Gun Island

Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island, (Penguin, 2019) is a remarkable read. It travels through time, space and thoughts. If you do not let yourself completely in, the best bits shall go unnoticed. Like there are dreams within dreams, at Gun Island, there are stories within stories. Written simply, detailed subtly, this one is a must read. Without revealing the essential bits, here is a short excerpt for those who haven’t yet turned the page at a bookshop:

The strangest thing about this strange journey was that it was launched by a 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’. 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). ‘Have you ever heard of a figure called Bonduki Sadagar?’ ‘Your aunt? You mean Nilima Bose?’ ‘She heard that you were in Kolkata and she asked me to tell you that she would be glad if you could go and see her.’ ‘It’s up to you.’ My mind was in a muddle when I left Nilima’s flat.

Cinta was a figure of note on many counts. Both glamorous and brilliant she was already a well-regarded historian and had published an authoritative study of the Inquisition in Venice. What Cinta saw in me was, I must admit, something of a mystery to me, and it made me all the more grateful for her friendship: I could never forget that if not for her I might well have remained forever entombed in that sepulchral library in the Midwest.

‘Oh, that’s the best part of my job, Pops – making up stories for my clients! That’s what I’m known for, my stories.’ 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 its interior. ‘I seem to have caught you by surprise,’ I said. ‘You’re Rafi, aren’t you?’ ‘I’m Dinanath Datta,’ I said, in what I hoped was a soothing tone. ‘I just came to look at the temple. It was Horen Naskar who brought me.’ It turned out that I had guessed correctly about the figure of the Gun Merchant and the symbol that he was paired with. 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 its upraised head was level with mine. It flung itself at Tipu and succeeded in striking him, with one fang, just above the left elbow. ‘What’s he saying?’ I asked Rafi. ‘It’s a name, a woman’s name – “Rani”.’

Rani, said Piya, was the name of an individual river dolphin, of the species that she had been studying for most of her professional life: the Irrawaddy dolphin, known to science as ‘Orcaella brevirostris’. ‘Rani and her pod. They seem to have beached themselves, all at the same time. I’ve never seen anything like it.’ I don’t think I have ever been as glad to see an airport as I was when I reached Dum Dum later that night: it was as if a gateway of escape had appeared magically in front of me.

The prospect of seeing Cinta was the one thing that had sustained me through this strange twilit time. ‘In Italy everyone knows about the Sundarbans. It is because of a famous children’s book that was set there.’ ‘So what happened was that my relative told me about a small temple in the jungle and asked me to visit it; she felt that someone needed to make a record of the structure before it was swallowed up by the mud. Her story was interesting but I wasn’t keen to go because I had to leave for New York in a couple of days and was very busy. Actually I had more or less decided not to when you called, and then, for some reason, I changed my mind and went after all.’ ‘Well, for one thing the central figure in the legend is called Bonduki Sadagar – which I had interpreted to mean “Gun Merchant”. I guess that’s how I’ll always think of him – but after listening to your talk I realized that it could also mean something quite different. Maybe it means “The Merchant who visited Venice”.’ ‘You are right, I think. Your Gun Merchant’s name probably is a reference to Venice, not to guns.’

The title was ‘I misteri della giungla nera’ – The Mystery of the Black Jungle – and on looking at the flap copy I discovered, to my surprise, that the book was set in Sunderbans. I guessed that this was the book Cinta had mentioned to me. It struck me then that far from being a long shot, it was almost a certainty that Rafi had some inkling of Tipu’s whereabouts; this was probably the very question that he had been half expecting and half fearing that I would ask. ‘Rafi was beaten up last night,’ said Lubna grimly. ‘Rafi made his way to Europe while Tipu got stuck in Turkey.’ ‘My guess,’ I said, ‘is that Tipu was planning to get on a boat, to cross the Mediterranean. It’s just a guess, but I think Rafi would know.’

‘All I can say, Dino, is that when I look at this world – our world – with the diagnostic tools of an Inquisitor, it becomes impossible to avoid a simple conclusion.’ ‘That the world of today presents all the symptoms of demonic possession.’ ‘Rather I would say that it is a ‘risveglio’, a kind of awakening… you are waking up to things that you had never imagined or sensed before. You are lucky… some unknown force has given you a great gift.’ Thrusting a hand into his hospital gown, Rafi pulled out a piece of paper that he had folded into a small square. It was a picture that he had torn out of a newspaper, a photograph of a blue fishing boat, crowded with refugees. ‘Do you see this face over there? That’s Tipu. Tipu is on that Blue Boat.’

Cinta was allotted a comfortable cabin on the main deck. The rest of us were accommodated below, in large, echoing, neon-lit compartments that were empty of furnishings. Through an analysis of satellite images it had been established that the Blue Boat had started its journey somewhere near the town of El-Arish, in the Sinai. Towards sunset some twenty dolphins appeared suddenly, and began to frolic in the Lucania’s bow wave, right under our noses. A few TV journalists had already reached the area and were broadcasting live from there. An eternity seemed to pass before the long-awaited vessel came sputtering into view. Hovering above the boat the helicopter made an announcement, in English, over a powerful megaphone: ‘We are from the Italian Navy and we are here to organize your rescue. You have nothing to fear; you are safe now.’ ‘Admiral, did you order the rescue of the migrants on your own authority?’ ‘Yes I did,’ said Admiral Vigonovo. ‘And I believe that what we witnessed today was indeed a miracle.’ ‘Admiral, is it true that in your stateroom there hangs an icon of the Black Madonna of La Salute…?’ These last words made me think of Cinta. Cinta’s gone.”