Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, a gripping literary and environmental thriller

Why do I love the work of Amitav Ghosh? Why have I always loved his work? Because when I first read his book In An Antique Land, I discovered what was possible in writing stories about the South Asian subcontinent, that antique yet living land. I learned that it was possible to write about India and its neighbors without writing in the style of epic magic realism, or poverty and gender oppression critique, or bleeding political satire (though all are highly estimable and powerful styles, of course). I discovered that it was possible to write about India as a place with history, not of timelessness. Because un-ascribing history to a world is the worst of what colonial and orientalist domination does to places like India and other postcolonial countries, Africa included. They take away a land’s history, which in the western mind is tantamount to its people being barbaric, even subhuman. That, among other reasons, is why I was blown away when I first read Ghosh, and why I’m getting blown away again by Gun Island.

One reason I blog is to suggest good books. I think Ghosh’s Gun Island is one of the best. It would be impossible to go into Ghosh’s layers and layers of erudition and uncovering of the complex connections between seemingly unrelated things (and this without resorting to postmodernism) without writing several books. But if I had to zero in on two things that make this novel inimitable, like most of Ghosh’s other novels, they would be the following.

First, it would be the idea of history as a haunting. Ghosh is a historian’s novelist, thrilling and stunning us not with linguistic flourishes but with discovering how language is the flourish that gives meaning to our lives. In other words, we are the stories we tell. And what this has to do with Ghosh’s longstanding concern with the environment and ecology is the core credo of this novel: Pay attention to climate and Nature because it might not be the first time that we humans are being warned about dangers lurking beneath the seemingly normal. Thus, a character in the novel, a historian of ideas, descants about the “Little Ice Age” of the seventeenth century when cataclysmic global events occurred — storms, fire, droughts, famines, disease, mass migrations — leading many a thinker and writer to speculate on whether the Earth, Mother Nature, was speaking to humans. And Ghosh leads us gently to the realization that indeed nature does speak to humans, and it is often in the language that we call myth. Without spoiling it, I urge reading Gun Island to realize that language and myth — often as folk tales and traditions — are shared inheritances of Humanity and the Natural World. In sum, what “the Little Ice Age” once suggested may be materializing in unimaginably larger ways in our own age.

The second, and related, key idea is that repetitions speak in the voices of our ghosts, be they ancestors or supernatural beings. And ghosts and supernatural beings repeat because they are failing to get our attention. Remember Hamlet’s ‘Ghost’? His father? The one who says “Remember!” Again and again? Why? So Hamlet won’t forget. It’s so easy to do. And what about us, readers of Gun Island? why should we pay attention when — like Hamlet’s dead father, ghosts and the supernatural (including the divine, like Bengal’s Manasa Devi or the Snake Goddess as in the novel) — keep showing up in our daily business-as-usual oblivion and unfilial unconcern for Nature? Because we forget, and because we do so at our peril.

As Ghosh’s charismatic Italian historian Cinta says to his protagonist Deen in Gun Island, “In the seventeenth century [the century of ‘the Little Ice Age,’ recall?] no one would ever have said of something that it was ‘just a story’ as we moderns do. At that time people were able to recognize that stories could tap into dimensions that were beyond the ordinary, beyond the human even. . . . It is only through stories that the Universe can speak to us, and if we don’t learn to listen. . . .”

What then?

If the Universe is full of stories and we don’t learn to listen, then Ma Manasa and radiant and vibrant matter (the things we’ve always called gods, parents) are speaking to us in vain. Deen thinks, “How can a translator do her job if one side chooses to ignore her?” And this is what I mean by the comment that repetitions speak in supra-human voices. To us, humans. Environmental catastrophe is a message in a bottle. It’s history repeating, but each time more feebly. When sea creatures are beaching and dying, species and humans are becoming refugees, forests are burning, storms are destroying, oceans are rising, crops are failing and strange viruses are prowling, it could be because humans are still not listening to ancestors.

One Planet. Only One.

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