Amitav Ghosh: Gun Island—A Novel

Transcript by Rey Smith


Jini Palmer: Welcome to Town Hall Seattle’s arts and culture series. On September 19th, 2019, lauded author Amitav Ghosh came to our Forum stage to present his new fiction, Gun Island. His novel focuses on a journey that his character Dean takes to upend everything he thought he knew about himself. From Bengali legends to a search for belonging to the profundity of relationships that can restore your faith in the world. Listen in as acclaimed and bestselling author Amitav Ghosh introduces us to the characters and world of his newest novel, Gun Island.

Amitav Ghosh: Hello. It’s such a pleasure to be here. I always so much enjoy my visits to Seattle and a lot of that is because of Rick Simonson and the Elliot Bay Bookstore and of course the Town Hall. They’ve always been so supportive of my work, so I feel really grateful to them over many, many years. So thank you all for being here tonight. So this new book, well, I’m just going to go off of the deep end and start at the very beginning of the book.

“The strangest thing about this strange journey was that it was launched by word—and not an unusually resonant one either but a banal, commonplace coinage that is in wide circulation from Cairo to Calcutta. That word is bundook, which means ‘gun’ in many languages, including my own mother tongue, Bengali, or Bangla. Nor is the word a stranger to English: by way of British colonial usages it found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary where it is glossed as ‘rifle’. But there was no rifle or gun inside the day the journey began; nor indeed was the word intended to refer to a weapon. And that, precisely, was why it caught my attention: because the gun in question was a part of a name—Bonduki Sadagar, which could be translated as ‘the Gun Merchant’. The Gun Merchant entered my life, not in Brooklyn where I live and work, but in the city where I was born and raised—Calcutta, or Kolkata as it is now formally known. That year, as in many others, I was in Kolkata through much of the winter, ostensibly for business. My work as a dealer in rare books and Asian antiquities requires me to do a good deal of on-site scouting and since I happen to possess a small apartment in Kolkata, that city has become a second base of operations for me.”

So the narrator here is a man called Dinanath Chatterjee who lives in Brooklyn and he’s actually Americanized his name so that he’s called Deen by most of his friends. So Deen is a rare book dealer and an antiquarian. And on this visit to Calcutta, he comes to learn of this temple. This temple is in the Sundarbans, that is the great mangrove forest of Southern Bengal. Has anyone here ever been to the Sundarbans? Oh, that’s more than usual. It’s quite a remarkable thing. How many people here have been to the Arctic? Just one, that’s interesting. I would have thought there’d be many more because the Arctic is so accessible from here, especially Alaska. But, the Sundarbans is, in its own way, as remarkable as the Arctic. It’s this extraordinary landscape of mangroves, but also of extreme danger because there are tigers—and these tigers in the Sundarbans are man-eating tigers—there are man-eating crocodiles, there are lots of snakes of course. So Deen comes to hear about this temple and this temple is consecrated to a figure called Manasa Devi. Manasa Devi is the goddess of snakes and she’s not just the goddess of snakes. She’s also the goddess of all venomous things and also of calamities, disasters, catastrophes of many different kinds. But in Bengali legend, Manasa Devi is always paired with another figure. This figure is called the merchant: Chand Sadagar is the classical one, but there are many different merchants with whom she sped. And it’s a very interesting set of legends really, because actually what this legend does is that it goes through the heart of what you might call a contemporary condition, which is that it posits a conflict between the human desire for profit and for making money and so on, and nature or the environment, you know, what do we owe to nature? What do we owe to the environment? So in some sense, Manasa Devi is the voice of the world, speaking to the human desire for gain at all costs and incredibly destructive desire as we now know. So it’s a very interesting legend. It’s a very interesting set of legends and it’s particular actually to Eastern India.

But there are many different versions of this legend and there are many temples that are consecrated to Manasa Devi and there are many sites which are consecrated to the merchant. So Deen hears about a temple in the jungle and, being an antiquarian and a rare book dealer, he decides he must go to visit it because actually Dean is a specialist on this particular legend; he wrote a thesis about it once. And his thesis was interesting because he was concentrating on one particular telling of the legend and he came to the conclusion that this version of the legend was written in the 17th century. So he decides to set off for the jungle, this great mangrove forest, and he has this guide. He’s a boy or a young man, he’s about 19 and his name is Tipu. So I wrote an earlier book which was set in the Sundarbans, that book is called The Hungry Tide. And some of the characters from The Hungry Tide come back in this book, and one of those characters is Tipu. Tipu was 6 years old in The Hungry Tide, but he’s grown up in the meantime, and now he’s 19. And because of various circumstances, his father died. He was kind of semi-adopted by an Indian American woman. So he spent some time in America, actually in Eugene, Oregon, where his adopted aunt teachers. So he was there for a couple of years and he became very Americanized, speaks perfectly American English and so on, and is a great expert at the internet. But Eugene, Oregon didn’t turn out very well for him. He was kind of becoming a delinquent, so he had to go back to India and he had to go back to the Sundarbans. But he turns up now to lead Deen into the forest.

“Tipu had the probing eyes and dotting movements of a hungry Barracuda. He even glinted, Barracuda-like, because of a silver ear stud and glittering highlights in his hair, which was spiky on top and flat at the sides. As for his clothes—a Nets t-shirt and baggy jeans that kept slipping down to expose his bright red boxers—they would not have looked out of place in Brooklyn. ‘Hey there,’ he said in English, sticking out his hand. ‘How you doing?’ Shaking his hand, I said, Hi, I’m—’ ‘I know who you are, Pops,’ said Tipu, grinning. ‘I know all about you.’ I was dumbfounded. ‘How?’ ‘Looked you up on the Net.’ I don’t know what annoyed me more: the insolence of his tone or that he had decided to call me Pops, as though I were a character from a comic book. But being unable to think of a suitable rejoinder, I decided that it would be best to ignore his sallies.”

So Deen and Tipu set off in a steamer for this—because the Sundarbans have these enormous rivers and you have to go a long way down these rivers in these steamers. And these are not like grand steamers, like your Mississippi steamers. These are small steamers that would make a big noise. So if you have any acquaintance at all with a mangrove forest, you’ll know that mangrove forests are mainly a lot of mud. So there’s mud, mud, mud, and you keep falling. If you’re trying to walk in that mud, you keep falling and so on. So Deen has a terrible time. He keeps falling down in this mud but somehow he gets to the temple in the end, with people’s help. So they had been told that the caretaker of the temple would be there to meet them. The caretaker is a young man called Rafi, but the caretaker isn’t there. So Tipu leaves Deen at the temple and goes off to find Rafi. So Deen is alone at this temple and he suddenly discovers that the template is very beautiful and it’s built in a style which is peculiar to the 17th century, again, in Bengal an extraordinary—it’s actually called the Bishnupur style of architecture. He’s kind of an expert on that so he’s entranced by it and he’s looking around, especially at the exterior, which has all these plaques on it.

“So caught up was I in thinking about the shrine’s exterior, that it was almost as an afterthought that I wandered through the arched gateway that led to the temple’s interior. It was very dark inside and seemed even more so because of the contrast with the bright mid-morning sunlight outside. But as soon as I had stepped past the gateway I knew, from the echoing of my bare feet, that I was in that I was in a cavernous, domed hallway, of a kind that is characteristic of this style of architecture. As I was looking around, I became aware of a low, growling sound somewhere behind me. I spun around thinking that a dog had followed me inside, but no! Framed in the arched gateway was the face of a shaggy-haired boy who was staring at me in what seemed to be utter disbelief. Who could this be but the much awaited Rafi? I was so delighted to see him that I hurried eagerly towards the entrance, crying out loudly: “Here you are! I’ve been waiting for you.’ He began to back away fearfully as I approached, and this did not entirely surprise me; I was, after all, a stranger, possibly an intruder. But still, his response was so excessive as to be almost amusing: he seemed to be seized by utter, eye-popping terror, as though I was some kind of monster. ‘I’m just a visitor,’ I said in a soothing tone. ‘I’ve come from Kolkata.’ But this didn’t stop the boy’s retreat; he continued to back away from me until his withdrawal was halted by the rim of the well. At last, he came to a standstill. Dropping his eyes, he began to breathe heavily as if in relief at a narrow escape.

He looked to be in his late teens with a lightly feathered upper lip and long, supple limbs. His face was narrow with large, long-lashed eyes and a full deep brown mouth that was downturned at both ends. ‘I seem to have caught you by surprise,’ I said. ‘You’re Rafi, aren’t you?’ He nodded and straightened himself. ‘And who are you?’ he said; I noticed that his Bangla accent was marked with the rustic lilt of the Sundarbans. ‘What are you doing here, all by yourself?’ He said to me. ‘I just want to ask you a few questions about the shrine.’ ‘Oh, I don’t know that I can tell you anything.’ he said brusquely. ‘I never had much to do with the shine or with those old legends.’ This was said with great vehemence. Yet there was an undertone in his voice that led me to wonder whether his skepticism about the legend had something to do with some long-ago crisis of disappointment, maybe of the kind that besets children when they learned that there is no Santa Claus and no toy factory at the North pole. ‘You’re right,’ I said, humoring him. ‘And it’s obvious, isn’t it, that this temple has nothing to do with Manasa Devi?’ His long-lashed eyes glinted as if in puzzlement. ‘Why?’ he said. ‘Why do you say that?’ ‘Because,’ I said, ‘if Manasa Devi had anything to do with this place, surely there would be a snake around here, wouldn’t there? A cobra? After all, she is the goddess of snakes.’

I glanced at him and saw, to my surprise, that his face had gone rigid. He was staring fixedly at me now, with a hand over his mouth. ‘What’s the matter?’ I said. Slowly his hand fell away from his mouth. ‘But there is,’ he whispered. ‘There is what?’ ‘There is a cobra inside the temple. It has been there many years.’ It was my turn now to stare in disbelief. ‘Impossible.’ I said. ‘I went inside. I didn’t see anything. No Cobra.’ ‘It was right behind you when you came out, he said. ‘I could see it behind you. It’s hood was raised and its head was above your shoulder. I’ve never seen it like that before; it never comes out when I’m here and I leave it alone too. It keeps other snakes and animals away. I never go in there—you must have disturbed it when you went in.’

‘No,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘No, it’s not possible.’ At that moment I was absolutely certain that he was joking or deluded. It was simply unimaginable that I had stepped into a cobra’s lair; such things just don’t happen to people like myself—reclusive antiquarians who spend most of their waking hours staring at screens and old books. At this point, we were at one of the temple’s far corners, where the facade joined the compound’s surrounding wall. From that angle, almost nothing was visible of the building’s interior except the arched entrance and the darkness inside. My incredulity at what I had just heard was such that my feet began to move of their own accord. Before I knew it, they had brought me face to face with the entrance so that I could confirm with my own eyes that everything was as I had thought. And then suddenly there it was, appearing out of the darkness like a whiplash, rearing up as if it had been waiting for me, the intruder, to show himself again.

Staring at it now at a distance of only a few feet, I realized that it was no ordinary cobra but a king cobra—a hamadryad—of a size such that it’s appraised head was level with mine. Its tongue flickered as I looked into its shining black eyes, and I became aware again of a growling sound. I would learn later that this species does not hiss but emits this other sound instead. I stood frozen, as if welded to the ground—yet, although it was well within reach of me, I am convinced, to this day, that the cobra would not have harmed anybody if not for what came next. Unbeknownst to me, Tipu had arrived at the compound’s gate moments earlier and had observed the scene as it was unfolding. Imagining that I was about to be attacked, he had snatched up a fishing net and crept stealthily into the courtyard. It was only when the net was cast at the cobra that I became aware of Tipu’s presence. And it was then too that the creature struck with astonishing speed and power. Even as the net was descending over its hood, it flung itself at Tipu and succeeded in striking him, with one fang, just above the left elbow. And then, just as suddenly as it appeared, the cobra was gone and the net was lying empty on the ground. Tipu was on his knees, hunched over his elbow, staring at the wound on his arm. Then he slowly crumbled to the ground and looked straight into my eyes. ‘What do I do now, Pops?’ he said in a whisper.”

So Tipu is very lucky here because king cobras are actually very, very dangerous. They very rarely attack human beings, but they are extremely venomous and they grow to extraordinary sizes, like 18 feet and so on. And they can actually raise two thirds of their body off the ground, so they can tower above human beings. And their venomous glands are so large that actually they can kill an elephant. And they’re known to be extraordinarily persistent when they strike. So they cling on and they just pump in all this venom. So this was a very unusual strike. They very rarely attack human beings or indeed other animals, because actually the reason why they’re so venomous is because they may lead snakes. But, other venomous snakes. So this was a very uncharacteristic strike. It didn’t actually mean, perhaps, to strike Tipu and he was lucky to get away with a glancing blow. And he’s lucky also that he was taken to a hospital and he survives.

But on the way to the hospital, as the venom is working its way into his system, he has these extraordinary hallucinations and visions and all kinds of seizures and so on. And Deen himself is kind of changed and transformed by this extraordinary experience. But Deen makes his way back to Brooklyn when he’s trying to recover from this completely shattering experience.

“Experience had taught me that to travel between Calcutta and Brooklyn was to switch between two states of mind. Each came with its own trove of memory for me. This alternation had happened so reliably in the past that it was not unduly optimistic, I think, to assume that my memories of that visit to the Gun Merchant’s shrine would recede once I had settled into my Brooklyn apartment. But this expectation was soon belied. For several weeks after my return I found it hard to focus on my work. It was as if some living thing had entered my body, something ancient that had long lain dormant in the mud. I could only think of it in analogy to germs or viruses or bacteria, yet it was, I knew it was none of those things: it was memory itself, except that it was not my own. It was much older than me, some submerged aspect of time that had been brought suddenly to life when I entered that shine—something fearsome, venomous and overwhelmingly powerful, something that would not allow me to be rid of it.

I was sitting at my desk one day, staring blankly at my computer, when a pop-up window appeared on the screen. Inside the window were the words: ‘Does the word Bhuta mean ghost? Or does it mean something else?’ Unnerved by this strange manifestation, I went to the bathroom and washed my face, hoping that this window would go away. But when I came back it was still on the screen, blinking, but now I noticed a line in small print. It said:  ‘Bonduki@bonduki.com wants to start a chat session with you.’ I sat down and typed, ‘Is that you, Tipu?’ The answer appeared after a couple of seconds. ‘Sure, it’s me. Now answer the question.’ ‘Why are you asking me this?’ I wrote. ‘Why don’t you look it up on the Net?’ ‘I did and now I’m asking you. What exactly does Bhuta mean?’ I scratched my head for a bit and then fetched the dictionary. ‘Look, I’m no expert on this,’ I wrote. ‘All I can tell you is that the Bangla word ‘bhoot’ or ‘bhutta’ comes from a basic but very complicated Sanskrit root, ‘bhu’, meaning ‘to be’ or ‘to manifest’. So in that sense, bhuta simply means ‘a being’ or ‘an existing presence’. There was a long pause. ‘So are you and I bhutas then?’ ‘I suppose you could say so.’ ‘And what about animals? Snakes? Dolphins?’ ‘In the sense that they exist and are beings, yes, animals are bhutas too.’ ‘Then why do people mean ‘ghost’ when they say ‘bhoot’? ‘Because bhutta also refers to the past, in the sense of a past state of being. Like when we say bhuta-kala or ‘times past’. Another long pause. ‘But if the same word means both existing and existed, wouldn’t it mean that the past wasn’t past? That the past was present in the present?’ ‘In a sense, yes.’ ‘But that’s impossible, isn’t it? How can the past be present in the present?’ ‘In the same way that you might say in English, ‘the present is haunted by the past,’ I suppose that’s how the word bhuta has come to mean ‘ghost’. This time his response was instantaneous. ‘So are you saying that ghosts exist?’ ‘NO!’ I yelped. My fingers had hit the keyboard so hard that had split a fingernail, but I typed on without stopping. ‘I’m not saying that at all. I’m just telling you what the word means.’ Several minutes went by before Tipu’s response appeared: ‘Okay, got it.’ This was followed by a thumbs-up emoji and then the window closed. I slammed shut my laptop and stared at it, shivering, half expecting it to open of itself. It was as though the most sterile object in my safe, man-made world had suddenly become a portal through which the primeval mud could draw me back into its depths.” So I’ll stop there and we can do questions now. Thank you.

Audience Member 1: Hello. Thank you for speaking. I was interested in the visions that occurred after the cobra sting. What kind of source material have you relied on for describing that experience, if any?

AG: That’s a very interesting question. Well, there’s a lot of material about near death experiences; I’m sure you can look it up quite easily, but actually it happened that when I was beginning to write this book, I actually had this experience when someone who was very close to me went through a near death experience and I just heard her describing what she was seeing. And I think that really fed into the book.

Audience Member 1: Do you know about the experiences of people who have been stung by cobras? Have they seen similar things to what you describe? Is there some commonality to those experiences of people who have been stung by cobras? Or have you looked into it?

AG: Yeah, I have a little bit, it’s not necessarily cobras, but actually in many ways, all venomous snake bites can result in all sorts of consciousness-altering experiences. As you know, in the U.S you have this whole thing of speaking with snakes and so on. Have you not heard about it?

Audience Member 1: I’m not from here, but yeah. Yeah.

AG: Well, in Alabama there’s a mountain where there’s an entire cult—it’s a Protestant cult—where people actually have this whole thing about snake bites and speaking in tongues and so on. And you know, it’s absolutely very much this possession thing.

Audience Member 1: Fascinating. Thank you

Audience Member 2: Hi. So I’m gonna to try and ask this question without doing spoilers because I know people have just gotten the book, but one of the characters you didn’t talk about in your readings—the Italian scholar, Cinta. And what I’m sort of wrestling with—because you do write a lot about the circulation of knowledge with people, not only in this book but in your other texts—and there’s one part of me that wants to read her as an orientalist presence and another part that thinks perhaps you have another point of view on the circulation and production of knowledge because of the story of the Bonduki Sadagar that works its way around the world? Would you please comment on that?

AG: Sure. I don’t see that you can call Cinta an orientalist really, because she’s an expert on— this is really one of the main characters in the book, she’s an Italian professor, a historian, a great sort of savant and also a very magnetic presence—and she’s an expert on Venetian history, not really on Asian or Oriental history at all. But the thing is that you can’t really separate them because Venice was absolutely at the crux of the trade with Asia, the trade with Mamluk Egypt. The reason that America was discovered was because of Venice, because Venice monopolized the spice trade for several centuries. And that was why the Portuguese and the Spanish began to finance these journeys of discovery. So it’s an extraordinary set of historical relationships that ties, if you like, the Indian ocean to the Atlantic. But also it’s an extraordinary thing that it’s a city like Venice that sits upon the crux of all this, you know? The whole trading trajectory of Venice is so curious and interesting because Venice was also the major trans-shipment port for trade to Africa, to the great Malian kingdom. And this happened to be the case, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries, just as a American chattel slavery was beginning to take off. But the currency in which chattel slavery was conducted was actually shells, cowrie shells. And these cowrie shells came from the Indian ocean. And they were traded through Venice. So it’s these peculiar sorts of conjunctions of natural objects that come together. Thank you.

Audience Member 3: Thanks for being here. In The Great Derangement, you write about a certain impossibility or unlikelihood of fiction that confronts climate change. And I wonder if the myth that you spoke of, this tension between a profit motive or capitalism on one hand and the environment on another, is this book your answer to that impossibility or is there no relation?

AG: No, there’s absolutely relation. Many of you will not be aware of this, but my last book was called The Great Derangement and it was about the ways in which climate change resists contemporary literature and the difficulties that contemporary writers have in trying to confront climate change. And I go through several sorts of arguments there. I won’t rehearse those arguments here, but at the end of writing that book, I became quite convinced that if we are to look for resources with which to approach our contemporary moment—a moment when we are increasingly beset by these extraordinary events; wildfires, these terrible years of smoke that you’ve had, here in Seattle and all along the West coast—I feel that we really have to go back to pre-modern literatures. Especially, I think it’s the folklore and the literature and the knowledge of Indigenous American communities—they are a great resource in trying to represent what’s happening. But my only resource is actually the Bengali language. And fortunately the Bengali language does have a great range of pre-modern literatures. So I started reading that literature quite seriously and I do feel that—and I did feel, when I went back to it—that in fact, these pre-modern poems get to the heart of the material existence of people within this Delta in a much more direct sense than even contemporary writing does. This literature, almost all of it is in verse, actually. It’s filled with things which are very common to life in Bengali for example, you know, storms and droughts and floods and famine and so on. All the stuff which people have been confronted with. And paramount among that—among that entire range of things—is actually the whole world of snakes. Snakes are so fundamental to life in India, any Indian will tell you that. Snakes are everywhere. And I think in some strange way snakes have kept Indians real, in the sense that because of their omnipresence, I think it’s impossible for Indians to think of mastering nature because the snakes are so completely the other and everybody who knows of their presence knows that they can’t be mastered. They can turn up in the most extraordinary places in the most astonishing and unexpected moments, and that’s why I think so much of Indian literature is actually devoted to snakes.

We have these two great epics and one of them is called the Mahabharata. And the first part of the Mahabharata, it is entirely about snakes. The whole story is set in motion by a king who wants to destroy all the snakes in the world and how he stopped and so on. So the role that snakes play in the Indian imagination in a way, you might say, is that they represent, if you like, the irreducibility of other beings in the world and what we owe to other beings and the ways in which we must contend with these beings and represent these beings. You know? Thank you. Yes.

Audience Member 4: Yeah. Thank you for your wonderful reading. It’s actually pretty extraordinary because my question was precisely about this crisis of representation that you talk about in The Great Derangement. So I guess—and you’ve partially answered it—so I guess I have a followup question instead. You’ve talked about the return to pre-modern literatures as a way to grapple with the representations of climate change. Do you mean that contemporary writers, and especially novelists, should try to kind of mimic those pre-modern forms? Another question is: could you recommend some recent examples of climate fiction that you think are successful?

AG: Sure. Those are two very, very good questions. No, I don’t in any sense think that we can return to pre-modern literature or mimic it in any way. No, it’s impossible. We are not pre-modern, you know, we are in some other place. What I’m saying is that I think we have to look at those resources, because the ideas that came into circulation with a certain kind of modernity—which actually begins in the 16th, 17th century with the Enlightenment and so on—and we see now the utter exhaustion of those ideas. And we see them most of all in the late 20th century, so we have to look around for resources. I think for Westerners, the almost fallback position is to try and look to the future, to look to Mars or the moon or something, which is the direction that they go in. But I have a very good friend, a philosopher called Georgia Gunden who always says that projections into the future are always projections of power. All we actually know about are the present and the past. And I do think that in fact—in any case, I’m no futurist, I don’t know anything about the future—but in as much as I know anything, it’s about the past. So I do feel that the past offers us so many resources for looking at our present condition. And whatever we may say, that futurism, that kind of projection, it’s got us nowhere. We just seem to be digging deeper and deeper, you know? So I do feel that we have to look for the resources that we can.

So the second question, which is: examples of successful fiction about our time. I think there are many, but the ones that stand out for me: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, which I think is a truly wonderful book. It’s a completely wonderful book. And Richard Powers’ The Overstory, another absolutely wonderful book. And I think Richard Powers really cuts to the heart of this whole problem in the sense that what he recognizes is that in a literary sense, the challenge that is before us today is that of, how do we restore a voice to the nonhuman—that is two creatures or beings or spirits or whatever you like to call them—that actually don’t speak? How do we give them a voice? Because this is what literature has always done. Why is it the case that in the Iliad and the Odyssey, so many kinds of nonhuman beings actually speak? Why is that the case even in, let’s say, the Bible? All sorts of nonhuman beings have voices. It’s only in these contemporary times that we’ve actually refused to allow any kind of voice or agency or intelligence or ability to the nonhuman. And it really dates back to this time of—well basically the 17th century, which is when you have Descartes and his whole idea of animals being essentially machines, which is—anyone who’s ever interacted with an animal knows that is the most absurd thing. Animals have emotions, they have communicative skills of all sorts. Anybody knows that. You can see that with plants and—as Richard Powers so wonderfully shows in The Overstory—this is true also of many kinds of botanical life. We know now the trees communicate with each other in a very intricate way. And we know that this communication is actually enabled by fungi. That is these mushrooms which are actually the largest living entities on the planet. So if you think about it, to trees, it’s we who must seem voiceless or devoid of agency, if you like. I sometimes think: here we are thinking we are the gardeners; we are gardening all these trees and all these plants. But what if it’s the other way around? They are gardening us because they know that at some point there’ll be some kind of catastrophic event after which they’ll feed off our bodies and grow ever richer. It’s possible, isn’t it?

Audience Member 4: That’s a great idea for your next novel. Thank you.

AG: Thank you.

Audience Member 5: I first thank you. I really love your novels and I don’t want you to give any spoilers so I’m going to try and place this question in the context of a broader area. I loved Sea of Poppies. I taught it immediately when it came out and I’ve taught the Ibis Trilogy and I anticipate fully teaching Gun Island in my classes. I am an economist. I’m an actual development economist who deals with these questions of economy on a very intimate level. And in this novel—as elsewhere, and as you’ve mentioned in your current discussions, I don’t think there’s any spoilers—you make a real effort to make linkages to questions of the current and the past. It’s true in the way in which the novel unfolds, in the political and intimate kinds of experiences people have, as well as in the way in which the past—and efforts to come to terms with these pasts of Bonduki Sadagar and the Manasa Devi legends—really shape this. It’s also an encounter, if you will, like your other novels with the colonial experiences and the capitalist colonial experiences’ ongoing hold and residue in our lives. And I had initially planned to ask this question, but I feel I’d like to—given your invocation of indigenous knowledge, which unsettled me a little, so I’ll say that—and so the question I really have is: to the extent that we take Indigenous knowledge and Indigeneity as a serious category—after what happened at UIUC to Steven Salaita and the American Indian studies program and the sort of ongoing tensions we face around that with Modi and Kashmir—what do—and for folks who don’t know, there’s currently a controversy here because the Gates Foundation has decided to honor Modi for his positive works, as if that is bracketed off from the rest of the issues—what do we owe those who face settler colonialism in their calls for action? This is a really serious question beyond how we use their narratives. Thank you.

AG: Thank you. Those are very interesting questions but particularly interesting because you’re a development economist, a species of expert not known to be much interested in fiction, but thank you. Thank you for those questions. What do we owe indigenous peoples? I don’t know. I mean, I think at this moment really they are, in the most profound sense, our last resource in the sense of trying to make sense of the future that awaits us because, especially the indigenous peoples of the Americas, they have actually seen their world end and yet they’ve survived, with dignity and with managing to retrieve something of their world. And that is the circumstance that we ourselves now find ourselves in. So in a way, we can only hope that they will be our teachers in this. At the same time, I do feel that there is a kind of, how shall I say, an instrumentalization of Indigenous knowledge, which I feel very uncomfortable about. There’s a sense in which now people are trying to treat indigenous knowledge of various kinds of material resources and are trying to sort of patent those things and patent those forms of knowledge. I mean, I think this is just utterly unethical. But we can only approach this in a spirit of humility and try and understand what we can possibly learn. And in that sense, let me say that I just feel so amazed by this whole thing with the Gates Foundation and it’s ideas of sanitation and so on. Because what are these ideas of sanitation really? I mean, they are just attempts to impose a certain kind of middle class ethic upon a peasant population. Peasants have always known that really, what do you do with your own waste? You put it back in the field. It’s so much better than trying to put artificial fertilizers. And you just think of this whole machinery of the toilet, the amount of water that it uses in India where we are facing catastrophic water scarcity. And I mean, anybody who actually has a house with contemporary toiletry knows that this stuff breaks down all the time, it has to be repaired all the time. Who’s going to do this in the rural villages of India? So this entire sort of ideology of somehow imposing these middle class urban values upon rural people, what can I say? I don’t know if any of you know about the hygiene hypothesis, but this whole hypothesis about why we are so beset by allergies today are—they actually trace it back to the Ford Foundation’s early efforts to put in toilets in the American South.

So I don’t know. Who are the people who think about these things in these particular ways? The whole thing to me is just—what should I say?—it’s a part of the derangement of the world that we live in. What I see in the environmental community and amongst people who are trying to think seriously about what lies ahead and about our present condition, is actually how we create toilets that are sustainable. To go back to the toilets that people had where you created night soil and you took that and put it back into the fields as manure because, what, are we just going to go on creating? I mean, what are these fertilizers? They’re just fossil fuels, they’re just another aspect of fossil fuels. So what can I say? I mean, one just feels a sense that— are these people mad? What do they— I mean, yeah, it’s a derangement.

Audience Member 6: Hello. I’m also an economist. And so one of the things I’ve been looking at is an area called narrative economics, and narrative economics is being written about lately, especially since 2013 or so, and the 2008 financial crisis. So we told stories, we have storytellers. The question I have is related to that because you presented us with the story of Altarum Kolkata and also of ghosh and so the monocast story I know, I grew up with, and the problem that we have been talking about in the last few minutes, at least ever since the discussion of The Derangement came up, is about how we bring back that pre-modern sense into this nonsense at this derangement, whatever you want to call it. The stories that we tell each other are—as you are pointing out—are very, very powerful now as they have been in the past. And you’re connecting the past with the present in the relevancy of the stories. The question is: how do economists tell stories of nature to this particular time, so to say? This is something I am struggling with in thinking about it. I have no solutions at all. But we tell stories about the Dutch tulip mania and we tell stories about how we—on wall street and on golf greens and everywhere—we end up creating a crisis by living in our echo chambers and telling stories. So stories are powerful. They move markets, they move stock prices, they move bond prices. And so we are definitely dependent on stories and we know the power of stories. But how do we bring these sorts of stories back to the relevancy of our time?

AG: That’s a very good question. Thank you so much. I must say it’s a really wonderful thing for me to see that there are two economists—maybe more—because you know, being a Bengali I grew up with economists and it doesn’t surprise me that they have led us into this disaster because anybody could tell from the way they talked about the world that they didn’t understand anything about what was going on. And some of the leading economists of our time are very good friends of mine, so I feel that I can say that with some kind of impunity. But yeah, I think what you are saying really cuts to the heart of it. I mean, let me ask you just this: you tell the story of the Dutch tulip mania. Do you link that at all to the story of the Dutch not to make mania?

Audience Member 6: Not really. I’ll tell you one or two things we say. One of the things we talk about, because I teach behavioral economics at Berkeley, in one of the courses so—and I write about it—so that part, we talk about information cascades, which is basically another way of saying that we say things, and then we say to each other—as we’ve seen social media—and then we kind of multiply that story. So just like with the Manasa and Chand Sadagar story, that story, of course, can be set in multiple different ways, one of the ways you described. And the other one is that, the story of Manasa—I can’t quite translate—but where he says that ‘I’m not going to do a puja for you.’ Right. So he said, ‘[inaudible], um, [inaudible] Chang Morricone.’ So the whole idea of this powerful monotheism and fighting with this pantheism. And so there are different ways of thinking about it. So one story gets privileged somehow. And so when we talk about that’s still mania in economics, we typically talk about it in terms of—the critical angle we take is mainly through how we multiply a story and create a disaster. So how we should watch out for our blind spots. That’s about it.

AG: I see what you’re saying. But you know, I think that exactly is the problem. The Dutch tulip  mania is still treated completely out of context. Because what happened is that the Dutch tulip mania was made possible by the imposition of a monopoly on the spices of the Malukus, basically cloves, nutmeg, and mace, which were the most valuable spices of the time of the 17th century. And how did they impose this monopoly? It was basically in 1621, young Peterson Cohen, who was the governor general of the East Indies, carried out—he applied the final solution. Before the 18th century, cloves grew only in one tiny cluster of islands, around an Island called Ternate in the far East of Indonesia and the nutmeg tree grew only in this tiny, even smaller cluster of islands called the Banda islands, which is also in the Malukus, but far to the South. So as you know, the Europeans went into the Indian Ocean in order to gain a monopoly of spice; Portuguese, Spanish. If you go to Ternate today, you’ll see these vast forts on this tiny volcanic island: Spanish forts, Portuguese forts, Dutch forts, English forts. These are like prison camps that they created in the 16th and 17th centuries. So the Banda Islanders, the nutmeg traders—they were very skilled traders, which is why the nutmeg entered Mediterranean commerce by 2000 BC—so the Banda Islanders tried to resist the Dutch. So what did they do? This young Peterson Cohen, who was famous for the most memorable line about capitalism—which is that ‘you can’t have trade without war and you can’t have war without trade.’—he went into the Banda islands, he took a mercenary army of Dutchman with a hundred skilled samurai killers and he eliminated the entire population of these islands, killed tens of thousands of the people and the rest were enslaved and sent off. And it was one of the first modern genocides and it was completely successful. The Bandanese don’t exist. The Dutch monopolized this thing. And it was essentially their monopoly on the spice trade which created the capital for the tulip mania. But when you hear about the Dutch Golden Age, when you hear about all this, have you ever heard of the Bandanese?

I mean, as Hitler said about the Armenians, ‘who remembers the Armenians?’ The Dutch might well say, ‘who remembers the Bandanese?’ Nobody ever does. I mean, all across Holland there are statues to young Peterson Cohen. So I think this is the problem, that we don’t tell the right stories. The story of the Dutch tulip mania is built upon genocide. Actual genocide. And it never figures.

Audience Member 6: Yeah. Thank you.

Audience Member 7: I know that you know that tomorrow in Seattle, and really all over the world, there’s going to be about 1500 climate strikes led by young people. And there’s at least going to be a moment of hope over the weekend. In the context of—and I wrote a novel that sold 700 copies and I had been working on climate change for the last 12 years, it’s actually paid better than writing the novel—in the context of the assault from nature towards us that we’ve precipitated and of the intellectual exhaustion of the enlightenment that you talked about earlier, and another Indian writer, Pankaj Mishra, wrote a book a few years ago called the Age of Anger after Modi came in, before Trump came in, not to mention a lot of other people—so the question in all of these contexts is: we need a story. With luck, this weekend we’ll raise the conversation around the world at least a little bit, and I’m not asking you to give us the story, I’m asking you to give us your contribution to what the story should be going forward.

AG: Thank you. I’m so glad you mentioned all that. I think Greta Thunberg, extinction rebellion, the sunrise movement, they are just wonderful. You know, what can I say? They restore one’s faith in the world. I think it’s wonderful what they’ve achieved. I just completely, wholeheartedly support them, you know? And I think what they say is so moving and so powerful and so true. So we have to accept that they are the point of hope. But while saying that we mustn’t forget who are the people who have their hands on the levers of power at this moment? It’s people like Bolsonaro who are effectively burning down the forests. Here in America you have an administration which is trying to stop California from implementing emissions rules. So we can’t forget at the same time that there is at large in the world this incredible nihilism which actually wants to speed up the onset of the climate crisis, because they have their own solution and they see their solution as being a malthusian correction where billions of people die. So we can’t really forget the extent of the horror that is around us. Thank you.

Audience Member 8: Hello. I’m also looking forward to reading this book. I’m in the first part of the Ibis Trilogy, so I want to read them first before I get to this one. You mentioned the Manasa legend and the Chand Sadagar legend; what other Bangla [inaudible] and source materials did you rely on for this book and which one should we go back to, to make sense of the catastrophes that are facing us?

AG: Well, of course there are the wonderful tellings of the Raman and the Mahabharata in Bangla, which you can always go back to, but the specific Bangla—what we call in Bengali, The Tales of Devotion or the stories of the Mongol Kaaboo—those are not translated. So unless you know Bangla—

Audience Member 8: I was planning to ask my mother what I can go back to at home.

AG: Well, you have to remember it’s not modern Bangla; it’s much better than modern Bangla if you ask me. Pre-modern Bangla is so much more real, so much more earthy, if you like. I’ll tell you what you can read: you can read this four-volume collection called Ballads of Eastern Bengal. They were collected by a very great scholar, one of the great scholars of India. His name was Dinesh Chandra Sen, and actually you can download them as PDFs. They’re massive volumes, but just for the introductions, these volumes are worth it because he was really a great humanistic scholar and a marvelous intellectual who’s sadly faded from collective memory. Thank you. I think we have to stop there. Thank you.

JP: Thank you for listening to our Town Hall Seattle arts and culture series. I’m Jini Palmer. Our theme music comes from the Seattle-based band Hibou and Seattle’s own Barsuk records. A special thanks to our audio engineer Jeff Larson. Check at our new season of Town Hall Seattle’s original podcast, In the Moment. Each episode, a local Seattle correspondent interviews somebody coming to Town Hall. They get you excited about upcoming events by giving you a behind the scenes look into a presenter’s content, personality and interests. If you like our arts and culture series, listen to our civics and science series as well. For more information, to check out our calendar of events, or to support Town Hall, go to our website at townhallseattle.org.

Send this to a friend