In the Chinese zodiac circles, the snake is often viewed as a symbol of immense wisdom. However, in India, especially in the Hindu mythology, snakes are seen as fearsome entities representing eternity as well as materiality, life as well as death. Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel, Gun Island (2019), dabbles with this mythology, with the specific context of the Sundarbans in West Bengal. The protagonist of the story is one Dinanath Dutta (or Deen as he is called by acquaintances in the novel), an NRI Bengali who is a dealer of antique books, and is based in Brooklyn, New York. On a trip to Kolkata, his birthplace, he becomes acquainted with Piya Roy, a character from Ghosh’s earlier novel, The Hungry Tide (2005). Through her, he is drawn, against his own will to the legend of ‘Manasa Devi’, the snake goddess. This legend is connected to a man called Bonduki Sadagar, or the Gun Merchant, who fled from the ire of Manasa Devi, and paid a price for doing so.
As per the novel, Chand Sadagar was believed to be a prosperous merchant, who lost all his wealth and loved ones, including his son Lakhindar, for refusing to swear his loyalty to Manasa. Outraged by his impudence, she sank Chand’s cargo and sent a snake to kill Lakhinder on his wedding night. Finally, it fell upon Behula, Lakhindar’s wife, to bring her husband back to life with her steadfast devotion, very much like Orpheus in the Greek myths, and by promising Manasa to convince her father-in-law Chand to worship her.
On a day’s trip to the supposed shrine of the goddess, deep within the mangrove territory of the Sundarbans, Deen has an unnerving meeting with the guardian of the temple, a King Cobra. This will be the first of many of his encounters with snakes, around the world, sprinkled across the novel. These additional locations including Venice, Oregon and Los Angeles are areas where Deen is compelled to reflect on the status of refugees and immigrants (especially Bangladeshi refugees), the man-made nature of borders and the threats posed by climate change. Along this journey his compatriots are Piya, a the marine biologist who reminds him of his first love; Tipu, a young, resourceful and dynamic Dalit entrepreneur who awakens him to the realities of growing up in the modern age; Rafi, who is possessed of a compulsion to aid somebody in need; and an old friend named Giacinta Schiavon or Cinta as she is known by her friends, an acclaimed historian with an expertise on the Inquisition in Venice, who also has a tragic past, and who is arguably the novel’s most arresting character.
Ghosh does a good job in setting up these characters’ interaction with each other. He builds up Deen’s character as someone who has a positivist worldview but who is constantly challenged by Cinta, fuelled by the tragic loss of her family. At one point early on in the novel, she berates him for rubbishing a folk tale in a jatra performance as “superstitious mumbo-jumbo”. She says: “Why do you use all these religious words? Like “superstitious” and “supernatural”? Don’t you know that it was the Catholic Inquisition that put these words into currency?” When Deen objects, saying it is all semantics, she responds: “Yes, you’re right. But the whole world is made up of semantics and yours are those of the seventeenth century. Even though you think you are so modern.”
Yet despite these character build-ups, the novel is curiously vapid and devoid of suspense.