Interview: Amitav Ghosh, author, Jungle Nama: A Story of the Sundarban
Amitav Ghosh, the first English language writer to receive the Jnanpith Award, is out with a new book. Set in the world’s largest mangrove forest, this book is a contemplation on the endless thirst for more that needs to be regulated so that other species can thrive alongside human beings.
Ghosh has teamed up with artist Salman Toor to retell the legend of Bon Bibi, Shah Jongoli and Dokkhin Rai, which also appears in his novel The Hungry Tide (2004). The ecological concerns in his non-fiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016) are now articulated in a metrical verse form adapted from the Bengali dwipodi-poyar.
“The story of Jungle Nama is told entirely in a poyar-like meter of 24 syllable couplets. But other than that, this is a free adaptation which does not adhere closely to printed versions of the legend,” writes Ghosh in the afterword. Excerpts from an interview:
How would you describe the allure of the Sundarban as a landscape and a literary muse?
As a mangrove forest, the Sundarban is unique in its vastness and changeability. There are no clear dividing lines between freshwater and salt, river and sea. The tides reach more than a hundred miles inland and every day thousands of hectares of forest disappear underwater only to re-emerge hours later.
What are some of your earliest memories of the place? Why do you keep returning?
An uncle of mine was a schoolteacher in the Sundarban, so we used to visit him there when I was a child. My memories of those visits led me to write The Hungry Tide, and I suppose they are largely responsible for bringing me back there again an d again.
Could you talk about the story behind the title of your book Jungle Nama? It evokes associations with narratives such as Hamzanama, Baburnama and Akbarnama. However, your book places an ecosystem rather than a human being at the centre.
There are two well-known textual versions of the Bon Bibi legend, written by Munshi Mohammad Khatir and Abdur Rahim Sahib in the late nineteenth century. They are both called Bon Bibi Johura Nama – or the narrative of Bon Bibi’s glory. So that was where the Nama came from. But actually the Bon Bibi texts don’t have anything in common with the Baburnama or Akbarnama. They belong rather to a very old genre of popular Bengali wonder tales. The great Bengali literary scholar, Dineshchandra Sen, described this genre as ‘ballad literature’. Orthodox Hindus and Muslims alike tended to frown upon the genre so it flourished particularly among marginalized communities.
What inspires you to address issues of climate justice in your fiction, verse and non-fiction?
I think it is increasingly apparent today that climate change is the greatest crisis that humanity, as a species, has ever faced. I think it should weigh heavily on the mind of every thinking person in the world.
As you mention in your afterword, the legend of Bon Bibi, Shah Jongoli and Dokkhin Rai circulates in villages primarily through live enactments. How did you hit upon the idea of bringing it from the stage to the page?
The Bon Bibi legend exists in many iterations. So, for example, the texts written by Munshi Mohammad Khatir and Abdur Rahim Sahib are often chanted when pujas are held for Bon Bibi. The legend has existed on the printed page for more than a hundred years. There are many small printers in rural towns who specialize in printing these texts.
What was most exciting for you during this process?
It was both a pleasure and a challenge to work with a metrical verse form.
Translation is often discussed in terms of what is lost rather than what is gained in the movement across forms, languages and time periods. Is it possible to speak of translation outside this language of loss and gain?
I must emphasize that Jungle Nama is an adaptation, not a translation. In effect, I did what traveling jatra companies (the Bengali equivalent of the tamashas of Maharashtra) do when they enact the legend. That is to say, I focused on certain scenes and spelled out what seem to me to be the basic moral of the story.
You have written about how the legend does not belong to a single faith tradition because it combines Hindu and Islamic elements. The delta too is shaped by the interface between land and water. Is it far-fetched to imagine that literary forms are shaped by geography?
Bengali popular culture has always been very fluid and syncretic. This is particularly true of Bengali ballad literature. As Dineshchandra Sen emphasized, ballads written by Hindu poets were often kept alive by Muslim gayans (singers). In the case of the Bon Bibi legend, a story narrated by Muslim writers has been kept alive mainly by Dalit communities in the Sundarban. Of course, the story itself probably long pre-existed the texts.
How did your collaboration with Salman Toor help you envision and craft Jungle Nama?
My intention, right from the start, was to create an illuminated text, in the old sense, in which word and image have parity, as in palm-leaf manuscripts, or the exquisite illuminated Bhagavad Puranas of Rajasthan, or Persian texts like the Razmnama or Shahnama, with their profusion of miniatures. This meant that the book would have to be a collaboration - and this was exactly what I wanted. Since I have known Salman since his student days, it was a particular pleasure to collaborate with him. He is an artist of prodigious talent, and in these last few months especially, his work has received an extraordinary amount of attention in New York. His rise to fame has been meteoric.
He is best known for his portraits of queer intimacy, a subject that seems, at first, entirely different from that of Jungle Nama. What made him say “yes” to this project, other than the fact that his show at the Whitney Museum in New York was postponed due to COVID-19?
Salman is a voracious reader with a wide range of interests, among which the environment ranks very high. He loved the text of Jungle Nama, and the moral that it conveys. And besides, over the years, Salman has become a part of what you might call a wider gharana of artists, writers and scholars that includes Mira Nair, Mahmood Mamdani, myself and my wife, Deborah Baker. I am sure that helped.
How did environmental anthropologist Annu Jalais and postcolonial theorist Leela Gandhi contribute to this book project? You express your gratitude to both in Jungle Nama.
In January 2000, I accompanied Annu and a group of villagers from the Sundarban, on a trip to a remote island for a Bon Bibi puja. We went in rowboats, and the puja was performed on a mudbank where a tiger’s fresh pugmarks could be seen. It was an amazing experience. You could say that was when the story of Jungle Nama began.
As for Leela Gandhi, apart from being a theorist she is also an extremely accomplished poet. Her reading of an early version of the manuscript was of immense value to me.
Could you share a little about the audio book version of Jungle Nama, for which you are collaborating with singer and novelist Ali Sethi, a former student of yours at Harvard?
Ali is an amazing musician. He has had a rigorous training in Hindustani classical music, and he is also completely at home in many genres of contemporary Western music. I have been working with him quite closely on the audio version. I think it will be fantastic. You should check out his videos on YouTube. They get millions of hits.
In a world hit by the pandemic, do you imagine that the publishing industry will become more mindful about its carbon footprint and adopting sustainable business practices rather than only commissioning more titles about the climate crisis?
In comparison with major industries like cement, textiles, fashion, construction etc. the carbon footprint of the publishing industry is tiny, and it is shrinking anyway because of e-books. In general, I would say that people in the publishing industry are very aware of these issues and have been trying to cut back on their use of paper. So, for example, printed proofs, which were common even ten years ago, have now all but disappeared. Everybody uses pdfs. Of course, there is always room for improvement, but I would say that on the whole the publishing industry is pretty low-impact.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect