Amitav Ghosh explains why it's impossible to not write about climate change

Amitav Ghosh (Illustration by Binay Sinha)
The Stein Auditorium in New Delhi can accommodate a few hundred people, and during the launch of Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, Gun Island, not one seat in the house was empty. I was sitting in the third or fourth row; whenever the doors to the auditorium opened during the discussion, you could hear the murmur of voices outside. Later, a long, serpentine queue of readers waited patiently to get their copies signed. During the post-launch discussion, people in the audience asked erudite questions to Ghosh, ranging from subaltern themes to the availability of opium in Varanasi.

But does Ghosh remember all his novels well enough to engage with readers like that? This is one of the first questions I ask him when we meet a couple of days later. “You know, honestly, I don’t remember my novels that well,” he replies, smiling. “Someone who read it yesterday remembers it much better than I, who wrote it 30 years back.” He confesses to being stumped by readers who often come up to him quoting passages and asking him to explain. “When people quote a passage, I am often like: ‘Oh my god, when did I write that?’.” Ghosh’s novels, as he knows, have been included in school and university syllabuses, making him popular beyond the usual readers of Indian literature in English. 

We meet at a coffee shop at the Taj Mahal Hotel on Mansingh Road. Ghosh strolls in punctually, wearing a chic blue shirt with its sleeves folded back casually. He is, of course, a familiar figure, but what is unfamiliar is a new goatee he is sporting, as white as his hair. He is possibly aware that it adds a touch of quirkiness to his otherwise calm personality; in the course of our rendezvous, he frequently touches it with his fingers. He orders a decaf espresso; I order a regular one. 

My name betrays my origins. “Are you from Calcutta?” he wants to know, and when I provide the confirmation, he also enquires about where I studied. “So, do you like Delhi? How long have you lived here?” he asks. When I confirm my undiluted love for the city, he wonders, “How do you live in this heat?”

The rising heat — not only in Delhi but all over the world — is as much the theme of Gun Island as it is of his previous book, The Great Derangement. In the previous book, a work of non-fiction, he had written that literature on climate change is always in danger of being pigeonholed into genres of fantasy or science fiction, as literary fiction rarely ever deals with it. So is Gun Island Ghosh’s attempt to address this? He has, after all, been engaged with the issue; if you scroll through his Twitter feed you will find retweets of news reports on how the cataclysmic climate events are wreaking havoc all across the world.

“In Gun Island, I was trying to write about the realities of the world we live in,” he says. “And climate change is now an undeniable fact of our lives. Just look outside: This incredible heat wave, the drought.” The temperature in Delhi had soared to 48 degrees Celsius just a few days ago; there is news of a severe water crisis in Chennai. A delayed monsoon and the fears of a drought are very real this year. With the situation worsening, it is obvious that climate change will displace more and more people. Ghosh’s novel also has several characters who are social, economic, and climate change migrants.

“A lot of the migrants end up in Italy, where I spent a lot of time,” says Ghosh, adding that he went to several refugee camps and processing centres for migrants, interviewing people who were there. “There were of course many Arabs and people from North Africa, but also many South Asians, especially Bengalis — from both West Bengal and Bangladesh.” This, Ghosh says, significantly changed his perspective about things. “The situation we are faced with today is really very complicated.”

Italy does play a major part in Gun Island — one key character, Cinta, is an Italian historian; the book is dedicated to two Italians: Anna Nadotti and Irene Bignardi. While Bignardi is a friend of Ghosh — “Since 1986”, he adds — Nadotti is his Italian translator. “You know, my books are very successful in Italy and one of the reasons for that is because she is such a good translator.” Though this is the first time he is writing about the Mediterranean nation, Ghosh claims Italy has played a very important part in his life for about 30 years. “Italy is a mysterious kind of a place in a way,” he says. “It exercises a strange kind of a gravitational pull.” In the course of researching this book, Ghosh learned Italian. “It opened up Europe in a new way to me.” 

If Italy is new in Gun Island, the Sundarbans is old. Anyone who has followed Ghosh’s career over the years will experience a sense of déjà vu while reading it. A number of characters of a previous novel, The Hungry Tide (2004), reappear. There is also the figure of a goddess and her cult — in this case Manasa Devi, the deity of snakes — that seems to hark back even further to The Calcutta Chromosome (1995). “When I finished the book, I realised that all the themes I have been interested in — Sundarbans, dolphins — all of them are in this book. Also, etymology, history, the past… it is nice really how all these threads have come back but in a new way.” Ghosh says reading medieval Bengali poems, especially the Manasamangal Kavya, planted the seed of this novel in him.

If the themes are somewhat familiar, there are other things that are not. For instance, unlike Ghosh’s earlier novels which are intricately plotted in the realistic mode, in this, the narrative often moves forward through chances and coincidences. A character gets a call, someone gets bitten by a snake... and so on. “Isn’t this a bit convenient?” I ask him. “Well, you could say that,” says Ghosh, “but there are no novels without such events.” He describes how he was warned in Bengali by someone as he was walking down the street in New York in the mid-1980s as a chunk of concrete came crashing down. “Such things happen, you know, and if a critic feels there are too many coincidences in my novel,” says Ghosh, “well, so be it.”

I finished reading Gun Island the night before our coffee date and I felt it was a love story. I also thought that perhaps the novel was an invitation to the reader to be vulnerable, like one often is when in love; it was an invitation to eschew the rigid principles of the realistic world and explore a different kind of a narrative. “When you start writing fiction, you always make yourself vulnerable,” says Ghosh. This also links in very well with the migrants, setting off on very difficult but incredible journeys, disproving the certainties of the nation state, the immigration rules. “It’s absolutely staggering,” he says. “And that’s what Gun Island is about — possibilities present in our world but which we often deny.”


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