Book Review: Amitav Ghosh’s “Gun Island”, (Pub.) Penguin India

A SHIFTING UNSETTLED WORLD

  • A Review by Anjana Basu (Calcutta)

Climate change these days sometimes sounds like a conspiracy theory. It links back to various historical eras like the little Ice Age of the 17th century and forward to the apocalypse of planetary disaster. In fact cli-fi has become a popular genre. Amitav Ghosh’s novel Gun Island is very much in the cli-fi zone taking up from the Hungry Tide to a shifting world that links the Sundarbans to Venice. Piya, Moyna and Tipu are the characters from the Hungry Tide who reappear in Gun Island. However, while one may easily link the Sunderbans to pirates, Gun Island is a reference to a character of folklore loosely based on Chand Saudagor called Bundooki Saudagor who was hunted down by a worship greedy Manasa Devi and showered with plagues of all kinds until he surrendered.

Ghosh’s main protagonist, Deen, is a rare book seller who comes to Kolkata on his annual visits – since he is Bengali by birth and origin – and finds himself landed in the middle of a folklore muddle and also in the middle of a swamp. He visits the shrine on Gun Island and after that nothing is the same. The exotic Giacinta a professor from Venice materialises as his mentor and proceeds to induct him into the notions of belief and disbelief, rather in a ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio vein’. The Countess is a believer, Pia is a halfway believer and Deen is a non-believer who wallows in confusion. Despite his love for rare books, he rather looks down on ordinary people and has to be coaxed into believing that they may be closer to the reality of things than he is.

However after his visit to the brick shrine on Gun Island Deen appears to be stalked by an irrational somewhat vengeful nature  perhaps his version of Manasa Devi. Wildfires smoke like tsunamis in California, a dog swimming off a California beach is bitten by a venomous snake and dies, houses in Venice are tilting as the mudflats settle – at every turn there is a different kind of threat, falling plaster, beached dolphins and vengeful traffickers who are determined to eradicate those who get in the way of their human trading. Most of the threats are linked to climate change with relentless determination. 

Occasionally the book goes cross genre as Ghosh expands of the theory of climate change and how in the past during the Little Ice Age it resulted in suicides, depression and a feeling of being possessed by uncontrollable forces. The story of the quest for the Gun Merchant – who turns out to be an Indian Merchant of Venice is frequently held up. Climate change is why boys from the Sunderbans are migrating abroad to find a living in the piazzas of Venice. It is a shifting world where ‘nothing is but what is not’ and the Shakespearean undercurrents are deliberate. 

As a character Deen is lost in love and genuinely bewildered by all that is happening around him. He exists in a state of terror and Bengali nerdiness Ginta guides him patiently and seems to have infinite time to indoctrinate him. So does Piya who veers between coldness and friendliness. It is certain that what human beings have done to the world cannot be reversed but Gun Island asks for a more apocalyptic kind of magic to get its message across. Ghosh’s impeccable research, his breathless mix of Dan Brown and folklore are not enough. 

Bundooki incidentally comes from the Arabic word for Venice, with roots in ‘bundook’ or gun, which is a genuinely interesting piece of trivia.

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