Amitav Ghosh on Gun Island, the theme of technology-as-magic, and why nothing is 'just a story'

Amitav Ghosh received the Jnanpith award earlier this week, becoming the first writer of English literature to win India’s most prestigious literary prize. It’s fitting, therefore, that his latest novel Gun Island is a bit of a 'greatest hits' package, a convergence of themes and motifs that mark his previous work — climate change (The Great Derangement), xenophobia/political violence (The Shadow Lines), the unlikely symbiosis of science and witchcraft (The Calcutta Chromosome) and even a splash of maritime history (The Ibis Trilogy).

While Gun Island does revisit characters and scenes from The Hungry Tide (most notably Piyali, the Bengali-American marine biologist) this is a very different book — its pace is frenetic, its digressions (as per usual for Ghosh, these range from etymological segues to riffs on oceanography) as thrilling as the action they tear us away from. The narrator, Dinanath Dutta (“Deen”) becomes obsessed with the story of the “Bonduki Sadagar” or Gun Merchant, a Sunderbans legend that has its own shrine. Shortly after his eventful first encounter at the shrine, Deen finds himself questioning the origins and the true nature of this legend — and whether it continues to influence modern-day events (especially migration patterns) — in a trans-continental investigation spanning Venice, Los Angeles, Bangladesh and beyond.

I caught up with Ghosh ahead of the book’s Delhi launch. The following are excerpts from the interview.

In your last book, The Great Derangement, you describe pre-modern novels as narratives that “leap from exceptional event to exceptional event”. And here we are, with Gun Island, a book that contains cyclones and tornadoes, freak attacks by poisonous snakes/spiders, and even a scene involving bioluminescence. Were you, perhaps, consciously channelising some of that pre-modern narrative technique?

I think more than something that I was consciously trying to do, it’s something that I no longer actively avoid, you know? I think there’s really no justification today for trying to hide that aspect of writing fiction. I guess you can say that I am finally able to embrace that method of narration.

 Amitav Ghosh on Gun Island, the theme of technology-as-magic, and why nothing is just a story

Amitav Ghosh. Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore

When Deen meets the teenaged Tipu for the first time, he’s awed and I think, a little bit afraid of the boy’s felicity with computers, his ability to access seemingly any data he wants. It’s a reversal of the boy-meets-old-wizard trope; Tipu even says, “The internet is the migrant’s magic carpet”. Could you talk me through this theme, of technology-as-magic-trick (I’m reminded here of Arthur C Clarke’s line about advanced technology being practically indistinguishable from magic)?

The character of Deen is, of course, from a previous generation for whom all this technology (smartphones and so on) is new. I’m sure you’ve had this experience as well — Tipu belongs to a generation that has grown up with it [new tech] and has experienced it so much that it’s second nature to them. The really interesting thing about this technology is that it has completely changed all of the parameters that we used to think of as belonging to technology, you know? When I was a kid, or in my 20s and 30s, we had this idea that in order to be conversant with technology, one had to grow up in a technologically advanced country — that is no longer the case now. You can now grow up anywhere and master this technology.

Unlike, say, the 90s, the Microsoft era, when I was growing up.

Exactly. It has completely upended things. You read all of these statistics these days — South Asia and Africa have far greater social media usage than a lot of countries in the West. Internet penetration is greater, cellphone networks are extended. Bangladesh has better educational figures than India and so its cellphone usage is much higher, among the highest in the world. So that’s one aspect of it.

The other aspect is what Arthur C Clarke said, the magic part of it, and I think he was right. It’s true that today’s technology can unleash something that… I mean, you can call it magic, but you can also call it witchcraft. Think of the way in which social media can direct hate and rage, it can summon a violent mob — in that sense it really does function like witchcraft. It’s a very curious thing.

Since you’ve brought up the W-word, how did you go about working the witchcraft angle into the story, especially its symbolic purposes (thinking of Arthur Miller here and how he used witchcraft to comment on McCarthyism)? In a minor episode in Gun Island, Piya tells Deen about her friend Lisa, an entomologist who warned her town about an impending forest fire, indirectly caused by bark beetles. Nobody listened and when the fire came, people accused her of setting it to gather funding for her research — she has to flee for her life. Also, at a different point, Piya says that there are large gaps in our knowledge of beached whales/dolphins, that old beaching stories “sound like witchcraft”.

Well you see this all around us now — scientists being blamed, or disbelieved or persecuted. It’s happened to many scientists, especially in the US. Climate change scientists, the amount of hounding they get… they have received death threats, they’ve been persecuted by the law, the State. And why? Just for doing their jobs, for telling you what the problem is. When you consider the scale and the frequency of this phenomenon, it’s so irrational and so outside of the ordinary that you have to describe it using an extreme thing like witchcraft.

In the other case you’re talking about, the one with the dolphins, there are so many documented instances of people communicating with animals in a way that existing science cannot explain very well. In the South Pacific island chain, especially, there are many documented cases of head shamans summoning up whales and dolphins. There’s just so much we don’t know, and perhaps some things that we may never know. I think this is very important to acknowledge, the limits of our understanding. Now, I can only talk about these things within the framework of novels or fiction in general and so yeah, I do think there are things that modern-day novels have not been able to talk about very well — like climate change, but also the unique problems of today’s world in general.

Is that why you included that monologue of Cinta’s where she urges Deen never to use the phrase “just a story”, and suggests that pre-modern modes of storytelling (oral, essentially) had a much better chance of explaining the unexplainable, so to speak?

Yeah, it’s actually true, people in the 17th century would never say something like ‘it’s just a story’, that’s a modern thing to do. And stories are, of course, not just stories. If you think about the Ramleela, the way people live it, I think it’s extraordinary. In Varanasi, certain roles are passed down from generation to generation within the same family, it ends up becoming the framing narrative of their lives. These stories, therefore, are not merely stories. Which isn’t to say, of course, that we can go back to those modes of storytelling today — we should look at them as resources, things that can offer us solutions for the world, you know.

Also read on Firstpost — 'The threat of climate change is real, and it is intensifying', says Amitav Ghosh

After Deen falls in the knee-high mud several times during his first trip to the Sunderbans, he’s handed his (cleaned) glasses back. His interior monologue has a very significant line here — “My eyeglasses were my last link to civilisation”. Soon after this moment, when he sees the rebuses drawn at the shrine, he immediately thinks of asking his boatman companion Horen to fetch his phone/camera. Were these lines, in quick succession, meant to reinforce the idea of Deen as a person hopelessly embedded in modernity?

Absolutely. In this respect, Deen is no different from urban Indian men. I’m sure if you were to go to the Sunderbans for the first time, you would also fall.

Oh, no doubt — probably worse than Deen.

It’s just a specialised walking technique. It’s such a strange feeling to walk through that mud, you know. There are all kinds of creatures sliding past you — that’s actually what makes Deen fall, too, the unfamiliarity of that situation. He’s someone who’s used to his comforts, his gadgets. He’s a contemporary creature. And this (the Sunderbans) is like the primeval earth pulling him in, it terrifies him!

It’s appropriate, though, that it’s the animals that make him fall — Gun Island is full of animal metaphors. Tipu, with his spiked hair, “probing eyes and darting movements”, is described as a ‘barracuda’ by Deen. The traffickers Tipu works with are called ‘jackals’.

In America, as you know, the word used for traffickers very often is ‘coyote’. So ‘jackal’ is more or less a translation of that. But then I’ve always liked to use animal metaphors, because what’s the alternative? The alternative is to use metaphors rooted in commodities, which is something that contemporary American writers do a lot (and this goes back a long time) — that kind of thing always made me uncomfortable, as a reader. I don’t want to say, “sharp as a credit card”.

Or ‘queer as a three-dollar bill’.

Exactly. It betrays a kind of absorption into consumerist culture. I didn’t want to do that, and especially not for this book.

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What I found fascinating, also, about the way animals are used in the book, is the suggestion that stories are perhaps a link between human and animal modes of communication — and not something unique to the former. A character suggests that maybe animals ‘talk’ to each other through shared stories.

I think we have to concede that this is a possibility we can’t rule out. Because see, why do birds migrate in a certain way? We know, also, that whales have a culture of a certain kind. We know that they can communicate with each other, they can build friendships, there are whale ‘songs’. How do you know that they don’t have a narrative for what they’re doing? An easy way to shut that down is to say they can’t have it, because ‘animals don’t have language’, or that they migrate because of instinct. But ‘instinct’ is, as ornithologists have said in the past, impossible to locate in birds. So even in birds, there is a certain level of ideation. Anyone who has worked with crows will tell you there’s a great deal of ideation there.

How do we know that there aren’t narratives that are shared in some way? We don’t know how, obviously. But clearly, communication systems exist to which we are not privy.

Just to flip the question around and put the onus on scientists, for once — do you also think there’s a certain defensiveness within the scientific community about questions like these, about animal communication? When Tipu asks Deen about Piya’s bond with Rani (and wonders whether Piya, too, is “a shaman”), a dolphin matriarch she has known for many years, Deen tells him “Scientists aren’t allowed to say things like that”.

Years ago, when I was writing The Hungry Tide, I spent a lot of time with a cetacean specialist, someone who worked with Irawaddy dolphins. She’s a wonderful person, very bright, very prudent and so on. But I observed what she would allow herself to talk about, or to imagine. There was no question of entertaining any ideation among the dolphins. The entire work was dependent firstly on the GPS, secondly on numbers. If you saw something at a particular point in the water, you note it down, location and everything. That’s it, those are the only things you are allowed to think about. I could see that she did have a rapport with certain dolphins but she didn’t allow herself to probe that further. It’s simply outside their methodology.

Also, there are so many people outside of the scientific community who know so many things about animals — lion-tamers, for example, or people who work with horses. While I’ve had pets myself, I can’t say I have an instinctive understanding of dogs. But some people do. You have to allow the possibility that some people can — intermittently — empathise, understand and yes, even communicate with animals, after a fashion.

The people you’re talking about here would also include characters like Horen, Fokir and Rafi, residents of the Sunderbans who live in harmony with nature (including animals) — Raymond Williams called them ‘ecosystem people’ and it seems to me that these are some of the most oppressed people on the planet right now. How do we go about reversing this?

You know, the sad thing is, what we’re seeing is irreversible, at every level. And not just irreversible, it’s in a downward spiral in the most catastrophic ways. I’ll just give you an example from India.

In 2016, when The Great Derangement came out, there was a terrible drought in Bundelkhand. An alarming number of people migrated out of that region — a million people would leave at a time. Now we know that it’s a permanent migration. Where are these people to go? The maximum they can do is go to the city, eke out a living and live, bunched up, in little boxes, which is alien to them. When you think about it, there have always been areas in India that were water-stressed. Farmers would still figure out ways to work with what little water and other resources they could get, wresting something out of that soil using methods that were unique to them and that region.

You might not call it a rich life but it was a life. Now, with mass migration, we’ve also lost that knowledge — it’s not just one person leaving. It’s a library leaving. Because these techniques can’t be taught at a university. They can only be learnt by living on the land. It’s like a language dying.

Updated Date: Jun 15, 2019 10:33:10 IST