Is your new novel Gun Island (Rs 699, Penguin Hamish Hamilton) a response to the question you pose in your last book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016) about fiction’s capacity to engage with the crisis facing us?
When you start thinking of certain issues, and, especially the ones I wrote about in that book, you can’t get them out of your head. It’s so powerfully present in our everyday lives. Being here in Delhi during this incredible heat wave makes you realise just how urgent the crisis is. But modern literature does not address what I feel is one of the greatest challenges of our era. So, after The Great Derangement, I turned to works of the medieval Bengali poets. In doing so, I rediscovered a legend that I had loved as a child — the Manasa Mangal Kavya (the oldest of the Mangal-Kavyas that originated in the 13th century, it narrates the story of the non-Aryan snake goddess Manasa) that had stories of Chand Sadagar. That is really how it began.
What prompted you to look at issues such as climate change and the migrant crisis through the prism of medieval folklore?
If you grow up in Bengal, folklore is a part of your culture. So, it came about almost naturally. The Chand Sadagar stories are very eclectic, they draw upon many sources. In many tellings of the story, there are entire upakhyans (episodes) related to Hasan-Hussain (Prophet Muhamm-ad’s grandchildren); there are references to other countries, to seas. It’s a very striking thing that this most ancient of Bengali legends is so open to the sea. That’s one thing you don’t see in Bangla literature — you see rivers, but never the sea. I love the expression that poet Narayan Dev used very often — shashagara Basundhara (the world enjoined with the seas) — because in the imagination of that time, the land and the sea were closely engaged with each other. That appealed to me.
Did you ever feel that the legend of Chand Sadagar could be too local for a larger readership?
I’ve been travelling a lot since I was young. Bengali was the language you’d never hear abroad. But over the last 10 years, you hear it everywhere. Besides, the Chand Sadagar story is also about a traveller and a migrant and so I thought it would be interesting to examine that in a contemporary context. I spent quite a lot of time in Italy over the last couple of years. I visited many migrant camps, talked to the refugees. I found the stories fascinating and the connection came to me through the language.
The first and most important thing about writing on this migration is that it has completely overturned the politics of the West. Ten years ago, if someone had said to you that the entire political structures of the West would be shaken by a few hundred thousand people moving, you wouldn’t have believed him. But this is what has happened. This is an important phenomenon but when you read about it, the thing that is most striking is that very few journalists speak the language of the migrants. So, invariably, you end up reading the same stories. The liberal journalist presents it in a certain way, the right-wing commentator in a different way. The more I read, the more I realised that there’s something missing in this narrative and it’s because they don’t know the languages. Because I speak Bangla, Hindi and also Arabic, I can communicate with the migrants. That’s why I decided to go and find out for myself. It was fascinating and strange, you don’t expect it at all.
What sort of stories did you come across?
For instance, in Sicily, there’s a small mountain town called Caltanissetta, famous only for a writer called Leonardo Sciascia. There’s a migrant camp there where the immigrants are overwhelmingly Pakistani. I met a 63-year-old ailing man, who had got into some kind of political dispute with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. One day, he just got into a bus with 30 other migrants and ended up in Sicily after travelling through Iran and Turkey and crossing the sea. Like all of them, he didn’t have any papers. Many young Pakistani migrants I met had come from Gujrat in the Punjab province because of the Jhelum floods in 2015. I’d heard about the Indus floods of 2012 but never of the Jhelum floods. Maybe, a generation ago, if there had been a flood like this, they would have moved to a city. Now, they all moved abroad. The migration network is now the biggest, multi-billion dollar, clandestine industry in the world. The interesting thing is that in conventional thinking, if something is dangerous, it acts as a deterrent. Yet, increasingly, far from being a deterrent, it actually seems to be a stimulant. So, despite (the US) President Donald Trump’s crackdown on migration, the numbers keep increasing.
So, basically, it’s upending all our postcolonial ideas…
It’s completely upended all our conventional ideas about the world. We are literally in a new era and we don’t know what the world will look like at the end of this. It’s not the West alone. Look at India. I spend a lot of time in Goa. Over the last 10 years, the working class in Goa has come overwhelmingly from eastern India. So, even internally, there’s been a huge dispersal, a demographic upheaval. The idea of citizenry is shifting constantly.
The migrant crisis is one of the biggest events of this decade; on the other hand, we are seeing a rising tide of exclusive nationalism. Is there a link between the two?
They are contradictory developments but both are happening for the same reason. One of the paradoxes of the nationalism that you see today is that it’s fuelled by the internet and social media. The same is true of a lot of migration and dislocation. This technology is so powerful that we haven’t even begun to understand its disruptiveness. I think that the nationalism that one sees today is a response to this. Everything that people are familiar with has become disruptive and it creates incredible anxiety. We have to find rational ways of responding to this anxiety because this is only going to get more and more intense.
When did the popular notion of culture come to disengage with the natural world?
I don’t think it happened at the same pace or at the same time everywhere. In Bangla literature, if you look at the work of a writer like Advaita Mallabarman (1914-1951), or, you look at Mahaswetadi’s (Mahasweta Devi, 1926-2016) body of work, each of them is rooted in the world around us. Many writers of that generation wrote about the impact of nature on human lives. If you look back at Bengali writers of an earlier period, say at the Mangal Kavya (13th-18th century), they are completely engaged with the natural world. Today, if you look at Bangla literature, most of it is set in cities. In the West, this emphasis became pronounced in the late 18th century. In India, the move towards fiction that deals with the urban life has happened in the last 30-40 years. The disengagement with the natural world around us is there not only in Bengali literature but also in literature in Hindi and Kannada, for instance.
Did the rupture happen because of increasing consumerism?
Yes, definitely. This is something very recent, in the last 30 years. If you look at the Indian government’s attitude towards the environment in the 1970s and the 1980s, it was quite different from what it is today. It’s only in this period of neo-liberalism that we see this massive movement towards rapacious consumerism. We can see now that it’s completely unsustainable.
In India, environmental policies are still inadequate to deal with the magnitude of the problem. In the US, Donald Trump refuses to recognise that climate change is for real. What is it that limits the imagination of our policymakers?
Across the world, we’ve been seeing a lot of greenwashing. They all talk a good game but when push comes to shove, they are all on this growth bandwagon. What is really worrying for India is that our entire ecology is dependent on the monsoon and the monsoon is becoming increasingly erratic. Look at the incredible drought in Maharashtra and in Bundelkhand. Look at the agrarian crisis spreading across this country. The farmers’ march last year was a good development, but nothing came of it.
Like so many of your novels, Gun Island begins with an etymological puzzle. Do you remember how you came to be interested in etymology in the first place?
It’s always fascinated me but I have never consciously considered why. The first article I ever wrote was when I was 16 and it was about etymology. I went to the National Library (in Kolkata), did my research and tried to have it published. Nobody was interested at all in a 16-year-old’s musings (laughs). It’s a part of Indian culture to be interested in words, to be multilingual and it manifests itself in different ways. Look at the kids who win Spelling Bees — they are almost all of Indian origin.
There’s a whole new genre in fiction — climate fiction or cli-fi, as it is being called. Have you read any?
I have read a couple. The parameters of what they are calling climate fiction is that they are almost always dystopian and are set in the future. They have various kinds of catastrophic events, and so, in a way, after you have read a couple of them, you feel like you have read them all.