Gun Island is a promising but flawed novel
A critical review of Amitav Ghosh’s GunIsland which dabbles with the mythological legend of Manasa, the snake goddess
In the Chinese zodiac circles, the snake is often viewed as a symbol of immense wisdom. However, in India, especially in the Hindu mythology, snakes are seen as fearsome entities representing eternity as well as materiality, life as well as death. Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel, Gun Island (2019), dabbles with this mythology, with the specific context of the Sundarbans in West Bengal. The protagonist of the story is one Dinanath Dutta (or Deen as he is called by acquaintances in the novel), an NRI Bengali who is a dealer of antique books, and is based in Brooklyn, New York. On a trip to Kolkata, his birthplace, he becomes acquainted with Piya Roy, a character from Ghosh’s earlier novel, The Hungry Tide (2005). Through her, he is drawn, against his own will to the legend of ‘Manasa Devi’, the snake goddess. This legend is connected to a man called Bonduki Sadagar, or the Gun Merchant, who fled from the ire of Manasa Devi, and paid a price for doing so.
As per the novel, Chand Sadagar was believed to be a prosperous merchant, who lost all his wealth and loved ones, including his son Lakhindar, for refusing to swear his loyalty to Manasa. Outraged by his impudence, she sank Chand’s cargo and sent a snake to kill Lakhinder on his wedding night. Finally, it fell upon Behula, Lakhindar’s wife, to bring her husband back to life with her steadfast devotion, very much like Orpheus in the Greek myths, and by promising Manasa to convince her father-in-law Chand to worship her.
On a day’s trip to the supposed shrine of the goddess, deep within the mangrove territory of the Sundarbans, Deen has an unnerving meeting with the guardian of the temple, a King Cobra. This will be the first of many of his encounters with snakes, around the world, sprinkled across the novel. These additional locations including Venice, Oregon and Los Angeles are areas where Deen is compelled to reflect on the status of refugees and immigrants (especially Bangladeshi refugees), the man-made nature of borders and the threats posed by climate change. Along this journey his compatriots are Piya, a the marine biologist who reminds him of his first love; Tipu, a young, resourceful and dynamic Dalit entrepreneur who awakens him to the realities of growing up in the modern age; Rafi, who is possessed of a compulsion to aid somebody in need; and an old friend named Giacinta Schiavon or Cinta as she is known by her friends, an acclaimed historian with an expertise on the Inquisition in Venice, who also has a tragic past, and who is arguably the novel’s most arresting character.
Ghosh does a good job in setting up these characters’ interaction with each other. He builds up Deen’s character as someone who has a positivist worldview but who is constantly challenged by Cinta, fuelled by the tragic loss of her family. At one point early on in the novel, she berates him for rubbishing a folk tale in a jatra performance as “superstitious mumbo-jumbo”. She says: “Why do you use all these religious words? Like “superstitious” and “supernatural”? Don’t you know that it was the Catholic Inquisition that put these words into currency?” When Deen objects, saying it is all semantics, she responds: “Yes, you’re right. But the whole world is made up of semantics and yours are those of the seventeenth century. Even though you think you are so modern.”
Yet despite these character build-ups, the novel is curiously vapid and devoid of suspense.
Drawing from his previous non-fiction book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), where he tried to address humanity’s ‘uncanny predicament under delinquent, deranged modes of political and socio-economic organisations’, Ghosh has framed Gun Island as a sort of answer to the pressing questions that he raised in The Great Derangement. Unfortunately, he is swallowed by the weight of the issues which he is tackling. In Part 1 of The Great Derangement, he had critiqued the limitations of the ‘literary novel’, which aims to exhibit the vagaries of ‘individual moral adventure’.
However, he cannot draw himself away from his own pen and paper to produce another novel. In Part Two, ‘History’, he spoke of the historicised mind caught in a world that keeps historicising itself: a situation in which ‘history is constantly made obsolete but remains the faulty technology on which human beings depend to make things make sense.’ In Gun Island, despite seeing the world around him having a disdainful attitude towards history, there is still a reliance by Deen on the magical elements of a putatively disenchanted world. In Part Three, ‘Politics’, Ghosh had condemned the narrow bandwidth of political concern regarding climate change. Although in Gun Island, Ghosh does reflect the narrow-mindedness of right-wing regimes, it is more to do with the issue of refugees than with climate change.
Gun Island is also fraught with Symbolism. The occult and the supernatural haunt the pages and one can feel the presence of Manasa Devi despite the fact that we never really return to the island after the initial visit. The novel moves from the marshy, flood-prone Sundarbans delta on to Venice, which is known to be sinking slowly. While tracing this vast geographical trajectory, the plot also describes an ambitious arc
of time, connecting our present-day ferments caused by climate change with those that unfolded more than 300 years ago, during a phase of global cooling described as the Little Ice Age by scientists.
Ghosh also seems to have been inspired by Dan Brown in the manner in which he tries to connect history and myth with contemporary cataclysmic events. There are too many issues which he tries to address ranging from climate change, to refugee crises, to mythology, but the narrative which he weaves is clogged with too many hands in the kitchen.
A notion which I have observed is that Bengali writers seem to have a tendency of comparing cities on a sweeping, romantic notion, without any tissue connecting the cities. Jhumpa Lahiri keeps comparing New York to Calcutta (now Kolkata). In this book, Ghosh compares Venice to Varanasi (See Chapter ‘The Ghetto’), on the basis of ghats, whereas in reality and ideologically, the two places could not be more polar apart. Venice was one of the hubs of the Renaissance art movement, where there was a thorough and intense churning of progressive ideas.
Varanasi on the other has become a hub of the of a religion that was brought to the subcontinent by the Aryans and have subsequently polluted the river they worship. Even if Ghosh is using his artistic license here, his punch doesn’t land smoothly. In fact, Ghosh seems so enamoured by the idea of comparison that he forgets to chug the story forward on many occasions. His choice to make Deen, an NRI bhadralok, as the protagonist reflects Ghosh’s choice to tell the story from the eyes of a privileged man with a particular background and history, who is not equipped for the mental journey that awaits him.
The highlight of the book come towards the end, where Ghosh makes a commentary on slavery and imperialism. In the chapter ‘The Storm’ he writes that, ‘Beginning with the early days of chattel slavery, the European imperial powers had launched upon the greatest and most cruel experiment in planetary remaking that history has ever known; in the service of commerce they had transported people across continents on an almost unimaginable scale, ultimately changing the demographic profile of the entire planet.
But even as they were repopulating other continents, they had always tried to preserve the whiteness of their own metropolitan territories in Europe. The entire project had now been upended. The systems and technologies that had made those massive demographic interventions possible – ranging from armaments to the control of information – had now achieved velocity: they were no longer under anyone’s control. The world had changed too much, too fast; the systems that were in control now did not obey any human master; they followed their own imperatives, inscrutable as demons.’ One wishes that Ghosh had explored these aspects in the novel with more depth.
At this point, one has to talk about the eponymous Manasa Devi. Originally an Adivasi goddess, Manasa was appropriated into the caste-Hindu structure by the Brahmins. For all his prodigious research skills, Ghosh never once mentions this. It’s a shame that his history of the goddess begins only with the Bengali version of it, which is merely about 500 years ago, as compared to the Adivasi version which is more than 70,000 years (One can read Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Benegal by June McDaniel for further reference). One wishes that Ghosh would have dug deeper and written about the true origins of the goddess.
Ghosh may have written this book based on his stay in the Sundarbans and his travels to Venice, but it feels rushed and not carefully fleshed out. The sense of urgency which permeated The Hungry Tide is missing here. There is so much that he could have done with the material had he taken some more time to unpack the mysteries even more. Gun Island is ultimately a promising but flawed novel from one of India’s most eminent post-colonial novelists. The message to remember here is that Climate Change is Universal and not just limited to Venice or Kolkata.
(The writer is a PhD candidate of Development Studies at TISS, Mumbai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)