Amitav Ghosh through unquiet lands

Rihan Najib | Updated on June 21, 2019 Published on June 21, 2019

Seeking refuge: Ghosh visited several refugee camps in Italy, speaking to those who had made the perilous voyage from strife-ridden homelands to an equally uncertain future   -  ISTOCK.COM

The Jnanpith awardee on his latest novel Gun Island, a sweeping literary mystery that dwells on the anxieties of climate change, migration and displacement

What would future generations, presumably steeped in severe climatic disturbances, make of the ever-amnesiac Indian news cycle with its cursory nods to lethal heat waves, delayed monsoons and unseasonal cyclones? Acclaimed author Amitav Ghosh looks both concerned and baffled about the situation.

“It’s really strange, every day I open the papers here, it just seems to me that people are living in some kind of fantastical universe,” he says as he discusses the gulf between widespread environmental depredation and national priorities. “The instruments that are presented to us in the guise of reason are, in fact, the greatest instruments of unreason.”

A few days before this conversation, Delhi witnessed its hottest day ever at 48 degrees Celsius.

Amitav Ghosh   -  IVO VAN DER BENT


Ghosh (62) wasn’t spared. He was in the capital to receive the Jnanpith Award, the first first Indian writer in English and the youngest author to be honoured with the coveted prize.

Coinciding with it is the release of his tenth and latest novel, Gun Island, coming three years after his last book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.

Speaking to BLink at Delhi’s Taj Man Singh hotel, Ghosh is warm and affable, regarding each question with a scholarly patience, but careful to diffuse undue seriousness with a disarming laugh. His shock of white hair stands out in sharp contrast to his dark-hued shirt and trousers. He also sports a neat van Dyke beard, which he strokes distractedly.

“The concerns of The Great Derangement are very pressing. You can’t escape them. So they found their way into Gun Island as well,” the Brooklyn-based author says. “But Gun Island has all my obsessions — etymology, migration, myth and so on.”

As dedicated readers of his Ibis trilogy — set in the 19th-century opium trade — will attest, Ghosh takes the long view of history, painstakingly tracing the movements of people and languages.

Gun Island Amitav Ghosh Penguin Random House Fiction ₹699


In Gun Island, climate change is both plot and protagonist. The novel opens with an etymological mystery which unfolds with dizzying intensity across the Sundarbans, Los Angeles and Venice, covering issues of contemporary significance such as the refugee crisis, wildfires and wetland destruction. It also brings back characters such as the Irawaddy dolphins, the marine biologist Piyali Roy and social activist Nilima Bose, among others, from his 2004 novel The Hungry Tide.

“For several years, I have been reading pre-modern Bengali literature and that played an important part in the evolution of Gun Island because, you know, in writing The Great Derangement, I felt that if we are going to find a narrative vocabulary for our times, it’s useless to look at modern literature. It’s built upon certain kinds of certainties and presumptions, so we have to look elsewhere,” he says.

What he finds most striking about pre-modern literature is how it allows for the possibility of non-human agency — that other creatures and forms of being can have existence, voice, will. “And if you think about it, this possibility exists only in stories,” he says.

“This is the central problem for our age, from a literary point of view. We had decided that only humans had agency and now we’re realising that’s not the case at all. The Earth has agency, and the Earth is hitting back at us very, very hard.”

He smiles in resignation as he says, “We are discovering the supreme indifference of the Earth to our lives. If you read pre-modern texts, you see that they are much wiser.”

In the novel, a key character poses a provocative thought. If the celebrated Venetian travellers — the Polos, Niccolo de Conti, Ambrosio Bembo — were to come back to present-day Venice, who would they have more in common with? “Us 21st-century Italians, who rely on immigrants to do all our dirty work? The tourists, who come in luxury liners and aeroplanes?” she asks. “Or these ragazzi migranti [migrant boys], who take their lives in their hands to cross the seas”, like the travellers themselves had.

Ghosh is himself widely travelled, so much so that former diplomat and author Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who presented him with the Jnanpith, described him as a “sailor among novelists”. A world with smudged borders and shifting identities is of particular interest to him. While researching the book, Ghosh visited various refugee camps in Italy, speaking to those who had made the perilous voyage from strife-ridden homelands to an equally uncertain future.

What stunned him was that, despite the media portraying the refugee crisis as one of West Asian or African origin, the second highest population arriving on Sicilian shores were Bangladeshis.

“I spent a lot of time talking to them and most of them are just kids. [Trafficking] is the biggest clandestine industry. It’s overtaken drugs,” he says.

In the novel, the protagonist finds himself both disoriented and delighted by the possibility of being able to speak the Madaripur dialect of Bangla in Venice, since all the vendors, shopkeepers and handymen were Bangladeshi immigrants.

“Of all the gifts that Bangla had given me, this was by far the most unexpected: That it would help me find a context for myself in this unlikeliest of cities,” the character muses.

As the interview winds up, Ghosh pulls out his phone to show a picture of the Venetian lagoons that he had taken from a plane. The lagoons could be easily mistaken for the Sundarbans. The scene finds mention in the book as well, bringing home deeper, older connections between the Earth and its myths, and the fragile fates of all who inhabit it.

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Published on June 21, 2019
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