When I tell Amitav Ghosh that the only reason I read The Hungry Tide was because it was among the rare literary novels that always seemed to be in large supply on roadside pavements, he laughs. “What books are they selling nowadays?” he asks.
Ghosh’s innate curiosity about the world and the ways in which people inhabit geographic spaces in certain points of history have fuelled a series of novels that meld history, forgotten oral narratives and folklore, and yet feel revelatory about the contemporary world. His new book, Gun Island, is a dreamlike ecological fable. Dinanath ‘Deen’ Dutta, an Indian-American rare books seller, finds himself entranced by the tale of the mysterious Bonduki Sadagar, the Gun Merchant whose legend is commemorated with a hidden shrine in the Sundarbans. The novel weaves together the folk tales of Manasa Devi, the goddess who set snakes and storms to besiege the mortals who refuse to kowtow to her, the destruction of ecosystems from Bangladesh to Los Angeles, and the great migration—of labourers who flock to the shores of Italy and schools of dolphins in its waters. Fans of The Hungry Tide will also be glad to know that the novel revisits its protagonist, the resolute marine biologist, Piyali Roy. Above all, Gun Island soars because of its earnest empathy for everyone in its orbit (even vengeful goddesses). Whether or not one is intoxicated by Gun Island’s unique blend of globetrotting historical mystery, ecological realities and fantastical elements, it is yet another work by Ghosh that encapsulates debates about the Anthropocene, yet defies facile categorisations.
Excerpts from a conversation with Ghosh.
Could you talk about the research process behind Gun Island? Manasa Devi’s folklore plays a big role in it as does the migrants who turn up on Italian shores. How did you incorporate these diverse oral narratives into the novel?
Gun Island relates to my readings of the lore of Manasa Devi. Those stories are presented in a way that are very abrupt and they played an important part in influencing my writing of the book. I also spent a lot of time in Italy meeting migrants and trying to understand the contemporary migrant phenomenon. Every one of their stories was fascinating. People were told they are going to work in Dubai and end up in Sharjah, unable to leave the airport. They call the Dalal and are presented with two choices. Come back or go to Libya. They get off the airplane in the Tripoli International Airport and half of it is rubble after being destroyed by cannon fire. These men are surrounded by people with guns and then taken to a darkened minivan. After driving for days, they are made to work as construction workers and are constantly sold from one contractor to the other. These stories are so horrifying, you can barely believe them. We buy into all these narratives of progress and yet these stories evoke indenture and slavery. I heard so many narratives of this kind in Italy.
However, in the final chapter of the book, you characterise this migration differently from the indentured labour during colonialism. It almost feels like a positive spin. Deen notes that these migrants are conversant with the laws of the West and it’s the West that doesn’t know the people flocking into its borders.
You have to interpret it as you will. The reality is that there is genuine difference. It isn’t like slavery. These kids start their journeys of their own volition. Of course, what really arises is the question of volition. Technology plays such a profound role in this movement. Human-machine interactions which we tend to think of in other contexts is very much present here. It raises profound questions about agency. Imagine a boy in rural India who works in the rice fields but has a mobile phone of his own decides to start moving. He looks at these images of the world outside his village with intense awareness and longing. He can’t move if there isn’t a system or what can be called an invisible production chain. It’s up to you whether it constitutes his own desires.
“It seems that we prefer a fantastical vision of dystopia but the real dystopia that surrounds us seems to escape our vision.”
Memory seems to be a common refrain in your novels. In Gun Island, it’s the tale of Bonduki Sadagar, the Gun Merchant, whose largely forgotten legend resurfaces only because of a shrine built to commemorate Manasa Devi, the folk goddess of snakes. In your second novel, The Shadow Lines (1988), it’s Tridib recounting his tale to the narrator, his adoring nephew. Why do you return to it repeatedly?
Hmm...I don’t know. I suppose at the end of the day it’s always been interesting to me. History is collective memory, isn’t it? In fact, it’s collective memory in ways we don’t perceive. It’s what motivates people and gets them to do things.
It’s interesting that you note it gets people to do things. In your previous book, The Great Derangement, you write about moving past literature as personal narratives or chronicles of the individual to emphasise its ability to drive collective action. Do you believe literature has a purposiveness?
I don’t think it has a purpose, necessarily. In many ways literature can be a galvaniser but not always in the best ways. In the 19th Century, a lot of literature was very racist, imperialist, and warmongering. We can’t ignore that it had a profound basis in the literature that was produced. Literature is rarely a benign influence. That said, I’m not writing a novel as propaganda or to get readers to believe in a certain vision. My personal mission is to write about the realities we see around us. The very curious thing about literature in recent times has been the exclusion of this reality. Let me give you one example. Hurricane Sandy completely devastated New York in 2012. Strangely, there are many novels about the future destruction of New York—whether it is the city’s flooding or rising sea levels, every possible dystopian scenario—but there’s not a single novel about Hurricane Sandy. It seems that we prefer a fantastical vision of dystopia but the real dystopia that surrounds us seems to escape our vision.
So is it safe to presume you’re not a fan of dystopian fiction then?
I’m absolutely not a huge fan of it. It’s a Western genre, a very peculiar one. Look, sometimes they can be enjoyable but they are a kind of fantasy.
Should we then be focusing on a literature of ideas as opposed to a literature of feelings? The reason I make that simplistic binary is because literature is a very individual project that evokes different emotional reactions and actions in others, but ideas can drive this collaboration.
I don’t think that binary holds. It’s a mistake to think ideas and feelings can be separated. It’s reasonable to make that distinction but we have to realise that the literature being an individual pursuit or speaking only to the individual is a very recent phenomenon. Even reading silently is something that has occurred very recently. It’s not even 200 years old. Until the 18th century, people interacted very differently with literature. They didn’t read silently. They read aloud and to each other. People would gather in the evenings and read stories and poems. Even Dickens was being read together within the family. It was common even from my mother’s accounts of her childhood. That kind of individuation has taken place only recently and with a tremendous speed. All our technology is individuating. Everyone has their own music playlists now. It’s no longer possible to know what is being read. You enter a bus and you can’t tell what people are reading. Everything has become more secret and private because we have this constant regress to individuated spaces. These are the ways in which we are trapped in a descending spiral and everything in our lives and worlds makes it accelerate. If you speak to anyone in activism, we all know the only way to fight and resist is through collective action of which literature is a part.
In the book, Deen tells his friend Cinta that he prides himself on being “secular, rational and scientifically minded”, which is why he doesn’t believe in the supernatural. She points out the contradiction, emphasising that the natural can’t exist without the supernatural. I was particularly reminded of that binary in the final chapter when all the characters witness a “storm of living beings” where nature and magic, reality and lore collide.
All the ideas we have about natural and supernatural derive from a religious discourse. They have their origins in The Inquisition by the Catholic Church. Complaints would be brought to the inquisitors and they would interrogate and come to a conclusion whether an event had a natural cause. Anything they couldn’t explain was deemed supernatural. This had negative connotations obviously, because anything not natural should be under the purview of the church and so it was condemned as magic. But they also had another term—preternatural. That’s what we might call today as uncanny. That’s an area that interests me more and more. If you read writers who are documenting our world today, you will note that we are within that field of the uncanny. You can see the weird spins people put on events, the strange logic they employ, and you also see it in natural phenomena. One example I have cited several times is the scene in the book set in a Los Angeles museum as wildfire is advancing towards it. That actually happened last year during the California Fires but I had already written the scene long before. It’s eerie because fact outpaces fiction and we no longer know which is which.
That feeling of being untethered to reality is something you evoke in the novel especially through the idea of coincidence. Does fiction have a greater ability to connect events that seem disparate and give us a better perception of our place in a certain sense of reality?
Last night, during our talk, T.M. Krishna said something very perceptive. What the book is really about is a sense of connection. That everything is connected and there are no disconnections. I was so struck by that. In a sense, that’s the opposite of a modernist lens of looking at the world where everything is discontinuous and one element happens to have a relation with another only in the realm of probability. I think the only way we can make sense of our world today is by realising that everything is connected. These intricate linkages exist on multiple levels. We don’t consume without creating waste, for example but we are rarely curious about where our waste goes till it comes back to haunt us. The Chennai floods are one such example.
Deen’s childhood tales of Manasa Devi re-emerge in his life because of his turbulent personal life. He notes that her folklore seems to have periodic revivals during times of historical upheaval and disruption. We ourselves exist during what could be called a tumultuous period of history. Is folklore one of the modes through which we can make sense of our reality?
It’s certainly not coincidental. What modernity calls folklore is actually a form of devotional literature. Calling it folklore was a way of suppressing it. If you look at the dominant genres of storytelling in the world today, so much of it has to do with superheroes. People have an endless appetite for men in capes. These superhero movies are not very different from our mythical tales, except that they have a technological armouring. The actual mechanics of the stories are completely folkloristic. Also, look at the great interest in vampires and zombies. It feels like all the biggest smash hits are about superheroes, vampires, and zombies. We are seeing the return of the repressed, if you’d like. It corresponds to extreme anxieties among people at large, especially among the young.
In the book, Tipu asks Deen about the word bhuta, which Deen notes means a being existing in the present or past, in effect a spectre that haunts both the past and present. What does that word mean with regards to the ways in which we tend to favour narratives of acceleration and live through periods of history?
This Sanskrit word bhu is a very intriguing and shrouded in mystery. It means to manifest. We say of Lord Shiva, swayambhu. He manifests himself. Bhutakal means past tense and we use it all the time. If you look at the sense of being in the context of Heideggerian philosophy, it seems to mirror the connotations of bhu. Bhut in our daily usage refers to a ghost, a manifested presence from the past but it also refers to time in a way that’s very different from our modern notions of a linear sense of progression. As Tipu says in the book, how can it be said of something that it existed and is existing? What the word talks about is the sense of kaal, not forward progression but a cyclical one. In Bengali, when you say kaal, you have to qualify if it is yesterday or tomorrow. What these words are essentially pointing to is a different idea of temporality. The idea of being inside history has come to the fore in recent years. There are virtual realities in museums that allow you to relive a moment in the past. We are in a strange sort of moment at this point of time.
In your influential 1995 essay in The New Yorker, The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi, you spoke about this juxtaposition between being a writer and being a citizen. How do you manage to bridge that gap, especially as a transnational citizen? Will climate change continue to be the primary mode through which you dissect our world?
That essay was one of the first discursive ones written about the 1984 Sikh riots. If you remember in the essay, I’m interrogating Naipaul’s idea of the difference between the writer and the citizen where a writer is a dispassionate onlooker and the citizen is the engaged subject. I say that’s not the only way of inhabiting the world as a writer. For me, the reality of climate change, once you start informing yourself about it, is so overwhelming and present that it can’t be put out of your head. It will weigh on everything I write but I will approach it in different ways. I will certainly return to it.