Gun Island and the Stories That Emerge on a Changing Planet

Torsa Ghosal on Amitav Ghosh, Samanta Schweblin, and Others

Along the melting edges of Canada’s Teardrop glacier, evolutionary biologist Catherine La Farge and her team spotted a species of moss that was presumed dead for centuries. Rising temperatures that caused the glacier to shrink exposed vegetation, slumbering beneath sheets of ice since the so-called Little Ice Age, to air and sunlight. The moss reawakened and sprouted new shoots when planted in La Farge’s laboratory. Other scientists have discovered and revived millennia-old life forms from receding permafrost in the 21st century.

While rapid climate change is betraying the fragility of earth’s ecosystems, it is also revealing patterns of endurance and survival that would seem improbable in the past. The planet’s warming may continue to reawaken a variety of organisms entombed in ice, ranging from worms and disease-causing bacteria to mosses and flowering plants.

The Indian writer Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel Gun Island makes us wonder whether the warming planet can also revive premodern legends that lay buried in different cultures for extended time periods. Can extreme weather stir up slumbering folk heroes and their nemeses? What happens when age-old stories embedded in the permafrost of intergenerational memory suddenly thaw?

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BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY

Gun Island, Amitav Ghosh (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) · Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera (And Other Stories, 2015) · Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin (Riverhead Books, 2017) · Latitudes of Longing, Shubhangi Swarup (Harper Collins India, 2018 / One World, 2020) · Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Vintage, 2014)
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The narrator of Ghosh’s novel is Deen Datta, an Indian-American dealer of rare books who believes that “some stories, like certain life forms, possess a special streak of vitality that allow them to […] survive extended periods of dormancy.” In his youth, Deen researched the lore of the Bengali folk hero, Chand Sadagar. Now in his late fifties, Deen learns of another folk hero called “Bonduki Sadagar,” or the Gun Merchant, from a distant relative at a family function in Calcutta. Another elderly relative implores Deen to visit the Gun Merchant’s shrine and thereby sets in motion an adventure that will take Deen to the mudflats and mangrove forests of the Sundarbans and the cities of Los Angeles and Venice, among other places. On becoming a conduit for the revival of the Gun Merchant’s legend, Deen unearths ancient ties that connect disparate people, animals, languages, and cultures.

Through Deen’s adventures, Ghosh’s novel dwells on the ways in which nature shapes communities and dictates how people socially group themselves into families. Nature also manifests the consequences of human actions. The Gun Merchant, Deen discovers, was a rich trader who refused to worship Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes in Hindu folklore. Provoked by the merchant, the goddess unleashed droughts, famines, and other calamities in which the merchant lost his family and fortune. He fled his homeland and sought refuge in distant countries, but the goddess continued to haunt him. In the end, the merchant swore to become her devotee and build a shrine for her. Centuries later, Deen’s relative encounters the Merchant’s shrine in the Sundarbans.

A growing set of ecofictions reflects on how elemental forces can both revive submerged bonds among diverse people and unearth links between the animate and inanimate worlds.

Echoes carry across decades in Gun Island. This initial encounter that paves the way for Deen’s acquaintance with the legend occurs soon after a cyclone in 1970; by the time Deen attempts to visit the shrine, another cyclone has ravaged the Sundarbans, uprooting villages and dispersing families from the delta. These instances of destruction and dispersal are acts in a much longer and complex story, as calamities that force families out of their homes also open the door for serendipitous discoveries about the connections between strangers.

While Deen’s extended family sends him on the quest, he runs into other kin on the way. In Venice, he meets people from Madaripur, a district in present-day Bangladesh that was home to his ancestors several decades back. The legend Deen pieces together illuminates the common lineage of human beings and a multitude of other life forms—Deen’s newly found kindred also include whales, dolphins, and spiders.

The idea that certain resilient life forms and stories can survive prolonged stages of dormancy drives Gun Island. However, endurance comes at a cost and the price of survival is change. Everything that manages to thrive in the world of Gun Island also necessarily morphs and moves, and migration becomes essential for survival in a planet where oceans, glaciers, and shorelines shapeshift at an unprecedented rate.

Gun Island is a new addition to a growing set of ecofictions from or about the Global South that reflects on how elemental forces can both revive submerged bonds among diverse people and unearth links between the animate and inanimate worlds. In Signs Preceding the End of the World, the Mexican writer Yuri Herrera, akin to Ghosh, explores the kinships that crop up when poor living conditions force people out from their homelands.

The Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream offers an unsettling picture of maternal love and instincts against the backdrop of a bleak, poisoned landscape. In the Indian writer Shubhangi Swarup’s Latitudes of Longing and the Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust, mountains, seas, and drylands engulf and then spout ancestral legends. Genealogy is rooted in geology and vice versa in these fictions. The earth has a long memory, and the past is always present.

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When we first meet Makina, the plucky young protagonist of Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, she is standing on a precipice, about to fall into a “sinkhole.” In Makina’s world, kinship is as fragile as it is malleable. Her brother crossed an international border (the Mexico-US border) and never returned home. Makina fears that when people stay for too long on the other side, they become strangers to their own parents and siblings. So, at her mother’s request, she taps into the “underworld,” leaves her hometown, and travels across the border with the help of “coyotes” to find her brother. The journey compels Makina to ponder on the meaning of “Family.” Herrera writes:

She’d known families that were truncated, extended, bitter, friendly, guileful, doleful, hospitable, ambitious, but never had she known a Happy Family of the sort people talked about, the sort so many swore to defend…

(translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman)

The absence of happy families is the subject of many memorable stories. A genre—the family saga—thrives on the tension among family members, and the deep, dark secrets families keep for generations. Unearthing the past is a crucial event in such stories. Owuor’s Dust follows this template, but in Herrera’s novel, what family members reveal and hide is not of much interest. Instead the mystery at the heart of Signs is how families—representative of other social groups—originate and what they become when faced with political and environmental adversities.

While searching for her brother, Makina bonds with people she meets along the way. The relationships she develops are fortuitous, made possible by the desire for a better life that she shares with many others, but Herrera also notes that “all families had started off in some mysterious way: to repopulate the earth, or by accident, or by force, or out of boredom […] .” Makina, like the characters in Gun Island, becomes a figure for morphing and crossing over, bridging languages and cultures. Despite suffering displacement, she concludes that “what was happening was not a cataclysm.” Tender, humane connections may emerge through accidents, but they promise to endure.

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However, resilience and adaptability need not always lead to desirable changes. Western literature abounds in chronicles of undesirable transformations: King Midas turns his child into an inanimate gold statue. Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into a vermin. In a similar vein, Samanta Schweblin’s minimalist novel Fever Dream brings out the chilling implications of endurance through migration and metamorphosis.

Fever Dream, translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, is an extended conversation between a mother—Amanda—on her deathbed, and a young boy called David, the son of a mysterious woman Amanda encountered by chance. The boy, we learn, was infected by “worms” when he put his hands in a stream. The contaminated water killed a bird and a stallion, but David survived because his mother took him to a “woman in the green house.” This woman moved David’s spirit into an unknown body and brought an unknown spirit into David’s sick body. Following this procedure, which the woman calls “migration,” David’s body and soul lived on, but his mother could no longer accept him as her child.

Poisoned water and worms unmoor families in Fever Dream. That the process required to survive—migration—takes place in a “green house” enforces the sense that this is a climate parable. Schweblin’s novel asks how far will a mother go to keep her child alive in a poisoned world and what are the consequences of those instinctive decisions.

Characters and their plights are as interchangeable as their souls in Fever Dream, with Schweblin’s spare prose effectively drawing upon archetypes. Interchangeability ensures that characters can morph into one another in order to survive, but it also necessitates that mothers and children become strangers to one another. This is the maddening world of Fever Dream.

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Schweblin’s characters seem to speak out of a void—their conversation could be set anywhere. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust, with its vivid evocation of place, couldn’t be more different in style from Fever Dream but Owuor’s story is as concerned with primal instincts and attachments as Schweblin’s.

In lush prose, Owuor describes the Kenyan drylands—a “landscape of loss” from the point of view of Ajany, a young painter who left Wuoth Ogik, her home in Kenya, to avoid confronting her family’s and her country’s violent history. Ajany returns to Kenya from Brazil after her brother, Odidi, is killed in a gunfight in Nairobi. Her arrival in her home country coincides with the announcement of the 2007 presidential election results that sparked violent protests and country-wide massacre.

Ajany’s presence in Wuoth Ogik, her home, stirs the past. We learn of her strained relationship with her father, Nyipir, and mother, Akai. Through Nyipir’s and Akai’s memories, Owuor takes readers back to the 1950s, the period of Mau Mau Uprisings and its ruthless suppression by the British colonists. Nyipir’s brother went missing years ago and this disappearance continues to haunt the family in 2007 as do Akai’s love affair with a colonial official and Kenya’s colonial past. Ajany’s parents always evaded discussing their secrets openly because they wanted to put the past behind them. Nyipir has actively tried to “create” forgetfulness and erase records of his involvement in murders.

Burdened by these silences, both Odidi and Ajany had longed to move out of Wuoth Ogik when they were younger. Ajany recalls that her brother Odidi “had started it. Their homelessness. He had conjured up stories of Elsewhere—imagined siblings, aunties, uncles, cousins, and grandparents.”

Though the siblings left Wuoth Ogik and their family fell apart, their homeland held the familial secrets for a long time. Ajany’s return following her brother’s death begins to uncover the history buried under layers of dust. Thwarted desires and loss haunt what remains of the family, and also the larger, diverse community in the area (comprising Somali herdsmen, an English man, and an Indian shopkeeper, among others).

But even Wuoth Ogik cannot withstand the destructive forces of history forever. A refrain in Owuor’s novel is “What endures?” The answer is both everything and nothing. Over time a neighborhood that was home simply becomes a constellation of “neglected corrugated iron triangle-huts.” Like the rivers and lakes flooding and evaporating by turns, life in the drylands is transitory. Owuor’s voice is lyrical, her vision breathtaking. She writes,

What endures? Echoes of footsteps leading out of a cracking courtyard, and the sound a house makes when it is falling down.

What endures?

Starting again.

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The babbling of thundershowers functions as an overture in Shubhangi Swarup’s Latitudes of Longing, an intergenerational tale about the subterranean forces that connect people and continents even when they seem to be drifting apart.

Chanda Devi, a clairvoyant woman whose arrival in the remote Andaman Islands awakens friendly ghosts, finds the kingdom of flesh unreliable when compared to the kingdom of plants. Her husband, Girija Prasad, does not always understand her but in his own way, shares her reverence for nature. Earthquakes and storms mark both birth and death in their story. Chanda Devi and Girija Prasad’s daughter is born two months after an earthquake, and Chanda Devi dies moments after giving birth. Years later, Girija Prasad will remember that hot day and weep for the first time since his wife’s death, as he faces a tsunami which will soon pull him into the sea.

We do not quite know what endures; which lives, myths, and geological features will survive.

Latitudes of Longing scales the heights of mountains and depths of oceans swiftly. Time passes. Girija Prasad and Chanda Devi’s grandson, Rana, inherits from them the desire to understand the geological patterns that shape lives and connect them to other families, their dreams and yearnings. Like Gun Island, Swarup’s novel revels in uncovering deep, seemingly irrational webs of connections. Incidental encounters assume monumental significance. Like Dust, the world of Latitudes collapses and starts again, many times over. In a delirious moment, Rana says that although the faces change, the force of love tethers everyone and everything.

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Prior to writing Gun Island, Amitav Ghosh bemoaned the fact that climate change had figured “only obliquely” in his novels, though he has been preoccupied with the subject for a long time. In The Great Derangement, his nonfiction book that preceded Gun Island, he explained that he evaded depicting catastrophic weather events in his fictions because the novel in its modern form eschews exceptional situations, avoids scenes that may be construed as improbable. Extreme weather phenomena—their suddenness and unpredictability—put a strain on credibility when incorporated in fictions. Even surviving such crisis requires only a tinge of heroism—the willingness to do what it takes—and is, to a much greater degree, a matter of chance.

Deen’s stumbling on the pieces of the Gun Merchant’s legend, his encounter with a tornado, the circumstances of Makina’s journey and the births and deaths in Chanda Devi’s family may lead a reader to exclaim, what are the chances? But then, what are the chances that complex life forms reawaken after remaining buried in tons of ice for centuries?

The sweeping purview of these ecofictions and the ways in which they embrace the workings of chance lead to a humbling recognition. We do not quite know what endures; which lives, myths, and geological features will survive, and what they will become in their struggle to outlast calamities.

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This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Torsa Ghosal
Torsa Ghosal
Torsa Ghosal is the author of a novel, Open Couplets (Yoda Press, India, 2017). Her shorter writings have appeared in Catapult, Bustle, Entropy, Michigan Quarterly Review Online, Himal Southasian, and elsewhere. A writer and professor of literature based in California, Torsa grew up in Calcutta, India. She edits the South Asian literary magazine, Papercuts. Website: www.torsaghosal.com. Tweets @TorsaG.





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