Amitav Ghosh: Gun Island is about the uncanny connections around the world

While Raghu Karnad suggested Amitav Ghosh’s new book ‘Gun Island’ could be the fictional sequel to the non-fictional ‘The Great Derangement’, which looked at climate change, Ghosh didn’t seem to agree

Journalist and author Raghu Karnad in conversation with author Amitav Ghosh at the release of his new book ‘Gun Island’
Journalist and author Raghu Karnad in conversation with author Amitav Ghosh at the release of his new book ‘Gun Island’

NH Features

What is it about author Amitav Ghosh’s writings that draws many to it? Is the constant dislocation, the theme of finding meanings in uncanny events around us or is it the quest for an identity or is it the search for a home as a metaphor for a space that brings us some semblance of peace?

Calling Amitav Ghosh the chronicler of life of this planet, journalist and author Raghu Karnad posits, “Place is such an important element in Amitav’s books. There are forces which completely disregard the idea of national boundaries how much ever we might want to cling to that idea.” Karnad was speaking at the at the launch of Amitav Ghosh’s "Gun Island" on Thursday at India Habitat Centre in the Capital.

In his latest novel ‘Gun Island’ which was released on Thursday at India Habitat Centre, Ghosh narrates the life of a Brooklyn-based Bengali book dealer who hears a folklore of a gun merchant and the goddess of snakes, Manasa Devi. His travels to unravel the folklore first takes him to Sunderbans, and then all around the world, including Venice.

“When I was in Venice, what took me aback was everywhere I looked, I could just hear Bengali. Then I discovered that the entire working class of Venice is Bengali. And not only was it Bangla, it was a specific kind of Bangla – it was Bangla from the environs of Dhaka and I used to speak that dialect with my grandparents. It made me think of connections around the world,” contended Ghosh.

“My life is intimately tied up with my passports, visas and these things cause me incredible anxiety. But the migrants, before they set out, they throw away their passports. They go boundary after boundary and the cheapest route for them now is to get into a bus in Bangladesh, go straight across India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, then across the Mediterranean and then into Europe. What makes it work is that now, this is an industry worth thousands of billions of dollars. So, everywhere you go, you can pay people off. It’s not only in poor countries; this corruption goes into the heart of Europe as well. The mafia is also heavily involved in trafficking people. So, criminal organisations across the world have made these possible. This vast enterprise is beyond the power of governments,” says Ghosh, who was recently awarded the Jnanpith Award.

“The governments try to control how money and capital moves across the world and try to stop people from moving across the world. But, there are other forces of globalisation that have other plans,” pointed out Karnad, who was back in the Capital after the loss of his father Girish Karnad.

While Karnad suggested that Ghosh’s new book ‘Gun Island’ could be the fictional sequel to the non-fictional ‘The Great Derangement’, which looked at climate change, Ghosh didn’t seem to agree. However, neither Karnad nor Ghosh chose to dwell much on either climate change or migration or our collective failures in suppressing voices of animals and the environment around us.

In ‘The Great Derangement’, Ghosh has said humans could be deranged or at least the future generations would think so, otherwise what else could explain our failure in tackling global warming. Ghosh asks in the book, why there haven’t been many fictional books on climate change.

“What is life? How do we turn away from this interiority? It is also important to realise that this complete focus on interiority has happened to us fairly recently – in the last 30 years. It’s exactly the time when greenhouse gas emission started to go up,” highlights Ghosh.

“The question really is not whether we have given voices to animals and other living beings, but how did we come to suppress them, especially in the context on rationality. It is the certainties that have brought to where we are. Do you think if we knew everything, we would be at this juncture?” asked Ghosh.

"In this book I am dealing with the violence of a completely different kind, which another thinker calls ‘slow violence’, because that's what we are actually experiencing at the moment.

"If you think of a drought... this prolonged drought that we have in central India and in parts of Maharashtra, it is displacing hundreds of thousands, may be millions of people, but the way that it unfolds is not in the sudden violence of, say, a riot. It is the slow violence which eats into people's lives. That is the issue at hand," emphasised Ghosh.

Remembering Girish Karnad and drawing attention to their likeness, his son Raghu pointed out that the way Girish and Amitav used language was similar. “The way in which they used language; not as things that needed to be left out of modernity, but as essential keys to understanding our modernity.”

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