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Book Review

Gun island by Amitava Ghosh

Monday 7 October 2019, by Shireen Mehdi

I will begin by confessing that Amitava Ghosh has been one of my favourite authors from the time I read his book ‘In An Antique Land’.

That book left me mesmerized. I too am a student of sociology and social anthropology. This sociological / historical story is told around the ancient trade routes and societies of Aden in Yemen, Egypt and India and the changes brought by ‘modern’ technology and weapons of the western societies which, with its use of brute power, transformed these societies for ever.

Gun Island, which has come many years after ‘In An Antique Land’, still reminded me of it.

It also took me to a not too distant program I attended in Toronto, organized by members of The Green New Deal. The advocates and campaigners for ‘the new green deal’, had, amongst many others invited Naomi Klein as their key speaker. The emphasis of all the speakers was on how the climate catastrophe that is threatening the planet today cannot and should not be understood and therefore tackled as a separate/ independent issue. It is intricately linked to the economic and social inequalities. Issues of race, poverty, health, refugees and internal displacement all has to be dealt with while talking of climate change.

As Klein puts it “having a habitable Earth is not a “single issue”; it is the single precondition for every other issue’s existence. Humbling as it may be, our shared climate is the frame inside which all of our lives, causes, and struggles unfold”.

A 17 years old climate justice organizer Xiye Bastida tweeted; The climate crisis “encompasses economic, health, ecological, racial, labor, energy, GENERATIONAL, and many more issues. “

It’s only “single issue” if you allow it to be.

The displacement and eviction of indigenous societies, be it in Canada or India as a result of land grabs, deforestation, mining, has had devastating effect on the ecology and environment of those places. Ecological justice is closely linked to economic, social and political injustices. And our planet bears the brunt of it just as our animal and human societies.

Gun island took me on a tour around the world on the back of a folktale of Bengal and showed me once again the relationship between just these issues. The recent mass migrations of people to Europe and America. Climate refugees; war refugees; political refugees; the seas and the land, animals and humans; countries, cultures and societies connected to each other through all this.

It is a story that moves through many worlds: animal, human, ancient and modern, superstition and science.

The myth/ folklore of Manasa Devi is a tale that has been part of the Bengal folklore for ages. Deen, (Dinanath), a seller of rare antique books lives in Brooklyn but visits his home city, Calcutta, every year. He is drawn into the tale when a friend asks him to visit a shrine in the Sundarbans. The shrine or dhaam in Bengali, has been built for the Goddess Manasa by the Gun merchant or the bonduki saudagar.

From there on Ghosh leads you through a riveting tale which questions your faith in objectivity and rationality. Touches on the almost inexplicable existence of the supernatural. Questions assumptions based on language and translation. Cuts across historical and geographical boundaries. It is a tale that sees animals, humans and nature as essentially and deeply connected and equally important to each other.

It travels through the muddy and unpredictable rivers of Bengal. The mangroves and the retreating islands of the Sunderbans. Fertile land being destroyed and submerged by environmental calamities. It travels from Bengal, via Brooklyn and the fires of Los Angeles in America to Venice, a city built on water, and through an amazingly powerful climax connects historical, geographical and scientific events to the sublime.

We travel with Deen and follow the tale along with some other characters, too far apart and yet interestingly linked to each other through events beyond their control.

During the journey to the shrine itself he learns about the devastation caused by the cyclones, especially ‘Alia’ which destroyed and submerged a huge number of islands. “Hundreds of miles of embankment had been swept away and the sea had invaded places where it had never entered before; vast tracts of once fertile land had been swamped by salt water, rendering them uncultivable for a generation”.

The shrine itself is initially difficult to locate because of the swiftly disappearing islands. By the end of the book we learn that the shrine and the island on which it was built have both disappeared.

From the very beginning you meet characters in an almost fluid situation, constantly moving like the landscapes and embodying many different places, systems of knowledge and beliefs within themselves, clashing with and at the same time complementing one another.

Deen is accompanied by Tipu, on the journey to the shrine.

Tips is rude and cocky. He teases Deen. He travels easily between India and Bangladesh through the fluid borders. He trades in human trafficking.

“a creature of an altogether different kind; he had the probing eyes and darting movements of a hungry barracuda. He even glinted, barracuda-like, because of a silver ear stud and glittering highlights in his hair, which was spiky on top and flat at the sides. As for his clothes–a Nets T-shirt and baggy jeans that kept slipping down to expose his bright red boxers–they would not have looked out of place in Brooklyn”.

Yet Tipu’s life changes once again in a dramatic set of events that follow Deen’s visit to the shrine. Most importantly it links him to Rafi.

Rafi is the grandson of the Muslim man who had once looked after the shrine. “When asked if it was strange for him, as a Muslim, to be looking after a shrine that was associated with a Hindu goddess. The boatman had answered that the dhaam was revered by all, irrespective of religion “.

Rafi is first seen as a native of the forests. He leads Deen through the friezes that decorated the façade of the shrine, explaining some pictures and symbols but unable to remember the others, from the stories told by his grandfather, the Muslim man looking after the shrine.

“He (Rafi), looked to be in his late teens, with a lightly feathered upper lip and long, supple limbs. With his mop of unkempt hair and glistening, watchful eyes, he was at once feral and delicately graceful, like some wild, wary creature that could at any moment take flight.”

Through an interesting series of events we find him in Venice towards the end of the book, one of the many Bengali refugees working as unskilled labour.

Piya and Cinta, two women who are central to Deen’s interest in the story and lead and help him to discover and follow the folklore, meet only towards the end of the story.

Piya, an intense marine biologist lives between Oregon, America and Bengal, India. She runs the Badoban Trust set up to help victims of the cyclones that destroy lives and livelihoods. She takes on the powerful refinery which is destroying the ocean and the habitat of the famous Irrawaddy whales. And in doing so Piya puts her life in danger.

Piya doesn’t believe or indulge in supernatural or superstitious happenings. Even when she sees and hears things inexplainable by science. For example, when Tipu, in the throes of his poison infected delirium warns her about the distress of ‘Rani’ the whale and the terrible beaching of the whole cohort, Piya refuses to believe him.

Cinta, an Italian professor on the other hand, “Both glamorous and brilliant, a well-regarded historian who had published an authoritative study of the Inquisition in Venice”. Cinta, however has a strong belief in the supernatural. She in a way is the one who pushes and helps Deen to look at the myth, without the arrogance and prejudice he initially shows.

The myth leads Deen to Venice, where he finally unlocks the mystery of one of the symbols on the frieze of the shrine, and the ordeals of his merchant.

“the Ghetto of Venice really is an island within an island, surrounded by water on all sides”. This is the place where we find thousands of years of history connecting with the modern.

Venice is the city that leads Deen in an interesting climax to finally connect the dots of the folktale.

In an amazingly beautiful climax Ghosh brings all the main characters together.

A Blue boat, carrying refugees, reminding Cinta of a Turner painting of a slave ship.

The massive right wing, anti-immigrants protest against the refugees

‘Go back where you came from . . .! Not needed here . . .! Europe for Europeans!’ Historical injustices.

And a miracle.

“And then there they were, millions of birds, circling above us, while below, in the waters around the Blue Boat, schools of dolphins somersaulted and whales slapped their tails on the waves.

‘She must be the Ethiopian,’ said Rafi, ‘the one who called Tipu to Egypt.’ The woman lifted her arms now, raising them until they were level with her shoulders, palms facing upwards. And almost instantly a funnel-like extrusion appeared in the storm that was spinning above us. It began to extend downwards, forming a whirling halo above her head. She stood absolutely still for what was perhaps only a moment, with a halo of birds spinning above her, while down in the water a chakra of dolphins and whales whirled around the boat. And then an even

stranger thing happened: the colour of the water around the refugee boat began to change. In a few moments it was filled with a glow, of an unearthly green colour, bright enough that we could see the outlines of the dolphins and whales that were undulating through the water. ‘Bioluminescence!’ cried Piya. ‘I don’t believe it!”

The refugees are rescued and brought to shelter and we hear at the end the Admiral give his reason for disobeying state orders:

‘but I would like to set the record straight. What the minister has said, in public, was that only in the event of a miracle would these refugees be allowed into Italy.’ There was a pause.

‘And I believe that what we witnessed today was indeed a miracle.’

And so Ghosh ends the story. Miracles and myths and the strong dependence of all forces of the planet on one another.