Back to the future: Amitav Ghosh on his new book

The author talks about his latest book Gun Island, catastrophic climate change and the mechanism of immigration

  • Published 29.06.19, 6:49 PM
  • Updated 30.06.19, 3:22 AM
  • 9 mins read
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“Had I not written The Calcutta Chromosome, writing this book would have been much harder. I have repeatedly felt that I have returned to the same environment while writing this book,” says Ghosh (Picture: B. Halder)

When encumbered by a deadline, even pleasant activities begin to feel like a task. Such was my state when I began my journey through Amitav Ghosh’s latest offering to the world of fiction after four long years — Gun Island. A few pages into the book all that changed. Even with an impending interview with the author looming ahead of me, the book proved to be a surreal treat.

Following the story of rare books dealer Dinanath Dutta, or Deen, we travel through the streets of Calcutta, the high-rises of Brooklyn, the distributaries of the Sunderbans and the by-lanes of Venice, as he repeatedly encounters the legend of goddess Manasa Devi. Fantasy takes a walk holding the hands of science, with characters at different stages of belief in what is fantasy and what is reality, while travelling back and forth in time. Like a little girl on a swing, gently swaying to slowly picking up pace, the growing urgency in Ghosh’s novel is palpable as he addresses two crises that plague mankind today — mass immigration and climate change. It beckons you, holds you by your lapels and shakes you till you are ready to open your eyes. For this book is an awakening for the world. From the plight of nature to that of young men traversing uncharted terrain and taking unfathomable risks to begin a new life, the recipient of the prestigious Jnanpith Award has given us a book that was the need of the hour.

We met Ghosh on a Saturday morning at Taj Bengal for the said interview, for more on Gun Island and the world it explores.

"Gun Island is a collection of moments where the natural meets the supernatural, with reality coexisting with the imaginary," said Ghosh. (Cover of the book)

Looking back to look forward

Characters like Kanai Dutt, Piya Roy and Tipu reappear many years since their last appearance in The Hungry Tide, in roles which are far away from who they’d been in the past. Yet, this book is a “look back of sorts” to The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines and The Calcutta Chromosome. “Had I not written The Calcutta Chromosome, writing this book would have been much harder. I have repeatedly felt that I have returned to the same environment while writing this book,” says Ghosh, sitting across from me. He is in a jovial mood, listening to me gush about Gun Island. “The readers have responded very well and I often hear what you are saying, which is honestly the best thing a writer can hear.” Drawing parallels with his previous works, he feels that he was revisiting all of his earlier work while creating this one. “At the end of the day, whatever is in your head will come out. Those themes will emerge and re-emerge.”

Brooklyn’s limited role in the story

Last winter, when I met the author as he prepped for the launch of Gun Island, I had asked him about Brooklyn never making appearance in his works. For an author who gives immense importance to geography, Brooklyn had somehow skipped its moment of glory, until now, when Dinanath Dutta decided to be based in the city that the author is himself based in. However, it is only in passing that the city gets mentioned with no direct impact upon the plot. “I don’t speak Spanish. I couldn’t have spoken to the immigrants there and I think that really makes a huge difference, you know. And the Bengalis who are migrating are mostly landing up in Europe. And the way they are crossing the Mediterranean, maane eta ekta odbhut jinish, tai na? (It is a strange thing, isn’t it?)”

Research, research and then some more

It was this urge to understand the why, what, how of the mechanism of this loosely explicable need that drives immigration that led the author to Italy, to the housing camps of immigrants. “Thousands of young kids, and I say kids because they are aged between 15 and 30 and they are taking risks to do the work they are; it is incredible and indescribable,” he pauses and says. Visiting migrant centres in Italy, talking to NGOs who are helping migrants and talking to journalists were all a part of the four-year-long creation process of Gun Island. “There is a lot of scholarship on this subject in Italian — much better than in English. I got a much better understanding after talking to them; like the directors of these camps have many kinds of insights...” he trails off.

The great responsibility of fiction versus fiction as escapism

“Fiction is anything but escapism. Look at the works of Victor Hugo — that is gritty realism if nothing. Or John Steinbeck, I think he is the most important of them all in the sense that his The Grapes of Wrath is anything but escapism.” There is lament in his voice as he agrees that what is considered mainstream fiction today has become about escapism, which wasn’t the circumstance of fiction in the past and it definitely “should not be how we approach the world.”

Gun Island is a collection of moments where the natural meets the supernatural, with reality coexisting with the imaginary. “Likhte likhte onek shongjog beriye ashe, jano toh. (The connections get formed as you are writing, you know.)”

“The idea of coincidence is based upon the notion of ‘chance’ but what is the Bengali word for ‘chance’? The closest word to ‘coincidence’ would be daibokrom.” However, when one puts the responsibility of the action on the Gods, he feels that it completely negates chance as a concept. “What is ‘pure chance’ in Europe can’t even be expressed in our language.”

The role of the window seat of a plane

A recurrent theme in Ghosh’s novel would be a character looking down from an aeroplane akin to an out-of-body experience that allows a glimpse into a third-person narrative of their life. Be it the grandmother in The Shadow Lines, who tries to look for the border between India and Bangladesh expecting it to be a physical line perhaps, or be it Deen Dutta, who looks down on Venice and sees similarities with the Sunderbans. One wonders if that view and following commentary is the character’s or the author’s. “It’s just something that happens. I happened to be in a plane, flying over Venice, looking out of the window at the Venetian lagoon, and the similarities were very striking. Dekhbe? Ami tomai dekhabo? (You want to see? Should I show you?)” He takes out his phone, traversing through thousands of images and leans in to show me some pictures. Ghosh, from his journalism days, has always believed in documentation. What was a dictaphone and copious handwritten notes then, is the mobile phone now, though the handwritten notes still persist. In conversation, the author, armed with a pencil in hand, would occasionally scribble a word or two. On his phone, I see images of immigrants he has spoken to and some gorgeous pictures of the lagoon, undeniably resembling a place closer to home.

Who is Manasa Devi?

The book follows a 300-year-old oral tale of Chand Sadagar who travelled across the world, acquiring wealth and incurring the wrath of goddess Manasa Devi, to whom he refuses to pledge his allegiance. However, Ghosh’s Manasa Devi is not an angry goddess trying to convince Sadagar, but is a negotiator who wants to bring the plight of nature to light, Chand Sadagar being the personification of capitalism perhaps. “The world of today presents all the symptoms of demonic possession” Ghosh writes in his book and one tends to think of the character Giacinta Schiavon, a historian and scholar of great repute, from Venice. She tries to convince Deen Dutta of the existence of the imaginary and its power over reality when she says “Whatever is happening to you is not “possession”. Rather I would say that it is a risveglio, a kind of awakening.” Ghosh gently corrects my pronunciation, “It is Chin-tah. C and I together in Italian forms chaw.”

“If you read Narayan Deb’s Padma Puran, you will realise that Manasa Devi is not all powerful. The snakes will not do everything she says. She has to beseech Kalonaag to go and kill Lakhinder. Similarly, she is beseeching Chand (Sadagar) as well. That, I feel, is a very poignant theme of the narrative,” he says.

So who is Manasa Devi in today’s world? “The question is slightly hard,” he muses. “There is no one and that really is the heart of the disaster. We think of these as pre-modern texts but they perfectly understood our contemporary predicament,” he adds. The goddess and her negotiations were propelled by her understanding of human nature whose driving force was profit and the imperative need for a limiting boundary for this greed.

Aporia

The protagonists of Gun Island — Cinta, Deen and Piya — are at three different stages of belief — belief in the imaginary, fantasy and supernatural. While Cinta can feel the presence of her dead daughter around her, Deen gets increasingly convinced of an undeniable and inexplicable driving force around him, while for Piya, even a “miraculous” sight can be explained through science. “Improbable but possible,” she says. “I wouldn’t call it belief. I would say that what Cinta is pointing to is what people call an aporia — an area of doubt and possibility.

And that’s the interesting thing because science and rationality are said to be founded on doubt. And yet, science doesn’t allow a certain kind of doubt, like do other beings exist? And that’s what Cinta is pointing to, that we don’t know what the answers are.” When I cheekily ask him if that makes Deen, Chand Sadagar, the author breaks into laughter telling me that it has to be my answer, not his! “If that’s your interpretation, I won’t dispute it,” he laughingly adds.

Amitav Ghosh signs copies of Gun Island (Penguin Hamish Hamilton; Rs 699) at Starmark, South City Mall, Calcutta
Amitav Ghosh signs copies of Gun Island (Penguin Hamish Hamilton; Rs 699) at Starmark, South City Mall, Calcutta (Picture: B. Halder)

Connecting through etymology

Language and etymology have played a great role in all of Ghosh’s texts, especially the rampant presence of Bengali in various parts of the world, as it has in his personal life. The author almost encountered death during his first visit to New York in 1988. A huge chunk of masonry about to fall on him, missed him narrowly, because of a distant voice that had screamed “shabdhaan”. The voice belonged to a man working on scaffolding. “I asked him ‘what if I didn’t know Bengali?’ and he apologised and said ‘I said the first thing that came to my lips’.” It is no surprise that the protagonist Deen Dutta faces the exact situation in a chapter in Gun Island.

Lending a voice to the non-human

“Our single literary challenge right now is trying to accommodate the non-human into literary texts because we have seen in the last couple of years that the non-human has completely faded away from contemporary representations,” the author laments. There are multiple references in his book to climatic calamities like dolphin and shark beachings, dead zones in the sea where no real life can exist, wildfire, tornados and storms, repeatedly referencing and going back to the period that is Little Ice Age.

“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” Ghosh writes in Gun Island. In multiple conversations, he keeps going back to Richard Powers’ Overstory, which really struck a chord with him. Revolving around agency being given to trees and learning their ways of communication, he is convinced that nothing else can take up this challenge better than fiction.

Relationship with the Sunderbans

Ghosh appears to be in awe of the powerful landscape that is the beautiful forests and rivers of the Sunderbans. “It really imposes itself on you, especially when you choose to spend time there; it’s such a haunting landscape,” he says. That is a place that has most drastically been affected by climate change and “it’s only going to get worse.”

From salt water intrusion to disappearing islands, problems are aplenty and solutions are few. “It is a lifeline for so many. So many fish species have their breeding ground there. We are already seeing catastrophic decline in fish catches. Hundreds of fisherfolk are losing their livelihood,” he says. This important ecological system has already changed in multiple cataclysmic ways. He mentions in the book the vast swarms of crabs that used to make the mud appear red. It’s been two decades since we have witnessed these crabs in their glory.

Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group run by Ashish Kothari comes up in conversation around climate change movements that the author closely follows. Vandana Shiva is another name I hear, remembering to note them down for research on them and their negligible presence in the media. A scholar and environmental activist, Shiva’s Navdanya works across 22 states preserving seeds and creating seed banks. Known as “India’s rice warrior” Debal Deb from Bengal has left an impression in the author’s mind with his stellar work. “He has, for years, been conserving rice varieties which cross thousands in number, working between Bengal and Orissa,” Ghosh gushes.

Dinanath Dutta and Piya Roy

The author breaks into peals of laughter when I ask him about the indispensability of Deen and Piya’s romance. Sixty-year-old Dinanath Dutta is quite taken by the sombre presence of marine biologist Piya Roy. I complain about the need for it and he is quick to interject, “Is it even really romance? They are so old now!” and he continues laughing with an amused expression on his face.

We are at the fag end of our conversation by now and I am wondering if it is too soon to ask him about what’s next. He thinks he might write a couple of essays, with no fiction in the horizon, for this process of writing fiction can be very exhausting. “Every draft that you think is the final draft proves not to be the final draft,” he says. Staying awake in bed wondering about changes in it becomes a part of the process. Speaking of changes, I ask him about his recent and active presence on Instagram. “Besh bhalo lagchhe (I quite like it!).” It is better than Twitter at least, where people fight all the time,” he chirps in. He is reading Rivers Remember by Krupa Ge, based on the aftermath of the Chennai floods. “Parle poro, besh bhalo likhechhe (Try and read, it’s well-written)”

The 54th Jnanpith awardee has come a long way from his days of journalism in Delhi and the award was a great surprise for him, he says. “In our literary career, Jnanpith remains an honour of magnificent proportions. I could have never imagined getting it. That they would think me worthy...” he trailed off.

Maybe it’s time to look at his own life from the window seat of a plane, I cheekily suggest. “You are right, now I must! After Jnanpith, now I really should,” he concludes with one last hearty laugh.

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