Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh: A gripping parable for our times
In 2008, Amitav Ghosh published Sea of Poppies, the first of a trilogy of sprawling, riveting novels that dealt with the opium trade between India and China in the 19th century. Flood of Fire, the final book of the trilogy, came out in 2015. Now, four years on, Ghosh is back with Gun Island, set in the here and now, a novel that is as contemporary and compelling as can be.
What was it like to emerge from that world of the 19th century in which he had immersed himself for so many years and create a new world that speaks about the way we live now? “It was certainly disorienting to emerge from the 19th century world of the Ibis trilogy,” Ghosh says in an email interview. “But the trilogy took more than ten years to write and during that time I was thinking of many other things as well. Very soon afterwards, I wrote a short non-fiction book called The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. That left me longing to get back to fiction.”
Gun Island, the resulting novel, follows a Brooklyn-based rare books dealer as he tries to make sense of an ancient legend of the goddess of snakes, Manasa Devi. Set in Kolkata, the Sunderbans, Los Angeles, New York and Venice, the novel engages with Ghosh’s fascination for etymology (which blossomed in the Ibis trilogy) and how words in different languages inform our sensibility and understanding of the world. “At the heart of the story of Gun Island, there lies an etymological mystery, a derivation that points to the deep and inextricable intermeshing of cultures and civilisations over the ages. This is why etymology fascinates me: like sailors, words, too, are travellers, and tracing their journeys is like describing voyages of adventures.”
This particular adventure proceeds at a fair gallop, with a series of what appear to be unlikely coincidences linking crucial events and the lives of the main characters. Ghosh makes a case for chance, randomness, and the uncanny. “Storytellers invest a lot of ingenuity in trying to make the improbable seem probable. And if it should happen that improbable events turn out to be connected to each other, then we have the emergence of something altogether different: the uncanny. And the uncanny is very much a feature of our times. To give you just one example: There is a scene in Gun Island where a museum in Los Angeles is threatened by rapidly moving wildfires. You may have read in the papers that such an event actually occurred last year, during the California wildfires, and you might think that the scene is based on a real-life event. But the truth is that I wrote that scene before it had happened — at the time it was fiction… One of the uncanniest aspects of our times is that fiction can barely keep pace with fact.”
The novel explores many of Ghosh’s other recurring motifs: Irrawaddy dolphins; the Sunderbans; and climate change. But if there is one theme that takes up residence at the heart of the novel, that becomes its propulsive engine, it is the theme of refugees and illegal migration, of displacement and renewal. It is one of the most urgent and fraught themes of our times.
“Migration and displacement have always interested me, perhaps because my father’s family was displaced by a flood way back in the 19th century,” Ghosh says. But this is migration of a different kind, precipitating a crisis of a different order. Unlike Mohsin Hamid, who, in his enthralling 2017 novel, Exit West, used magic realism to bypass having to deal with the logistical aspect of migration, Ghosh goes deep into it, and takes the reader with him.
He is captivated by how such migrations happen: the planning; the middle men; the dangerous journey in inhuman conditions; the fear; the torture; the extortion; and then, for some, the arrival in the promised land and an effort to eke out a new living, to fashion a new life.
How did he amass that wealth of detail? “Over the last couple of years, I spent a lot of time in Italy, visiting refugee camps, and interviewing recent migrants, especially those who have made the crossing from Libya to Sicily, across the Mediterranean. These interviews were revelatory… When we hear about refugee boats on the Mediterranean, we usually assume that the people on those boats are mainly Middle Easterners and Africans. But in fact large numbers of people from the Indian subcontinent, mainly Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, also travel that way.”
Two of the novel’s characters come in this manner from the Sunderbans to Italy. The sections in which Ghosh lays bare their traumatic journey are the most visceral and harrowing of the book. They haunt the reader as the novel hurtles towards its tumultuous conclusion.
Ghosh has emerged in rude writing health from the 19th century world of opium trade. Taut and gripping, Gun Island is a parable for our times.
Below is an exclusive excerpt from Gun Island – the haunting new novel by Amitav Ghosh
The water level was now so low that the riverbank ahead of us snaked away into the distance like a towering wall of mud, topped by an impenetrable tangle of leathery leaves and spidery roots.
To my unaccustomed eyes the matt browns and greens of the landscape looked almost featureless, unreadable. Yet I could tell, from the way that Horen’s eyes kept flickering from detail to detail, that to those who knew what to look for, the forest teemed with signs that could, in fact, be deciphered and read, like some antediluvian script.
Yet in a while even Horen began to look perplexed.
‘As I remember, the dhaam should be somewhere there,’ he said, pointing ahead. ‘But this stretch of river has changed a lot since I was last here.’
In the end it was Tipu who spotted the site, with the help of his binoculars.
‘Oijé!’ he shouted, pointing directly ahead. ‘There it is!’
Pushing up his sunshades Horen squinted at a distant smudge on the riverbank.
‘The boy’s right,’ he grunted. ‘It isn’t where I had thought.’
‘How can that be? It can’t have moved, surely?’
‘It’s the river that’s moved,’ came the answer. ‘When I last saw the place it was still a good way inland. Now it’s at the water’s edge.’
As the steamer drew closer to the site it became clear that to get to the temple we would have to walk across a couple of hundred yards of mud, much of it pierced by spear-like mangrove spores. When I went down to the lower deck I saw that Tipu was already making preparations for the crossing, taking off his shirt and sneakers and rolling his jeans up above his knees. I noticed also that he had lit another stubby little joint and was drawing on it as he changed.
He saw me looking and gave me a wink. ‘How about it, Pops?’ he said, holding out the joint. ‘Like a toke? You’ll feel better for it.’
I shook my head brusquely and turned away. But Tipu wasn’t done with me.
‘And how the hell’re you gonna manage, Pops?’ he said, grinning slyly at my trousers and windbreaker. ‘If you go into the mud dressed like that, you’ll come out like this . . .’ He mimicked a zombie. ‘I’d lose some of those threads if I was you.’
He was right of course. In the end I had to strip down to my underwear and wrap one of Horen’s spare lungis around my waist, like a loincloth. As for my wallet, phone and other equipment, Horen took them from me and placed them inside a locker.
‘None of this will be any use to you if you fall in the mud,’ he said. ‘We can fetch your stuff later if you need it.’
As he was stepping up to the gangplank, Horen offered me a few pointers on dealing with the mud: ‘Use your big toe like a claw and dig it in – see, like this . . .’
Then, with his lungi girded around his crotch, he went nimbly down the gangplank and stepped into the soft, shining silt. For a few moments, as he was sinking in, he stayed completely still; only when the sludge was up to his thighs did he pull one foot out, stork-like, and step forward.
‘Be patient!’ he shouted to me over his shoulder. ‘Move very slowly.’
It was all in vain.
I had not imagined that slimy, slithering things would brush against my legs and feet as they were sinking into the almost liquid slurry. I panicked and tried to move ahead without pulling my foot out all the way. Next thing I knew I was lying face down in the velvety, melting mire, with Tipu’s laughter ringing in my ears.
Nor was that my only fall: I tipped over with every second step, even with Tipu and Horen holding my arms. Mud seeped into my mouth, my ears, my eyes: it was as if my body were being reclaimed by the primeval ooze.
It seemed to me then that my eyeglasses were my last connection with civilization and I held them in place with a panicked, maniacal ferocity even though they were plastered with slop, as indeed were my eyes. So completely was I blinded that even when the depth of the mush dwindled to a few inches I still had to be held up and guided by Tipu and Horen. At a certain point I understood that I was climbing up a slope and then stepping over a door frame on to a paved surface.
Tugging at my elbow Horen brought me to a standstill: ‘Stay there! Don’t move!’
I did as I was told, shivering in the January chill, vaguely aware of a clanging, metallic sound somewhere nearby. Suddenly a bucketful of water descended on my head like a shower of ice; it was so cold that I was instantly numbed, unable to move or make a sound. A moment later something – a fingertip – dug into my ear and scraped out a plug of sludge.
‘See, Pops,’ said Tipu, giggling. ‘You’d have had a better trip if you’d taken a toke.’
When Horen fitted my glasses – freshly washed and dried – over my eyes, it was as though I had woken from a nightmare. I saw that I was standing next to a well that had a half-filled aluminum bucket perched on the rim. We were in a paved courtyard, facing what looked like a dwelling with a collapsed roof. One part of it was curtained off with a length of blue tarpaulin and looked as though it were still in use. In front of it lay a couple of pots and a cooking fire with fresh embers.
From the look of the place, said Horen, it seemed that Rafi had come by earlier in the day. He had hung up a couple of fishing nets outside the compound, and collected a pile of bamboo. He was probably somewhere nearby and would be back soon.
‘Where do you think he might have gone?’
Horen scratched his head.
‘There are a couple of spots downriver,’ he said, ‘where fishermen go at this time of year. Tipu and I could go look for him in the bhotbhoti, if you like.’
I seized eagerly upon the suggestion.
‘Yes, you should both go,’ I said.
‘And what about you?’ said Horen.
‘I’ll stay here. I need some time to look around.’
Horen nodded: ‘All right. We’ll be back soon.’