It is, but naturally, a full house at the gorgeous Royal Opera House, the venue of the launch of the famed Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island. For the many Mumbai fans of his The Ibis Trilogy (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, Flood of Fire) —and his other well-loved faves including The Glass Palace and Shadow Lines, hearing the gifted wordsmith in the flesh is not an occasion to be missed. Organised by Literature Live! and Penguin Random House, in association with Royal Opera House, Mumbai and Avid Learning, the draw is clearly the discussion on the book and its main themes between one of India’s finest living English language writers, and filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, no less.
Ghosh’s new book is peopled with a diverse cast of characters, and set in places that range from the Sundarbans to Los Angeles and Venice. We are drawn into a world in which creatures and beings of every kind have been torn loose from their accustomed homes by the catastrophic processes of displacement unfolding across the earth. It is also a story about a man whose faith in the world is restored by two remarkable women. The story follows a Brooklyn-based dealer in rare books on a visit to his birthplace, Kolkata, where he finds his life becoming entangled with an ancient legend about the goddess of snakes, Manasa Devi. While visiting a temple, deep within the vast mangrove forests of Bengal, he has a disturbing encounter with the most feared, and revered, of Indian snakes, the king cobra. This is followed by a series of increasingly uncanny episodes that seem to dissolve the borders of the human and non-human…
...Entrancing? Shekhar Kapur sure seems smitten, declaring that Gun Island is un-put-down-able and he had read the book in virtually one go!
The discussion tees off with Kapur commenting on Ghosh’s frequent use of coincidence. “Yeah, of course, all novelists do (use coincidence) otherwise novels won’t work,” the author smiles. “All novels have to have coincidence and plot points otherwise narration itself is impossible. All our lives are filled with coincidences. The idea of coincidence is related to the idea of chance and the modern world is very interested in chance, probability. But what is the word for chance in our languages? In Benagli it translates to ‘that which is done by the Gods’ and is the work of the Gods. So we return to the idea of destiny and faith!”
Pointing out that the book is not scientific in the least, Shekhar comments that it is a trip down the rabbit’s hole, mixing myth and life in a magical way. Ghosh reveals that one very important element of this book is a set of Bengali poems, the Mangal Kavyas, which go back to the 15th century. “We have to find a new way for writing about our world because the old ways are clearly not adequate for the real world,” he maintains, discussing the principal figures of the poems—Manasa devi and Chand Sadagar. “These stories are unique and the deeper I got into them, the more they seemed to me to represent something incisive and a really powerful insight into the world that we live in.”
Ghosh accepts that Gun Island doesn't follow any type of ordinary logic. “I think we have been too logical for too long so what stories need to do is lead us away from a certain kind of logic which is now seen to be so utterly destructive.”
Recounting how for him the book began a few years ago when he was in Venice, Ghosh shares, “We were at this beautiful apartment and everytime I came down to buy stuff I found that everyone I was interacting with on the street was in fact, Bengali and this completely astonished me. I have been going to Italy for a very long time but there weren't that many South Asians then. Italy has changed so much and this discovery seems so amazing to me that a city like Venice is actually a giant stage set, managed by many young Bengalis!”
Waxing on about Venice, where his story returns to, he observes, “Venice is a genuinely captivating and unbelievable place. It has amazing history. The reason why Venice was such a rich and powerful place is that it controlled the European spice trail for a very long time, even as the Portuguese and Spanish tried to break its monopoly. Venice was actually the mover of history. Once you look at these contexts and the way the Venetians travel, Marco Polo, etc makes Venice a place which is inexhaustible. And then the ultimate point is that Venice is sinking and the streets are flooding...”
Shekhar excitedly points out that the ship worms which are attacking the wood on which Venice is built could actually exist! “This really comes from reading these legends and from what Manasa Devi really represents—the life of other beings. Contemporary literature is so human centric and humans hardly know other beings,” Ghosh points out. Observing that everything in the book starts to fit like a giant jigsaw puzzle, Shekhar declares that the book would translate beautifully on film. Ghosh reveals he has tried screenwriting but lacks the skill because he simply hasn’t learnt to collaborate!
The conversation veers to webseries becoming the new novels, as Ghosh shares that he has binge-watched his share of series. “My absolute favourite was 'Friday Night Lights’. I don't know anything about American football but the way the series drew you in was really exciting. It was really good. 'The Girl From Babylon' was also really good. I haven't watched 'Sacred Games' yet but I'm going to!” he smiles.
Quizzed about how exactly he writes, Ghosh shares, “A writer’s life is pretty dull. I just sit in my study and try to start from morning and just get through with it all day. My hope is always to have a productive day. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and no two days have been the same because once you’re writing a character, you're literally in a new imaginary world, in some other space, looking out at the mundane. But, again, over the years it does become like a discipline, something that you do regularly.” And then he adds in his self-effacing manner, “I must say that I'm also consumed with envy for the world of fame, theatre because those collaborative projects must be so rewarding and so exciting with those highs and lows. Working with so many people and meeting new people must be so exciting whereas our minds are exciting somewhere else...”
Gun Island is proof of his statement!