On the afternoon of March 17, 1978, Amitav Ghosh, then a part-time journalist and a student at Delhi University, witnessed an event so unlikely that it defied all reason. On his way back home from the library, taking a route that he rarely used, Ghosh found himself smack in the middle of the first ever tornado to hit Delhi in recorded meteorological history. Huddled in a small balcony, the incredulous young man saw bicycles, scooters, lampposts and entire tea stalls fly past. The devastating tornado left at least 30 people dead and over 700 injured.
In his 2016 book, The Great Derangement, Ghosh wondered why, as a fiction writer who often mines his own past for his books, a tornado had yet to appear in any of his novels. The answer, he found, was one of believability. “Surely, only a writer whose imaginative resources were utterly depleted would fall back on a situation of such extreme probability,” he wrote. This question of probability though, is only a facet of the modern novel, Ghosh posits. Storytelling before that delighted in the unlikely.
With his new book, Ghosh pushes back against these rigid boundaries of the modern novel to embrace the exceptional. Gun Island, Ghosh’s first novel since Flood of Fire (2015), the last of the Ibis trilogy, features not just a tornado, but also cyclones, wildfires, poisonous snakes, mass beachings of dolphins, unlikely coincidences and a goddess chasing a merchant.
At the heart of the novel is the mysterious legend of the Gun Merchant or Bonduki Sadagar, who travels the world trying to escape Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes. This old Bengali folktale becomes an obsession for the novel’s narrator, Dinanath Dutta – Deen for short – a Bengali rare books dealer who lives in Brooklyn and whose life is turned upside down when a visit to a shrine to the merchant in the Sunderbans begins to blur the boundaries between legend and reality.
What follows is a breathless adventure across the globe, from a forest-fire besieged Los Angeles to slowly sinking Venice, where a large part of the novel is set. The myth of the Gun Merchant soon becomes an etymological mystery that ties in closely to the catastrophic events of the Little Ice Age of the 17th century, events that don’t seem too outlandish today either.
Even as he struggles to hold on to rationality and scepticism, Deen is helped along his journey by his mentor and friend, Cinta, a famous historian who is not as quick to dismiss the power of stories and of extending the boundaries of what is real. As their lives are intertwined with marine biologist Piya (a character whom readers of Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide will immediately recognise), and two aspirational young men, Tipu and Rafi, Gun Island reveals itself to be much larger than legend – a novel about migration, history and the ravages borne by the human and non-human inhabitants of the planet.
In the week leading up to the India launch of the book in Delhi, temperatures in the city hit an all-time high of 48 degrees, a large part of the country braced for the impact of the unseasonal and potent Cyclone Vayu, and thousands of fish turned up dead in the Indrayani river in Maharashtra. The “improbable” was suddenly very real.
The week also saw Ghosh being awarded the 2018 Jnanpith award, the youngest writer to win the prize and the first English language writer to receive the honour.
The author spoke to Scroll.in in Delhi the following day about the role of fiction, his relationship with the Sunderbans, and why pre-modern texts might hold answers to today’s problems. Excerpts from the interview:
You wrote in The Great Derangement that as a writer, to treat the “improbable” occurrences of nature as magical, surreal or allegorical would be to “rob them of precisely that quality that makes them to urgently compelling – which is that they are actually happening on this earth, at this time.” How did that thought shape the writing of Gun Island? Because you do have very strong elements of the unreal, folklore and myth in the novel, while saying that this threat to the planet is actually very real…
Yes, because it is. It’s real to the point of uncanniness and I think that’s where I would put it, not in terms of real and unreal but this idea of the uncanny. Rather than saying natural and supernatural, there’s a term I prefer, born during the Inquisition, which is preternatural. It was something that the inquisitors would say – “we can’t explain this”. And so much of life is that. You’re thinking of someone and the phone rings and it’s them. Those things happen all the time.
So many weird things happened in the writing of the novel too. There’s a scene in the novel about a forest fire in Los Angeles and that did actually happen. But I wrote about it before that. Six months before it happened.
Like how you wrote about a storm surge in The Hungry Tide causing a devastating, huge wave in 2004. And then a few months later, the catastrophic tsunami struck in real life…
Exactly. The world has become so uncanny. Yesterday, I saw two news items. One was about this cyclone [Vayu] and I just tweeted it with a quote from The Great Derangement where I had written that the Arabian Sea is one of the regions of the world where cyclonic activity is likely to increase. The other was about thousands of fish dying [in the Indrayani river], something that Piya talks about in Gun Island…
Is that freaky to read? Of course, your fiction is based on fact, but to have the two mirror each other so closely?
It is freaky. It’s kind of disturbing really because reality is outrunning fiction in the weirdest of ways.
So are we, as a world, in a state of “demonic possession” that we need awakening from, as Cinta says to Dinanath?
It’s clear that whatever it is, we don’t live in a world guided by reason. If we did, we would be doing something about what’s happening around us. So we have to look for some other explanation.
You argue in The Great Derangement, about the role of fiction, and art in general, in communicating the extent of how climate change is destroying the planet. How else can we get people to pay attention? Especially when we’re drowned in “development” obsessed rhetoric?
I wish I knew! I don’t think anybody does really. I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert propagandiser, because I am not, nor do I think one can write well with an idea of doing propaganda. But I think just to be talking about these things is the most important thing. That’s what’s needed and we really don’t have even that.
Since the publication of The Great Derangement in 2016, have you found a new wave of fiction responding to climate and ecological change? I know you particularly loved this year’s Pulitzer winner, Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a call to arms for the protection of trees…
I think 2018 was a major inflexion point. Many things happened that year but certainly the publication of The Overstory was a very major turning point, most of all because it wasn’t marginalised as genre fiction. I think what Powers is trying to do in that book, in a very interesting way, is to confront the central literary challenge of this era, which is how to give voice to the non-human.
But I also think what Greta Thunberg has done with the extinction rebellion in England has made a very significant difference. People, particularly in England, have suddenly woken up and they see the centrality of this issue.
The concerns of the non-human are central to your novel as well. In her blurb for Gun Island, Annie Proulx writes that it’s a world “where massing animals find no escapes”. The book has heartbreaking scenes like the mass beaching of Irrawaddy dolphins but there are also menacing moments where poisonous creatures – spiders and snakes – have made their way to areas of dense human population because of climate change or worms that are literally eating the foundations of Venice from the inside. Is this fact of their changing lives in turn impacting ours a way to get self-centred humans to care about non-humans right now?
I’m not sure we can say that all human beings are self-centred. That’s something that emerged through modernity. That’s why one has to look to pre-modern texts to try and understand different ways of thinking about the world. For me, going back to these Bengali classic poems was very instructive. It shows a completely different way of relating to the world. If you think about Manasa Devi, for example, she is really giving voice to the non-human. She’s an interpreter. In the telling of the stories, she’s not presented as someone who says, “Snakes, do this!” and then they do it. Sometimes they don’t do what she asks of them, they argue with her. It’s not a simple, straightforward relationship at all.
What is so interesting about those epic poems is that, even though they are sort of fantastical, they present a much more realistic picture of everyday life in Bengal than a lot of modern fiction. Because omnipresent in these stories are drought, famine, terrible storms. These are the realities of life in the Bengal Delta. It’s why these stories are so loved.
Language and etymology are crucial to Gun Island. While accepting the Jnanpith award, you said that even though you write in English you draw constantly from Bangla and its vast imaginative resources. While he’s in Venice, Deen, also says “of all the gifts that Bangla has given me, this was by far the most unexpected, that it would help me find a context for myself in the unlikeliest of cities.” Was that your experience too? Did it anchor you and give you a feeling of home, particularly in times of movement, another key theme in your writing?
Yeah, it really did. I’ve been travelling to Italy for more than 40 years now. And even 15-20 years ago, you would very rarely see South Asians in Italy. Now when you walk through the streets of Palermo, you can literally smell Bengali food, you can smell the mustard oil. You know, when you grow up as a speaker of Bengali, you don’t expect other people to know the language when you’re abroad. Now, when you hear the language all around you, it’s so surprising. And it’s not just surprising for me. The migrants, when I would speak to them, would be astonished. It’s very moving for me to see that.
I remember in Catania, which is a small town in Sicily, a Bangladeshi guy invited me to his shop. He’s done well for himself and he’s well respected there. So I went to the shop and he had a computer there and his Skype was open and at the other end was his family and village. It was just on, all the time. They were not even having a conversation; they were literally in each other’s place. Because communication is so completely immediate, people stay completely connected to their networks.
Gun Island features a lot of this immediacy of electronic communication. Was it just a question of being realistic about how we interact today or did that help you create an atmosphere you wanted? For example, when Deen goes back to Brooklyn after the Sunderbans, he’s in this disoriented haze, and it’s only through email and instant messages that he has any communication with anybody else – it’s a part of the novel that has an unsettling air about it.
It’s both those things. Certainly, a part of my mind was saying that this is how we lead our lives, and you can’t ignore it if you’re writing about the reality of today. But in this book, I’m also trying to explore the uncanny aspects of this technology, such as the ways in which the Internet can also direct hate and give expression to the really malign forces of human society. And it can direct it with this incredible power. All of that interests me.
So many of your books are set in the Bengal Delta. Particularly when it comes to writing about ecological changes, do the Sunderbans feel like one of the most potent places to demonstrate that – a place where you can see the effects unfold almost in real time?
Yes, definitely. Especially when you spend time in a place over many years you suddenly begin to see the changes. After Cyclone Aila particularly, the Sunderbans were really heavily impacted. Even though not as many people died because of evacuations, after that you really see a mass migration out of there on an almost unimaginable scale. Life in the Sunderbans was always hard but now it’s become almost impossible.
You wrote in an essay about the 1984 riots “it is all too easy to present violence as an apocalyptic spectacle, while the resistance to it can as easily figure as mere sentimentality, or worse, as pathetic or absurd.” How do you translate that to climate change? We’re focussed on signifying the extent of the problem, but how much do we need to focus on the resistance and creating hope?
If you have children and you think at all about the future, you cannot just give up. You have to hope for something. My book is not an apocalyptic book at all. I guess that is what I’m leaving open as a possibility. But you can’t deny that things look very bleak and grim. Everyday we see news items about the worst predictions being outrun by reality. By vast figures. That’s where these questions of rationality and reason fade away. Scientists are rational, reasonable people. But their predictions have been inadequate. The reality is much worse.