Years ago, in the “Before Times” (to draw on Amitav Ghosh’s “Afterword” to his latest and deeply penetrating book), during a family trip to the Sundarbans, as our boat would halt and we’d gaze into the mangroves with the irrational human hope that we would spot a tiger, the oft repeated joke on the boat was that even if we hadn’t seen any tigers, they had certainly been watching us the whole time.
It is this intangible sorcery of the forests, where we humans are (rightly) reminded of our ephemerality and insignificance, that Ghosh captures, in conjunction with Salman Toor’s black and white visuals where one of the most striking motifs are pairs of eyes, watching Dhona and his band of arrogant humans (who don’t have the capacity to see them), and, of course, watching us equally arrogant readers (do we truly see them?).
Jungle nama is Ghosh’s retelling of one of the most popular stories that make up the much larger mythology centred on Bon Bibi (the benevolent goddess protecting the Sundarbans) and her twin brother and ally, Shah Jongoli. Drawing on Munshi Mohammad Khatir and Abdur Rahim Sahib’s Bengali verse versions written in dwipodi-poyar , both titled, Bon Bibi Johuranama, Ghosh adapts the poyar meter whereby, “each line has, on average, twelve syllables, and each couplet has twenty-four. Every line also has a natural break or caesura.”
The story starts with a description of Dokkhin Rai, a spirit who ruled over the forests, appearing in the form of a tiger and terrorising all its inhabitants who could only pray that they be saved from his unpredictable fury. It is at this juncture that Bon Bibi and Shah Jongoli enter and restore a sense of harmony:
“They drew a line, to mark a just separation,
between the forest, and the realm of the human.
To Dokkhin Rai was given the jungles of the south,
where land and water mingle, at the rivers’ mouth.
No humans would come there, nor could he go outside,
he would live a life of plenty, reigning with pride.
Thus did Bon Bibi create a dispensation,
that brought peace to the beings of the Sundarban;
every creature had a place, every want was met,
all needs were balanced, like the lines of a couplet.”
But the balance, as the section immediately following notes, is short-lived. Greed and balance are oxymorons and the humans who seek to enter the forest and extract more than what they need from it will once again disrupt the natural equilibrium – both of the Sundarbans and their own.
This will be learnt by Dhona (a wealthy tradesman), his hapless nephew, Dukhey (who to some extent represents the residents in and around the Sundarbans, dependent on the mangroves for their livelihood, and who pray to Bon Bibi before entering the forests to protect them and to keep them safe), and Dukhey’s mother who, knowing all this, imparts the wisdom of the forests to her son, wisdom he doesn’t respect at first but will be compelled to when he faces, alone, the full extent of its non-humanness. To use human terms of transaction to engage with its terrain is to upset the spirits of the forest.
This is true even of Dokkhin Rai, whose perceptiveness finds presence in Ghosh’s depiction of him:
“‘Who’re these men?’ he thought. “Why’ve they come here in a band?
Look how they’re lumbering about, clumsy and noisome.
What can they be here for but to raid my kingdom?”
That Jungle nama is at its core an allegory for our times is what makes it a must read. Ravaged by Amphan, debilitated by climate change, the very existence of the Sundarbans is precarious. Its wildlife, with tigers heading the list, is endangered. Therefore Dokkhin Rai in Ghosh’s version of the legend serves a dual role. Apart from a relatively simple lesson in avarice among deities, in the world of 2020 and beyond (but also even earlier), confined as he is within systematically shrinking territory, are his articulations of rage surprising?
At the very beginning, Ghosh devotes a verse to how Dokkhin Rai is taken captive by Shah Jongoli – the words are searing and could easily apply to poaching as well. Toor’s visual that follows is a tower-like piling up of cut trees. Equally, the cynosure of this legend, Bon Bibi, is a goddess worshipped by Hindus and Muslims in the area alike, and by different castes.
Which brings me back to the eyes in Toor’s images, following the reader. Leaving aside the costs involved in printing colour visuals, I don’t think they would have been as effective as the interplay of black, white and grey. And the swirling patterns in Toor’s artwork, the pairs of eyes, Ghosh’s words, all seem to be probing us readers with the question: what are you taking back from this?
Jungle Nama: A Story of the Sundarban, Amitav Ghosh, illuminated by Salman Toor, HarperCollins India.
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