Let’s get it straight: A blind review of Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island would have ensured that the book never sees the light of the day in its present form. I took three uninterrupted hours to finish it. No, it’s not because I could not put it away. Au contraire, the book couldn’t finish sooner. Disappointment with a favourite writer leaves a metallic taste in your mouth and the earlier you rinse it, the better it is. Pity, that Ghosh—a storyteller par excellence—made a Faustian pact with activism and lost the soul of his story.
Gun Island: The Plot and the Promise
I read Ghosh’s non-fiction The Great Derangement with great relish and admired his commitment to bringing environmental concerns to the fore. Before he announced it, almost all of his fans had an inkling that his next fiction would have environment as the mantelpiece. And Ghosh delivered. Gun Island is a tale of precariously balanced ecologies, endangered species in different biomes, and a clash between the forces of development and nature.
It would have worked but for Ghosh’s own lack of conviction in his story that flits between folklore and its annotations. The novel is a parable almost too painstakingly expostulated.
Ghosh of the past is nowhere present in Gun Island, unlike his folklore protagonist ‘Bonduki Sadagar,’ who leaps at the reader from almost every page. Sometimes, it’s not a welcome arrival.
The narrative follows the chronological journey—a significant stylistic departure for Ghosh—of Dinanath Dutta’s search for meaning in a folklore from the Sunderbans. Bonduki Sadagar is tormented by the goddess Manasa Devi, who chases him around the world. Only after he sheds his hubris and promises to build a shrine for her does the goddess leave him alone.
Dinanath, or Deen/Dino, is taunted by his annoying relative Kanai Dutt for his ignorance of the folklore despite having obtained a PhD on the subject. Kanai is a character Ghosh resurrects from The Hungry Tide, as is Piyali Roy-the marine biologist.
Through the folklore set in the historical ‘Little Ice Age’ and its parallels in Deen’s life, Ghosh has attempted to draw attention towards climate crisis that is staring us all in the face.
Ghosh’s Big Dilemma
The novel begins with a promise and the reader expects Ghosh’s love for history and his remarkable storytelling to treat her with an engrossing tale. Instead, she soon descends into a series of cliches, archetypes, and—worse—entirely flat characters. Cinta, for example, is the goddess figure, whose own story is but a footnote. Piya, sadly, doesn’t get even that.
Deen’s journey to the Sunderban shrine to Manasa Devi sets the ball rolling for events that take place in three continents. The interconnectedness of events—something Ghosh specialises in—sadly appears laboured. So does the modern reenactment of Bonduki Sadagar’s journey.
The problem, as I suggest earlier, is perhaps Ghosh’s dilemma: should he take an unapologetic plunge into the realm of the magical or should he stay within the rationalist limits of storytelling?
While we have precognition and “presences” on one hand, there is a compelling need to explain everything on the other.
The magical and the fantastical of the folklore becomes geo-political and ecological in the main plot. The drama in the former, however, appears less believable and relatable than the folklore. And that’s a real tragedy because the quality of Ghosh’s fiction writing is almost as magical as the folklores that percolate through generations.
Who, after all, can forget Thamma and her confusion about “coming” and “going” from The Shadow Lines?
Ghosh’s depiction of modern day migration in Gun Island fails to generate empathy for the poor immigrants, Bangladeshis in this case, because his focus is somewhere else. The stories of Rafi, Tipu, Bilal, and Palash get subsumed by the overarching, almost naggingly preachy climate calamity narrative. Tipu’s story is the biggest casualty of them all. He navigates the psychic and the technological worlds with equal ease, or difficulty. His story deserves more lyricism than it is afforded by Ghosh.
An Aside On India’s Slave Trade
What works beautifully in this novel, however, is Ghosh’s scattered notes on the subcontinent’s history of slave trade. Bonduki Sadagar’s journey to the ‘Gun Island’ happens because of the thriving slave trade in the seventeenth century India. While talking about the present day immigrants from Bangladesh, Ghosh looks back at what is perhaps the most neatly hidden aspect of the Indian history.
The mentions of thriving slave bazaars of Delhi or the slave market in Goa are not so easily found beyond specific historical discourses. They are usually not perceived with the same horror and awe that is reserved for their African and West Asian counterparts. There has been, technically speaking, no slave uprising in India.
Towards the end of the novel, it strikes Deen that the modern day immigrants were not very different from the indentured workers from the Indian subcontinent. The Blue Boat of Gun Island reminds him of the British artist JMW Turner’s famous painting ‘The Slave Ship’—first exhibited in 1840.
Ghosh allows his narrator to reflect on the history of human trafficking in South Asia at length.
Deen notes that the reason the West was wary of the immigrants now was owing to the fact that the European powers had no control over this process. The coolie of yore was the master of his own destiny today—however fraught with dangers it be.
This rumination, however, is marred by the magic-which-can-be-explained flavoured denouement. Ghosh could have put his yellow-bellied snakes, king cobras, venomous spiders and ship worms to a better use than this tale of quarter convictions.