The isle of lost souls: A full-length chat with Amitav Ghosh on his new book, Gun Island

An interaction with Amitav Ghosh, who was recently awarded the Jnanpith award, and has also released a new saga, named Gun Island
Amitav Ghosh
Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh’s latest literary offering, Gun Island, is everything that has come to be expected from the author who recently became the first English language writer to be felicitated with the prestigious Jnanpith Award.

The narrative, which moves from Calcutta to the Sunderbans to Brooklyn to Venice and Los Angeles, encompasses pertinent themes such as climate change, migration, the dangers of an increasingly technology-dependent world, all presented with a historical perspective and a  healthy dose of legends and myths, while never losing focus on what remains one of its central strands — the importance of storytelling. 

Talking about his inspiration for Gun Island, Ghosh states that “in a way, it continues many of the themes that I’ve been interested in for a long time.”

In a one-on-one chat, the author of the Ibis trilogy spoke with Indulge about the haunting stories from refugee camps where he conducted research for his new book, on the increasing influence of social media and its ramifications, and on adapting books to the visual medium for a binge-watching generation. Excerpts from the interview:

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

Congratulations on the Jnanipith award...
Thank you very much!

Would you herald this as a milestone for Indian writing in English? 
Milestone is a big word, I wouldn’t say that. But it is an inflection point, because the Jnanpith is a very significant thing in Indian literary life. Certainly, when I was growing up, we really looked up to writers who had won the award. Their selection process is very rigorous.

The people who do the judging are very learned people. All those things add up to something very special. And many of the writers I looked up to as friends and as writers had won the Jnanpith — people like Mahasweta Devi, and Nirmal Verma, for instance. So, for me, it is definitely a milestone. (Smiles). 

Writing on the refugee crisis, what the character of Tipu refers to as ‘the people moving industry’, what manner of research did you undertake to grasp the complexities that underlie the experience of a migrant? 
Let me give you some background. In 2014, 2015 and 2016, when the European refugee crisis exploded, it was very much on the front pages of the papers, and I became very interested in it partly because many of the refugee boats were crossing from Egypt, and from Libya. And Egypt is a country where I have spent a lot of time, and I’ve also travelled in North Africa when I was in my twenties, so it interested me a lot. I just wanted to know what was happening, but I saw one very strange thing.

When I looked at the pictures of the boats, and when I looked at the pictures of the people on the boats, I was very struck to see that there were many South Asian faces, which any of us would recognise — people from our part of the world — but when you looked at what was written about it, it was almost always in terms of Syria, Libya and sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asians were almost never mentioned, so I wondered what was actually happening.

And then, I looked at some statistics, and they were even more surprising because actually during the crisis, in some months. Bangladeshis were the second largest group of people arriving in Italy. That really intrigued me, and I thought, what is going on, I need to find out. So I spent quite a long time, over two years, just visiting these refugee camps, talking to migrants, travelling across Italy. 

In the past, I was a journalist, so I am accustomed to making the preparations, setting up contacts and so on and so forth, which allowed me access to these things. And it was a completely fascinating thing, just meeting all these people, venturing into these migrant camps, and I heard amazing stories — it was completely a revelation. 

Any particular story that stuck with you?  
Many many stories, and some of them have, in sort of complicated ways, made their way into this book. But the stories, I mean you could say... I’m haunted by them. Most of all because I realised, as I was talking to these kids, as they really were kids, that something is happening in the world — there is an upheaval happening, which we are not cognisant of. It’s a greater upheaval than we could even imagine, that’s making people undertake these extraordinary journeys. And this upheaval is not necessarily rationally explained.

There is something in it which is so excessive that you can’t even really account for it. I’ll give you an example. In Rome, I spoke to a boy — he was about 17, he was from Pakistani Punjab, who at the age of 15 had some sort of family dispute. And he just got up and took a train, and started travelling, and somehow ended up crossing the border into Iran with a group of migrants and refugees. Then he went across from Iran into Turkey and from Turkey into Greece — and they do all this in the most amazing ways.

In Rome again, I spent a lot of time talking to a really extraordinary brilliant young man. He is an Afghan from one of the minority communities within Afghanistan, and he had tried repeatedly to do the same... You know, one of the ways they get across the border is that they get under the big trucks, and hold on, and he had got caught three or four times and then finally he made it. I mean, you literally cannot believe the things that they put themselves through...

It’s interesting to note how prominent a role the internet, and particularly social media, plays across the narrative. From Deen talking about ‘ghosting’ in the initial pages and Tipu’s online stalking skills to the more darker aspects with Piya receiving threats online and the functioning of human trafficking rings on the internet... Was this something you seriously considered, to play up through the narrative: Our constant dependence on social media?
Really, I think social media and the internet have completely disrupted and transformed human life. We just don’t understand or appreciate the degree to which that has happened. Most of us are just not aware of it. It has completely transformed life.

So, for example, with the migrants, it’s not that I put that into the book — rather, it’s their reality. For the migrants, the journey begins with social media, it begins with the cellphone. Just imagine, if you are a boy or a girl growing up in a village in say, Bengal, planting rice — which is a very difficult and precarious occupation, but you have a cellphone, which you charge through solar power, and through this device, you can see pictures… and those pictures make you think, ‘Well, why am I doing this? I could just be there.’

The internet has erased distances, and more than that, it has erased in some strange way, an awareness of danger. Because that was another thing that really struck me often with these young migrants, in the same way that people are taking selfies and they are not aware of any danger. India, as you know, has one of the highest numbers of ‘selfie deaths’ as they call them… you think, because you are taking a selfie nothing can happen to you, and that becomes a way of thinking; you live inside the device and you forget that the real world actually has real-world impacts.

That, to me, is the most interesting thing about this, that this technology has caused neural changes, changes within the brain. And we know that for a fact, but when we think about the neurological changes that have occurred, we almost always think of some privileged white kids in Palo Alto, stuck in a basement.

But I really think the neurological changes are probably much more acute if you are in a state of poverty, because this is a technology that many people can learn to master very young, no matter what circumstance they live in. They could be living in a poverty-stricken village, but they can access this technology. Just think of what it does to your brain and think of what it does to your imaginings, to your state of mind! 

When the character of Horen speaks about storms as measures of time, about cyclones like Bhola and Aila — were you trying to reflect on the precariousness of livelihood for communities ensconced in a natural ecosystem, vulnerable to the effects wrought by climate change? 
Yes. Horen is a character who also figures in my earlier book, The Hungry Tide, which was published in 2004. In 2009, the Sunderbans was hit by the cyclone Aila, and that cyclone, though it didn’t kill many people because of evacuation procedures and so on, it caused incredible disruption in the eco-system. Cyclone Aila brought a lot of saltwater deep inland, it swamped rice-fields, which there-after ceased to be productive.

So it really caused incredible and deep destruction, and since then, there has been a sort of massive outflow of people from the Sunderbans. And, I am just talking about the Indian Sunderbans, while it’s even more the case in Bangladesh. You may have read in the papers, of these building collapses in Dhaka. The people who work in those buildings, most of them I’m told, are from a couple of districts where the saltwater intrusion is taking away more and more of the land, because of the rising sea level. 

In these migrant centres, I spoke to many people who had obviously been displaced by environmental changes. I mean, they were essentially environmental refugees, but what was curious was that if you said, ‘Are you an environmental refugee?’ none of them will accept it. 

Why do you feel that is? 
It’s not because they are unaware of climate change, or what’s happening, because Bangladeshis especially are very well-informed about climate change, and the government has undertaken many sorts of programs to inform people. It’s because, basically, they don’t think of themselves as victims. 

Maybe because the term itself implies a loss of agency… 
That’s absolutely right. Think about it — these are twenty-somethings, sometimes teenagers, and they’re in the prime of their lives.

Amitav Ghosh

Another thing that is striking in the book is the fact that the Gun Merchant’s legend is passed on orally as a rule, and then there are the differences in the ways that both Horen and Nilima remember the tale. Was this a way of representing a multiplicity of perspectives, while retaining the subjectivity of any ‘historical’ account and negating the centrality of any official meta-narratives? Complex question, this!
When you read what you might call Bengali folk narratives or folktales, what they actually are, are mangal kavyas, what you might call devotional literature. So when you read such literature, the thing that struck me very much was that they present a very realistic picture of life in the conditions of Bengal.

After all, if you live in the countryside, especially in Bengal, there are a lot of snakes and we have always had a very complex and peculiar relationship with snakes... you know, in the Mahabharata, in the Adi Parva, it’s all about snakes, and people relating to snakes.

But in this case, there are also droughts, famines, and tidal waves. All those things figure in these legends, and in that sense, you could say that they’re actually quite realistic in their depiction of what life in the Bengal countryside is like. 

There are many different strands in the book — climate change, multiple truths, the fear that underlies intolerance, and the alienation of the human condition in a digital age — but what makes the book pertinent to the times we live in? 
I have to pick one thing? (Laughs.) If it’s pertinent, that’s because it’s about the real world. It’s about the world we live in today. It’s about the here and now. I would say what it’s about most of all is the reality that we don’t notice. It’s the changes that even I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t gone around interviewing people and speaking to them, and just observing things first-hand. 

There are a lot of strong female characters in the book — from Piya to Cinta to Lubna, to non-central characters like Nilima, Moyna, Gisa and the unnamed Ethiopian woman, not to forget the Goddess behind the legend, Manasa Devi. Were these conscious choices as a storyteller, or did they happen organically?
It completely happened organically. Completely. I mean it’s not like I set out to write a book about strong women characters. But some of these characters had been in my earlier books: Moyna, Piya, Nilima, they are all from The Hungry Tide. So, I guess, there is also a carry-over. 

What would you say about this choice of intertextuality? Did you deliberately want to take these characters, and make them a part of this new journey of Gun Island?  
It wasn’t a part of a plan as such, but you might almost say that the characters themselves wanted to come back. (Laughs.) And that does happen you know, it’s not like a writer is like a God who says, ‘character, you do this’. I mean, characters have their own agency, their own kind of volition. They also sometimes want to come back. 

Tell us about your journey as a writer. Was it something you always wanted to do? Also, how have the publishing networks changed now as compared to when you started out? 
I feel extraordinarily fortunate. The only thing I ever really wanted to do was to write books, since I was like a kid of 12 or 13. Because I love to read, and I read a lot, and so from a very early age, I wanted to be a writer. I feel extraordinarily fortunate that I have been able to do this, that I do the only thing I know how to do, and people actually read it!  (Smiles.)

It seems kind of miraculous to me. And, the publishing world has certainly changed a great deal. When I wrote my first book, it was accepted by an English publisher, so I wanted to have it published in India as well. At that point, there was just one publisher who was in Delhi and they mainly published textbooks. I remember going to him with my manuscript, and he looked at me and said, ‘What? Is it a textbook?’ (Laughs.) 

Now, there are so many publishers, there is such an active and lively publishing scene, there are so many young writers publishing, and apart from all that, there are all the ancillary industries that grow up around publishing, like bookstores. So all of that is there now. 

There are many works of literature that are now being appropriated for the visual medium. What would some of your concerns be, for lending your works for adaptation, and what would you look forward to, in that process?
I think, this new way of watching, that is, binge-watching of serials — it’s an absolutely wonderful thing. And, it’s much more suited to novels... I have signed innumerable contracts for making some or the other book of mine into a film.

But my books are long and complicated, and they’re not always so easily adapted to a one-and-a-half-hour film. But I think this new serial thing would work really well with some of my books. As you may know, Shekhar Kapur has signed up for the Ibis trilogy, which is very nice! 

Any concerns over adaptations...
Well, of course, I want them to be faithful to the text, and not make stuff up. But film and TV are different mediums from writing, and if you sign that contract, you have to accept that, in a way, you have to let go. You have to trust the people you work with, you have to leave it in their hands, and you can’t insert yourself too much. In any case, they wouldn’t allow it. (Laughs.) 

Quickfire takes

What are you working on next? Any upcoming writing projects?
At the moment, I am working on a short non-fiction project. 

What are you reading right now? 
Raj Kamal Jha’s The City and the Sea

What is on your reading wishlist? 
So many books! I want to read the new biography of Kaifi Azmi, and a lot of non-fiction and fiction. I also want to read this book on the floods in Chennai, which sounds like a really interesting book. It’s Rivers Remember by Krupa Ge. 

Who are some underrated writers according to you? 
There are so many writers who are now almost forgotten, and whose work we really need to reread and reintroduce to a younger generation. Attia Hosain is one of them — Sunlight on a Broken Column is a wonderful book.  Kamala Markandaya, Nectar in a Sieve.

Then there was Aubrey Menen, who is almost forgotten now. There was also this strange, quirky writer who for a while was really popular... He was of Bengali origin, but he was a postman in Britain and he wrote these strange rather scandalous books, which we all really enjoyed reading. His name was Sasthi Brata, and now he is completely forgotten. 

A book you have read many times? 
A book that I return to very often is Moby Dick.

Your favourite trilogy? 
I suppose it would have to be my own. (Laughs.) 

Gun Island, INR 699, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random House.

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