. Like Cinta, who exclaims, "It is - never - just a story," Ghosh says,"believe in the power of stories. Fiction exceeds facts. So much of life is like that. So much of life exceeds anything that we can write factually about it." Has he become more aware of the irrational elements in life over the years? "There has always been that aspect in my head. Maybe it has come more to the forefront of late".

In the end, there is both hope and despair.

"The world that we are heading towards is a very dark place, but something is salvageable. It really depends on what we do now," says Ghosh. "When you look at the realities that surround us, you recall what the German philosopher Martin Heidegger said in 1966: "Only a god can still save us." And we have reached there now."

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