I seek the truth wherever it lies.
Yes, the acclaimed Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh has turned his hand to ‘cli-fi’ in his sprawling 300-page ‘Gun Island’.
The reviews are already coming in and Dr. Ghosh’s new novel, his first in four years, is making waves worldwide.
“This tangled tale takes in the refugee crisis and climate change,” says book reviewer Ms. Siobhan Murphy in the Times of London, adding: “After his epic Ibis trilogy, a rip-roaring, hugely detailed imagining of the Opium Wars …Ghosh turns his hand to cli–fi — climate fiction.”
”Gun Island” blends Bengali folklore with historical and present-day storytelling about “bundooki sadagur” (the gun merchant). It’s a long, sprawling novel that features locations around the world, and faces up to the themes of climate change and climate refugees.
Standing on stage during a recent promotional event in London, Ghosh, born in 1956 but looking half his age and with an engaging, broad smile and a handsome shock of shiny white hair, gave a brief reading from the beginning pages of the novel, and the 5-minute reading turned out to be a stellar performance by the gifted orator and storyteller. I could have listened to the entire novel spoken out loud by the author, just to hear his wondrous voice and watch his animated face as he tells the tale. If there is to be an audio-book of the novel featuring the author’s own magical storytelling voice, sign me up!
“The strangest thing about this strange journey was that it was launched by a word coinage which was in wide circulation from Cairo to Calcutta,” Ghosh read from the first part of the novel during his stage reading in London. “That word is ‘bundook’ which means ”gun” in many languages, including my own mother tongue, Bengali, Bangla. Nor is the word a stranger to English and by way of British colonial use of the word, ”bundook” found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary where it was glossed as rifle.”
”But there was no rifle or gun on the day this journey began, nor indeed was the word intended to refer to a weapon, and that precisely is why it caught my attention. Because the word in Bengali — “bundooki sadagur” — could be translated as ”The Gun Merchant.”
”The Gun Merchant entered my life not in Brooklyn where I live and work, but in the city in which I was born and raised, Calcutta.”
”That year, as in many others, I was in Calcutta for much of the winter months for my business. My work as a dealer in rare books and Asian antiquities required me to do a lot of on-site scouting, and since I happened to have a small apartment in Calcutta, the city became a second place for scouting operations for me.
”The day of my return to Brooklyn was almost at hand when I went to the last of my social engagements of the season — the wedding reception of a cousin’s daughter. I had just entered the venue, a stuffy colonial-era club, when I was accosted by a distant relative named Kanai Datta.
“I had not seen Kanai in many years, which was not entirely a matter of regret for me, as he had always been a glib, precocious know-it-all who used his quick tongue and good looks to charm women and get ahead in the world.
”Tell me, Deeno,” he said, “is it true that you hold yourself up as an expert in Bengali folklore?” (His almost audible sneer rattled me.)
“Well,” I sputtered, “I did some research on that kind of thing a long time ago, but I gave it up when I left academia and became a book dealer.”
“But you did get a PhD, did you not?” he said, with barely-concealed derision, “so you are technically an expert.”
“I am not an expert…” I started to say but he cut me short.
“So tell me, Mr. Expert,” he said, “have you heard of a figure called ‘The Gun Merchant’?”
”He had clearly been intending to surprise me, and he succeeded. The name, ‘The Gun Merchant,’ was so new to me that I was tempted to think that Kanai had made it up….”
When a reporter earlier in the year asked Ghosh what kind of research he put into ”Gun Island,” Ghosh replied:
”I did my usual kind of research, I have an obsession with words, so that played a huge part of ‘Gun Island.’ There is also the sort of research that went into ‘The Great Derangement’ but the key to the mystery is Gun Island itself, which I can’t give away to you and you will have to read the book.”
”Bengali legend blends with contemporary adventure in a novel finding new ways to write about migration and climate breakdown,” is how Ms. Alex Clark, writing in the UK Guardian newspaper characterized the novel in her thumbs up review.
She added: ”’Gun Island’ brims with implausibility; outlandish coincidences and chance meetings blend with ancient myth and folklore, tales of heroism and the supernatural set in a contemporary world disrupted by the constant migrations of humans and animals.”
The novel is playful, Clark says, noting: “The book is keen to play with its own ridiculousness; as Deen and the professor slowly disinter the likely origins of the novel’s founding myth, their grandiose speculations often call to mind the satirical portrayal of the academic world that one might find in a David Lodge novel. Turn the page, though, and a king cobra is about to strike, or a block of masonry to fall from a building and narrowly miss one or other of our principals.”
”Amid the freak cyclones and oxygen-starved waters comes the story — or stories — of migration across the ages; tales of escapology, of deprivation and persecution, of impossible yearnings for a new world that bring us, inexorably, to the terrified refugees on the Mediterranean. Which is, perhaps, Ghosh’s essential point; a shaggy dog story can take a very roundabout path towards reality, but it will get there in the end. It has to, or we’re all doomed.”
Doomed, schmoomed. Nobody knows what the future holds, but climate change is real, and in this new novel, as Siobhan Murphy said in her review noted above, this time Dr. Ghosh turns his hand to cli–fi and it makes a new chapter in his work.
A friend of this blogger, a native of India who speaks and writes Bengali and now lives in New Zealand where he is a university professor, tells me: “So is Dr. Ghosh is writing about ‘Chand Sadagar’? Because in Bengali folklore, Chand Sadagar was the only merchant who picked up a conflict with the snake God and lost his son to the wrath of the Snake Goddess Manasa. Anyway, I can’t wait to read the book.”