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Song of the forest

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh | Updated on March 09, 2021

Reigning deity: Shrines for Bon Bibi continue to crop up in different parts of West Bengal   -  WIKIPEDIA

Amitav Ghosh adapts a legendary tale into a prescient warning in verse for the modern world

* The legend of Bon Bibi is deeply etched into the consciousness of the people of the Sundarban region

* Using a meter similar to the one in which the original legend was told — the dwipodi-poyar — Ghosh recreates the story in his own inimitable way

* Ghosh has talked ever so forcefully about the need of the creative arts to engage with the climate crisis

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“These islands are my kingdom, I am Dokkhin Rai;

I am the one who rules under this southern sky.

You’ve come here like dacoits, without asking my leave;

you can’t fool me, I know you’ve come to steal and thieve.”

Jungle nama

Dokkhin Rai, the shape-shifter and mighty spirit who roamed the land in the guise of a tiger, roared to the avaricious merchant Dhona, who had dared to enter the tideland forests to exploit them. Dokkhin Rai once roamed unfettered, till the Lady of the Forest — Bon Bibi — and her brother Shah Jongoli, defeated him and placed boundaries on where he could go. The balance stayed as long as humans paid heed to the restrictions. But greed is a part of human nature, and when Dhona decided to plunder the forests for honey and wax, he stepped into Dokkhin Rai’s lair. He could emerge from it only after striking a tough bargain.

The legend of Bon Bibi is deeply etched into the consciousness of the people of the Sundarban region in West Bengal. Here, where ocean meets river, where land meets water, where a majestic beast such as the tiger has evolved to be able to hunt silently in the waters, and where crocodiles lie in wait — still as a rock, it is all the more important to know where one can tread and where one cannot, which spirits to rely on and which to steer clear of. The legend lives on in written and oral forms; it is performed by jatra troupes, while shrines to Bon Bibi crop up all the time.

Jungle nama / Amitav Ghosh / Fourth Estate / Fiction / ₹699

 

The story of how Dhona barters the life of a young boy, Dukhey, with Dokkhin Rai, and how Dukhey learns the art of invoking Bon Bibi to return to his old mother has been told and retold over the years. It appeared in Amitav Ghosh’s earlier novel The Hungry Tide. It does so again in Ghosh’s latest —Jungle nama — a slim and beautiful book. Artist Salman Toor adds to its luminance with his illustrations.

Using a meter similar to the one in which the original legend was told — the dwipodi-poyar — Ghosh recreates the story in his own inimitable way. Words, and how they sound, hold a special magic in the story; in Ghosh’s rendition of the Bon Bibi tale, one comes across unusual and unexpected words, ‘alliballie’ and ‘dosootie’ for instance, all of which are listed in the extended Oxford English Dictionary, he assures readers in the Afterword.

In Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy ‘lascars’ — sailors from Asia and Arabia who worked on European ships — played a prominent part. Their language, a wonderful mix of words from their native lands and that of the high seas, formed a trope. In Jungle nama, too, though told in English, one can hear the echoes of other languages and cadences.

Since The Great Derangement, Ghosh’s previous non-fiction book on climate change, he has talked ever so forcefully about the need of the creative arts to engage with the climate crisis and man-made destruction of the planet. His last novel, Gun Island, which again had roots in the Sundarbans, spoke urgently and deeply about the crisis and its devastating consequences on all forms of life. The same thoughts recur in Jungle nama, but in a more oblique form. The legend addresses the issue of human greed, of respecting the boundaries nature has set, and the consequences of overstepping and overreaching. In Ghosh’s version, Dhona argues for the human need to expand, to explore. But his story is testament that all it takes is a tiny step for exploration to turn into exploitation. Once set in motion, it is difficult to rein in the innate human need to extract as much as possible from the environment without a thought for the future.

In his Afterword, Ghosh touches upon what could be perceived as the apparent simplicity of such myths and legends. Once upon a time, these would be considered children’s fare, he says. As would be a book illuminated with artwork as this. But it is these innately simple stories, Ghosh asserts, that need to be told and understood in today’s world. Creating a book like the Jungle nama, one that appeals to the old and the young alike, is a feat not many writers are capable of.

For me personally, the baby steps towards understanding nature began with the works of Buddhadev Guha and Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay — not from their immense oeuvre of writing for adults and for which they are justly famous, but through their works for children and young adults. The legend of Bon Bibi stuck in my head as a 10-year-old living in far-off Delhi, and I devoured Guha’s adventure novel Bon Bibir Boney. The novels Aam Antir Bhepu and Chander Pahar brought alive unknown landscapes for me way before I learned of the magic Bandopadhyay wove in Pather Panchali and Aranyak.

With his gift for storytelling, felicity with words, and that particular ability for making distant worlds come alive with immediacy, Ghosh can be placed among these greats for telling a story that works for people of all ages. After all, now more than ever, we know that it is the young who have better understood the spectre of the climate crisis, and they are the ones determined to find a way out of the mess created by earlier generations. In the literature that is being created for them, Jungle nama can well hold pride of place.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor

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Published on March 09, 2021
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