...I don’t remember when I first heard the story, or who told it to me, but constant repetition ensured that it sank so deep into my consciousness that I wasn’t even aware that it was there. But some stories, like certain life forms, possess a special streak of vitality that allow them to outlive others of their kind – and since the story of the Merchant and Manasa Devi is very old it must, I suppose, possess enough of this quality to ensure that it can survive extended periods of dormancy. In any event, when I was a twenty-something student, newly arrived in America and casting about for a subject for a research paper, the story of the Merchant thawed in the permafrost of my memory and once again claimed my full attention.
As I began to read the Bangla verse epics that narrate the Merchant’s story (there are many) I discovered that the legend’s place in the culture of eastern India was strangely similar to the pattern of its life in my own mind. The origins of the story can be traced back to the very infancy of Bengal’s memory: it was probably born amidst the original, autochthonous people of the region and was perhaps sired by real historical figures and events (to this day, scattered across Assam, West Bengal and Bangladesh, there are archaeological sites that are linked, in popular memory, to the Merchant and his family). And in public memory too the legend seems to go through cycles of life, sometimes lying dormant for centuries only to be suddenly rejuvenated by a fresh wave of retellings, in some of which the familiar characters appear under new names, with subtly changed plot lines.
A few of these epics are regarded as classics of Bengali literature and it was one such that became the subject of my research thesis: a six-hundred-page poem in early Bangla. This text was conventionally agreed to have been composed in the fourteenth century – but of course nothing is more grating to an aspiring scholar than a conventional opinion, so in my thesis I argued, citing internal evidence (such as a mention of potatoes), that the poem did not find its final form until much later. It was probably completed by other hands, I claimed, in the seventeenth century, well after the Portuguese had introduced New World plants to Asia.
From there I went on to argue that the life cycles of the story – its periodic revivals after long intervals of dormancy – were related to times of upheaval and disruption, such as the seventeenth century was in those parts of India where Europeans established their first colonies.
It was this last part of the thesis, I think, that most impressed my examiners (not to speak of the journal that subsequently published the article in which I summed up my arguments). What amazes me in retrospect is not the youthful hubris that allowed me to make these arguments but rather the obtuseness that prevented me from recognizing that the conclusions I had reached in relation to the legend might apply also to the history of its existence in my own memory. I never asked myself whether the legend might have surfaced in my mind because I was myself then living through the most turbulent years of my life: it was a period in which I was still trying to recover from the double shock of the death of a woman I had been in love with, and my subsequent move, by grace of a providential scholarship, from the strife-torn Calcutta of my youth to a bucolic university town in the American Midwest. When at last that time passed it left me determined never to undergo that kind of turmoil again. I spared no effort to live a quiet, understated, uneventful life – and so well did I succeed that on that day, at the wedding reception in Kolkata when the Sadagar entered my life anew, in the guise of the Gun Merchant, it never occurred to me that the carefully planned placidity of my life might once again be at an end.
“Are you sure you have the right name?” I said to Kanai, dismissively. “Maybe you misheard it or something?”
But Kanai stood his ground, insisting that he had used the phrase “Gun Merchant” advisedly. “I’m sure you know,” he said, in his maddeningly superior way, “that the figure of a Merchant crops up under many different names in our folklore. Sometimes the stories are linked to certain places – and my feeling is that the legend of Bonduki Sadagar is one of those, a local tale.”
“Because his legend is tied,” said Kanai, ‘to a shrine – a dhaam – in the Sundarbans.”
“The Sundarbans!” The idea that there might be a shrine hidden inside a tiger-infested mangrove forest was so far-fetched that I burst into laughter. “Why would anyone build a dhaam in a swamp?”
“Maybe,” said Kanai coolly, “because every merchant who’s ever sailed out of Bengal has had to pass through the Sundarbans – there’s no other way to reach the sea. The Sundarbans are the frontier where commerce and the wilderness look each other directly in the eye; that’s exactly where the war between profit and Nature is fought. What could be a better place to build a shrine to Manasa Devi than a forest teeming with snakes?”
“But has anyone ever seen this shrine?” I asked.
“I haven’t been there myself,” said Kanai. “But my aunt Nilima has.”
“Your aunt? You mean Nilima Bose?”
“Yes, exactly,” said Kanai. “It was she who told me about Bonduki Sadagar and the dhaam. She heard that you were in Kolkata and she asked me to tell you that she would be glad if you could go and see her. She’s in her late eighties now and bedridden, but her mind is as sharp as ever. She wants to talk to you about the shrine: she thinks you’ll find it interesting.”
I hesitated. “I don’t know that I’ll have the time,” I said. “I’m heading back to New York very soon.”
He shrugged. “It’s up to you.” Pulling out a pen he scribbled a name and a number on a card and handed it to me.
I peered at the card, expecting to see his aunt’s name. But that was not what he had written.
“Piya Roy?” I said. “Who’s that?”
“She’s a friend,” he said. “A Bengali American, teaches somewhere in Oregon. She comes here for the winter, like you, and usually stays with my aunt. She’s here now and she’ll make arrangements if you decide to visit. Give her a call: I think you’ll find it worth your while – Piya’s an interesting woman.”
Excerpted with permission from Gun Island: A Novel, Amitav Ghosh, Hamish Hamilton.