Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh: Book reviews

The first work I ever read of Amitav Ghosh was his debut novel The Circle of Reason and its characters of Alu, Balaram Bose and Jyoti Das left a lasting impression on me. I remember how some people had at the time while discussing the complexities of the plot suggested that he trim his cast and plot in the future. After that I read The Shadow Lines and then post a brief hiatus from Mr Ghosh, my love affair was rekindled with The Glass Palace.

This really connected with me for some portions seemed right out of my husband’s maternal grandfather’s life story (just some parts, that is). So when I got a chance to dive into The Gun Island, I was really excited.

But right off, while this novel is about a significant and developing reality that is affecting us all, it seems it has more of the activist Ghosh’s soul than the novelist. Right off the bat it seems as if he has listened to all those who wanted him to trim the cast and plot since this isn’t as complex as many of his other works. While that makes it an easy and fast read, and I say this as a fan, leaves me feeling a little underfed. Not that this book isn’t a quality product. But, maybe, I seek more from him.

The Gun Island is the story of Deen, Piya, Tipu, Rafi and Cinta. It is about goddess of snakes, Manasa Devi, and her battle with Chand Sadagar or Bonduki Sadagar. It connects through history, myths and movement the Sundarbans to Venice. The author here claims that the term ‘bundook’ is derived from al-Bunduqiya, the Arabic name for Venice and this Bonduki myth sees us being transported from the 17th century to the present. The writer shows how migration has been a perennial reality and not a new phenomenon.

Amitav Ghosh had in his 2016 non-fiction work, The Great Derangement, discussed the issue of climate change and our apathy towards it. In interviews, he had also spoken of how it was the responsibility of novelists “to be attentive to things around and put them in our books”. The author thus holds true to his belief here and makes us focus on the most defining issues of our times: Migration, climate change, and, to a lesser extent, homosexuality.

But, in this conflict between activist and novelist or the cause and the plot, it is the activist and cause which wins. And while he does infuse magic realism in his work, reality overpowers it time and again. It also doesn’t help that the author doesn’t seem fully invested in the characters, the myths or the surreal elements of the plot.

He repeatedly tries to use science and logic to explain all the fantastical events that happen to the point that it detracts and distracts the reader from getting fully invested in the surreal. After all how would you feel if you are first shown a magic trick and then someone tries to demystify it by explaining the process?

Amitav Ghosh is a master storyteller and he tells a fine tale here. But it, ultimately, leaves one with ‘if onlys’ and ‘what ifs’. Hope the author doesn’t look to straddle both sides of a bridge in his next and gives us something that recalls the punch of his previous works.