Amitav Ghosh is the author of the Ibis trilogy (Photo: Hindustan Times)
Amitav Ghosh is the author of the Ibis trilogy (Photo: Hindustan Times)

Amitav Ghosh on the astonishing vitality of the Sunderbans

The Jnanpith Award winner, in his latest work Junglenama, reinvents ancient Bengali folklore of Bonbibi Johuranama to reveal the wisdom and the clairvoyant nature of the legendary tale
By Navneet Vyasan
UPDATED ON MAR 14, 2021 04:14 PM IST

Amitav Ghosh, as he delves into the vivid and elegiac landscape of the famed Sunderbans, does not shy way from letting the reader know what he’s offering here is a cautionary tale. The Sunderbans becomes the mainstay in his adaptation of The Legend of Bonbibi Johuranama by Munshi Mohammad Khatir and Abdur Rahim Sahib.

Written in verse, the inspired work titled Jungle Nama, suffuses wisdom of the legends which was imparted through age-old storytelling traditions with an admonitory afterword in which the Jnanpith Award winner makes it quite clear that what was once a mere story, has manifested itself into something definitive in today’s world.

“We are now in an era when the very survival of civilization, as we know it, is in doubt,” says the Booker Prize shortlisted author, adding, “it is imperative to remember those stories that have actually helped people get through very difficult times”.

Excerpts from an interview with the author:

The folklores of Sunderbans have a special place in your heart...

The Sunderban is a landscape of astonishing vitality and power. It is this that has made the Sunderban a constant presence in my work. But it isn’t just the landscape of the Sunderban that is extraordinary: the people who live in and around it are also remarkable for many reasons. Their lives are extremely difficult in many ways, yet they have an amazing stoicism and good humour. Moreover, their stories and their culture also reflect the vitality of the landscape. The story provides a kind of ethical charter — almost a law — for how people should relate to the forest, and it has an enormous influence on the lives of its inhabitants. The story is remarkable also for the fluency with which it blends elements of Hinduism and Islam. In that sense the legend is a good example of the syncretism of Bengali folk culture.

Was allegorising the folklore for the modern world challenging? Or was it always meant for an avaricious world?

Stories are as essential to life as air or food. In that sense, stories are necessary for the sustenance of life itself, and since we are now in an era when the very survival of civilization as we know it is in doubt, it is imperative to remember those stories that have actually helped people get through very difficult times and circumstances. The story of Bon Bibi is one such story. For the people of the Sunderban, it is a vital aspect of their lives.

One can see why these folklores have stood the test of time. It is also a cautionary tale for the world that’s indifferent towards what might happen in the larger scheme of things.

I think it is increasingly clear that we are in the midst of an unprecedented planetary crisis, one that is manifesting itself in many different ways. There is the pandemic, first of all, and in the midst of that we have events like Cyclone Amphan in the Bay of Bengal, which intensified with extraordinary rapidity; we have the Chamoli disaster in Uttarakhand; we have unprecedented heat waves, with the temperatures in New Delhi and Mumbai 5 degrees centigrade above normal; and we have climate-related disruptions in agriculture that is making life increasingly difficult for farmers. All of this is a sign of an Earth that is profoundly out of balance.

The basic message of Jungle Nama is about the importance of finding a balance between humans and non-humans. The same idea lies at the heart of another legend that is indigenous to eastern India - the story of Chand Saudagar and Manasa Debi (which figured in my last novel, Gun Island). I feel that these legends are communicating messages that are vitally important for a world that is now in the grip of multiple planetary crises.

What was the research process of Jungle Nama? Why did you choose to write in verse?

It was while I was writing The Hungry Tide that I began to experiment with verse — more specifically, with a particular verse form that is known in Bangla as poyar. These are rhyming couplets in which each line consists of twelve to fourteen syllables. Each line in the couplet also has a break (or caesura) in the middle. This is a very old metrical form in Bengali — most early Bangla kaavyas made extensive use of it. In The Hungry Tide, I used this form to suggest the rhythms of dialectal speech, but the lines did not look like poetry — the paragraphs were printed as though they were prose, even though they were actually verse. It was an exciting experiment, in that I was adapting a Bengali verse meter for a book in English. Yet very few readers realised that some of the passages they were reading were in rhymed meter!

You’ve said that writing as a collaborative process should be encouraged. How was the collaborative process with Salman Toor? The imagery that he achieves seems solely drawn from his understating of the verse… without the presumed meaning forced upon him. It does take the vision to a different level…

One of the most wonderful aspects of this collaboration was that it was so easy and pleasurable: Salman and I would have long, interesting discussions on the phone, and then, within hours, he would produce these astonishing images. Something like that is possible only in a situation of mutual respect and trust.

I feel that one of the profoundest problems with contemporary literature is that it has become completely focused on the individual. This is true in two senses: not only are literary works produced by individual writers, working alone, but the intended reader is also an individual, reading in silence. I wanted to create a text of a different kind, a work that would be collaborative at many levels. I imagined it as a new version of an illuminated text, produced in collaboration with an artist. I also wanted it to be a text that could be read collectively, rather than individually - and such texts are usually chanted, or sung. So I also wanted to collaborate with a musician. And fortunately I have been able to do both. An audio version of Jungle Nama, narrated and sung by Ali Sethi, will be available soon.

Amitav Ghosh on the astonishing vitality of the Sunderbans
Amitav Ghosh on the astonishing vitality of the Sunderbans
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