Snake Gods and Migrants

I have been planning to write this review, literally for weeks. I had read the book more the a month back and these days, I only post a review if I really enjoyed the book or it exasperated me beyond my patience! This one for sure met that criterion and it’s just life as a always became to busy for me to find time and space to write about this book. After all of this, it is time to introduce the book I am referring to – Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh!

I have been a Ghosh fan well before his Commonwealth winning and withdrawing of The Glass Palace which also I loved. I was first blown away by his Shadowlands, a beautiful, lyrical story of Bengal, partition, riots and coming of age. Till date it remains, one of most sensitive pieces of prose I ever read and the end, still takes my breath away. The Glass Palace, though I feel falling short of the brilliant prose, was a wonderfully crafted story; the history resonating very closely to me (my great grandfather was a Teak Merchant, settled in Myanmar, and saw the history of the land unfold through his own eyes). However, The Hungry Tide put me off Ghosh; I could not relate to the characters, of people who fall in love without any communication, or even the vast range of issues that Ghosh seemed to try and tackle which did not truly integrate into the main plot. I was put off enough to skip the entire Ibis Trilogy and only to pick up Gun Merchant, when this came my way as a gift!


Gun Island is narrated from a the perspective of Deen Dutta, a 50 something erudite, cultured and well traveled man and dealer in rare books, based in New York. A chance meeting with his extended Bengali family, during a vacation, gets him involved with the legend of the Gun Merchant, a Ulysses like character, who traveled along with his companion a ship captain, all over the world, in a bid to escape a curse of the Indian Snake Goddess, Mansa Devi. In his effort  to dig the truth about this myth and Deen comes across and interacts with a host of characters, all of whom are on their own journey of self discovery and have parallel stories of strife and success. There is Piya, a fellow Bengali American Professor, who sets this journey in motion, there is Rafi, the illiterate Muslim Fisherman, whose grandfather was the keeper of the temple of Mansa Devi in the Sunderbans and Cinta, his old friend and mentor, who helps him reach out to the unknown to find the truth.

Hindu-Goddess Manasa,  in a hut made of mud in a village in the Sundarbans, West Bengal, India by Durga (Source – Wikipedia)

The premises of the book is excellent! India and especially Bengal is rich in myths and folklore all of which are somewhere grounded in a reality that happened in the past. The made up legend of the Gun Merchant, is actually a take off on the the legend of Chand Saudagar whose hide and seek games to escape the wrath of Mansa Devi is something most Bengali children can recite, handed down from generation to generation. It was interesting to go with Ghosh’s exploratory journey to understand the roots of this myth as well the rich travel history of Bengal, when it traded with Venice and many other European nations, especially as it took the readers into some wonderful description of Sunderbans, the now fast disappearing mangrove forests, east of India.  But this is where I guess my admiration ends. I am beyond sick of Ghosh’s polarization of Indian society – in his world lately,  there are only Americanized erudite but still holding on to Bengali roots figures or uneducated, impoverished characters. There is nothing in between, there are no small time shopkeepers, there are educated middle classes, there are not rich Indian industrialists, there are no artists, there is no one except these two extreme worlds. Even if I would allow for such polarized characters, I could not like them – i could not warm up to Piya in the Hungry Tide and when I saw her enter this book, I was ready to give it up. I cannot understand her hauteur or while I understand her reserve, I feel her to be totally and completely insensitive to other’s emotional needs. I did not like Deen – I felt he was too bumbling, too self doubting, too everything for a man of the world. The only character I could like was Cinta, who came across with depth, emotions and sensitivity and was the only rescue device of the novel. The plot while originally intriguing should have stuck to discovering the roots of the myth, instead of taking on world problems. I understand and am concerned about the environmental disaster that we seem to hurtling into. I am appalled at the intolerance of the world at large to the migrant’s issue; my grandparents were refugees, fleeing the violence of 1947, East Pakistan now Bangladesh, leaving behind homes, lives and security. I know the trauma of such displacement, which continued to haunt my grandfather till his death and was inherited by my father and my uncles to great extent. I cannot even begin to fathom the conditions if besides the trauma, my grandparents also were refused entry in what they considered a safe home, a newly independent India. But I do not think as plot devise adding the migrant issue along with environmental concerns into a novel tracing the history of a myth is a very good idea. We end biting more than we can chew and say nothing which has not been said and do not shed light on anything new. In fact, it smacks of borderline commercialization – a sort of piggy backing on the world wide uproar on the migrant issue by not only writing about it, but picking up the “boat incident” to a T. This was not well done and from somebody of great intellectual and sensitive abilities like Ghosh, it is definitely unacceptable! The language and even the division of the novel into section seems contrived and does not flow! All in all, by pass this book if you have toppling TBR; there are better books on Bengal and partition and migrants than this one, including Shadowland, by the same author!



15 thoughts on “Snake Gods and Migrants

  1. I’ve heard of Ghosh but never read anything he wrote… but i sympathize with your disappointment… i don’t read much modern literature: it just seems poorly conceived as compared to work written in the past… money has so pervaded the sensibilities of this overpopulated planet to such an extent that factors such as truth, accuracy, and artistic quality have pretty much disappeared… it seems authors now know that whatever they write, it will sell because there’s so many people out there… that plus society seems so rushed that time for contemplation and second thought has virtually vanished… i’m 76 and i’ve seen so many changes for the worse in the last few years, it makes me glad i’m not young any more; anyway, not to be totally negative, there are worthwhile things to read out there and there are people who understand the problems and are trying to ameliorate them…
    fascinating post anyway… tx..

    1. I hope you will take this as a compliment, because I mean it, but you sound like my Dad! You are contemporaries too! And I think your generation lived through perhaps the last phase of a relatively simple, thought through life! We are now in a age of “instant” and almost everything is driven as you said by commercialization; there is no contemplation, there is no sensitivity and this all round rush makes me feel exhausted at 36. I therefore can quite understand what you and my Dad feel. I do feel not everything is downhill; atleast some folks are talking about acceptance and inclusion of everyone and then there is internet, which despite all its issues, does allow a lot of knowledge exchange at cheap cost, which to a country like mine is a boon! But overall art and artistic abilities have taken a back seat and I really should make a resolution like Cleo to stick to classics – tried and tested and delivered!

  2. tx for the kind words, C… there are other opinions than mine, though… even if i pontificate a bit, i’m aware that justifiable alternatives exist…

  3. I read this a few weeks ago and I completely agree with you. It was a fascinating premise and I liked the descriptions of the Sundarbans and the story of the Gun Merchant, but the parts about climate change and migrants felt more like non-fiction than a compelling story. I was disappointed because I had really enjoyed the Ibis Trilogy.

  4. Oh dear!
    As my TBR is indeed toppling over as we speak (type), I will now pass this on to someone else to try.

    I too struggle with a lot of contemporary story telling. Classics and historical fiction are my comfort zone as you know. But because of my work I do try to keep up with the new stuff and every now and again come across a beauty (The Yield by Tara June Winch being one such recent find) which reminds me that maybe we will all be okay going forward after all 🙂

    The world wide refugee crisis and looming environmental crisis do seem to be the 2 issues that many writers feel compelled to add-in at the moment and contrived is a good word for it. The Overstory by Richard Powers was my recent environmental read that managed to not be contrived.

    1. Your post gives me hope! I will try and give The Yield a shot! Yes, pass this book on; there are better books to be read. I am all for bringing the issues that plague our world to the forte; for if the writers don’t raise their voice, who will? My problem is the “contrived” effort versus integrated story telling!

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