Has it ever happened to you that a story that you heard as a child have stuck with you, only to resurface years later, triggered by a recent occurrence?
Gun Island is based on one such folk tale based in the region of Bengal, both West Bengal (India) & Bangladesh. Dinanath Chatterjee is a Brooklyn-based rare book dealer and our protagonist. On one of his visits to Calcutta, he comes in contact with the legend of the Bonduki Sadagar or The Gun Merchant accidentally when he is asked about that in a party by an acquaintance, Kanai Dutta. Elaborating further on this, he mentions about a Dhaam, a shrine, in the Sunderbans connected to this legend and dedicated to Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes. Kanai tells him that his Aunt Nilima had mentioned this and Dinanath meet her to get more information on this purported dhaam. On reaching Nilima’s place the next day, he comes to know that Nilima had come across this legend while she was working in the Sunderbans and had met the caretaker of the shrine and he had told her the first two lines of the legend. Knowing that Dinanath had a keen interest in the folklore, she asked him whether he would like to go and see the shrine since Nilima’s Trust does work in the area and could help him seek that shrine out. Though reluctantly, he decides to take the trip. Deep in the Mangroves of Sunderbans, he goes to the temple and has an encounter with a King Cobra. What follows this incident is an uncanny series of events that cannot be explained easily with rational arguments.
Gun Island is a powerful novel with the plots touching multiple social topics. Amitav Ghosh has taken a folk tale and set it in contemporary times with some very impactful characters. The plot of the book, though seems to untangle the journey of the Bonduki Sadagar and the Gun Island, but infact works with social topics such as Human trafficking, environmental impacts and has a very deep usage of fate as a theme. Amitav has taken examples of animal migration, forest fires, change in seasons to show that we, as humans are impacting environment in a large way. At one point in the beginning we have a discussion between Dinanath and Tipu about passports being a matter of belief, which sets the tone of the parallel theme of the book-illegal migrations and the methods people resort to. With apt examples and occurrings, the entangled plots of environmental impact, human trafficking and the folk tale move smoothly in the book.
The characters are created beautifully with each having a relevant back story, which is introduced at the perfect time. Be it the character of the depressed, rare book dealer Dinanath or the all-knowing professor Cinta to the rational researcher Piya, each character has their role perfectly defined and is related to one theme of the book or another.
The location of the book moves from Kolkata to the swamps of Sunderbans and from Brooklyn to Venice, taking into its arms Egypt, Turkey and Afghanistan. Each location has been chosen with its relation to the folktale of the Gun Merchant that unfolds in the last part of the book, but not before we have experienced a ride of paranoia, sadness, thrill and most of all, hope through the eyes of our protagonist.
For me, the book is a 5/5.