The legend of Bonduki Sadagar or the Gun Merchant does not pique Deen’s curiosity at first. He is a rare book dealer after all, a skeptic who prides himself “on being a rational, secular, scientifically minded person” with little to no regard for the supernatural or the superstitions.
But when Nilima Bose reveals a couplet, the only remaining snatches of a panchali or an epic poem based on the legend, an apparent “piece of silliness”, Deen figures a meaning out of it.
It is perhaps the couplet, or the request of a bed-ridden old woman (and perhaps a tad bit of hope to impress another woman) that leads Deen to the wilderness of the Sundarbans on the lookout for a shrine of Manasa Devi, the snake goddess.
What follows is a whirlwind of events and encounter with magic, monsters and migration stories in and out of India. Behind the fragile membrane of a world full of mystery and myths, there lies the real world infested with hatred, refugee crisis and environmental degradation— a world of smugglers who detain refugees in a “connection house” in Sinai. It is a special house equipped with modern instruments to cut off kidneys of those who have failed to pay ransom for their exodus to Europe.
Taut with tension of a thriller, Gun Island is a treasure trove of historical events that whet one’s appetite for history and anthropology. One may take a liking to archeology while decoding the symbols of terracotta friezes with the protagonist-cum-narrator. The book proves how folklore and legends can open up a portal to the past that reveal a lot about a country, its people and commerce.
Since the onset of the 19th century, Bengali scholars have stressed the need for preserving folktales. One of the remarkable additions to the preservation was Thakurmar Jhuli (1907) by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumder. It is a collection of folk and fairy tales popular among children till date. Another rescue mission was led by Dr Dinesh Chandra Sen who had collected and compiled Mymensingh Gitika or the Ballads of Mymensingh and was said to have saved it from sinking into oblivion. Despite these attempts, a good number of folktales still need to be collected and compiled, as Dr Muhammad Shahidullah has often lamented in his speeches and essays.
Ghosh revives the old initiative offering a gateway to lost legends in his stories. He tells the story of Bonduki Sadagar only to call to mind a similar legend of Chand Sadagar from Manasamangal. His The Hungry Tide (2004) recalls Bon Bibi, a local lore of the Sundarbans.
Not just legends, history plays an important part in his tales and their telling. Here he speaks of the Bhola cyclone (1970) that killed thousands of Bengalis and even played a crucial role in the creation of Bangladesh. The Hungry Tide recounts Marichjhapi Massacre of 1979 where a thousand Bangladeshi refugees were forced into an island in the Sundarbans. The displacement resulted in mass murder, police firings and death by starvation. On a similar note, his The Shadow Lines (1988) deals with the communal riots that broke out in Dhaka and Kolkata during the 1960s.
When almost all of his fiction titles explicitly deal with historical events, the legend of Gun Merchant evokes a number of unnamed catastrophes faced by India. Horen Naskar’s recollection of the legend describes a famine followed by a drought where “parents had sold their children and people had been reduced to eating carcasses and cadavers.” This incident mirrors the chhiyattarer manbantar, a devastating famine that occurred during 1769 after the East India Company had come to power.
Cyclones and wildfires are recurring images in Gun Island. When natural calamities are not in the foreground, they are present in the background of the novel playing significant roles in the narrative, as if to make a statement: where is the fiction dealing with climate crisis? In an article published in The Guardian, Amitav Ghosh writes, “When the subject of climate change occurs, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon.”
From the beaching of the rare river dolphins in the Sundarbans to the wildfire in Los Angeles to the tornado hitting Egypt to the frequent floods in Venice, Gun Island blurs the boundaries between nations, covering a vast swathe of land as if to mark the ubiquity of climate emergency in today’s world.
Apart from its environmental campaign, Gun Island is a well-researched book of immigrant stories. A book that “puts a human face on the refugees” and records their heartrending journey from their countries in the East to the West. A walk through the streets in Venice proves how the growing number of immigrants, mostly of a Bengali origin, have already outnumbered the local Venetians.
Migration and displacement are common motifs in most of Ghosh’s works. Not just Gun Island and The Hungry Tide, his tour de force the Ibis trilogy provides a large canvas from India and China to Mauritius, depicting the transportation of coolies during the opium wars.
Gun Island and The Hungry Tide are similar in many other ways. As both are set in the swamps of the Sundarbans, they share the same set of characters as well. Enthusiastic readers can look into The Hungry Tide to know what had happened to Fokir, Tipu’s father that made Piya forever indebted to his family. In Gun Island, she goes out of her way to ensure a good future for the family.
Ghosh is known to be the first author in English who has been awarded the Jnanpith Award in 2018. When he was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for The Glass Palace (2000), he famously turned it down calling the word “commonwealth” “problematic”.
After settling in the US, Bapasi Sidhwa once commented, “I realized that all my sentences in English were punctuated with Gujrati and Urdu words.” In a similar fashion, Ghosh’s English is “punctuated with” words from Bangla, Italian and other Indian languages. No wonder, like many South Asian authors, his works too enjoy a form of literary hybridity to carve out a space for different cultural identities in the previously Eurocentric discourse.
With all its urgency and pressing issues, Gun Island is a riveting experience, a pleasurable read that leaves the reader in awe and bewilderment at its mastery over connecting a wide range of issues into one narrative. It’s a novel that teaches, elevates and awakens. A book that has an eye of an anthropologist with a passion for archeology which makes reading all the more enjoyable. Almost like solving a puzzle!
Shahroza Nahrin is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters.