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Narrating climate issues through Bengali folktales

Narrating climate issues through Bengali folktales

Fiction centered on climate change is an emerging genre in the literary world. Arguably, there are only a handful of novelists who have incorporated climate change issues as a major theme in their works. After discovering Amitav Ghosh’s 'The Hungry Tide', I became acquainted with his work 'Gun Island'. Gun Island is also the first English book to receive the prestigious Jnanpith Award. I was mesmerized by the way Ghosh blends folklore with serious issues of climate change and a hotter planet. His writing style made me realize that climate change, often considered a research-based, scientific, and rational subject, can also be interpreted and narrated through ancient myths and fables.

We are accustomed to hearing and reading catastrophic news caused by climate change, ranging from floods to landslides, tsunamis to hurricanes, sandy storms, and more. These events have become so common in our daily dose of social media and news browsing that we are hardly moved by the significant loss of lives, habitats, and property. We have taken them for granted. But, Ghosh’s storytelling is unique. He draws on the Bengali fable of ‘Banduki Sadagar’, or the gun merchant, and transports us to the Sundarbans, the mangrove region of Bangladesh, where he intertwines the folklore of Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes.

Deen, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, accompanies marine biologist Piya in her research work. Deen, a rare books dealer, is captivated by Bengali legends of the gun merchant and befriends Piya, who is studying the rare Irrawaddy dolphins. They travel to distant and remote places where human settlements are sparse, such as the Sundarbans, where they find villages that have disappeared in recent years. They are startled by the rising sea levels and the villagers' struggles due to lack of fresh water. The salt levels have increased to the extent that aquatic animals exhibited abnormalities.

Through the journeys of Piya, Deen, and Tipu, Ghosh reminds us of the threats posed by climate change. Deen and Piya discuss oceanic dead zones - the vast stretches of water with very low oxygen content, too low for fish to survive. These dead zones are rapidly expanding due to the runoff from chemical fertilizers. This runoff triggers a chain reaction that depletes most of the oxygen in the water. The phenomenon of oceanic dead zones is vividly illustrated in the novel, enabling general readers to comprehend the harsh realities of the climate crisis resulting from human actions.

The novel also discusses environmental degradation caused by refineries. During a conversation with Deen, Piya discusses refineries, which may be responsible for creating 'dead zones'. She reveals that she has been fighting against refineries through an alliance of environmental groups, but she exposes the dark truth that these refineries are run by giant conglomerates that line the pockets of greedy politicians. In Nepal as well, the exploitation of the Chure region has been a topic of discussion for various reasons, but it has been forgotten as the exploiters enjoy the support of politicians.

The novel delves into serious issues of dolphin beaching. The underlying cause of beaching is explored, where man-made sounds from submarines, sonar equipment, and similar sources can be potential triggers. Piya explains that marine mammals use echolocation to navigate, and disruptions to this navigation can cause them to become disoriented and stranded. It seems that the character of Piya, portrayed as a marine biologist, is intentionally crafted as an expert who discusses and shares the crises and scenarios caused by climate change. Deen appears as a curious learner, while Piya stands out as a profound expert.

In addition to portraying geographies and habitats devastated by climate change, the novel also shares instances of migration and the pivotal role climate change plays in the migration of humans and other animals. Characters like Tipu risk their lives crossing seas and islands to reach Italy. They face obstacles from state authorities, the seas, and foreign individuals who are involved in human trafficking. The stories in 'Gun Island' exhibit elements of magical realism, presenting folklores in a way that mirrors the real world, including chance encounters.

The novel also presents irony about the indifference towards climate change in a satirical manner. An international conference is hosted by a museum to celebrate their acquisition of a special edition of a popular Shakespearean book. However, the city where the conference takes place is engulfed in a wildfire for several days. Airlines, local transportation services, and conference organizers display indifference towards the wildfire, treating it as a natural occurrence. Eventually, due to the relentless wildfire, the organizers are forced to relocate the conference venue at the last minute to the place where the narrator is staying.

The increasing number of bark beetles is also discussed in the novel. Findings suggest that these beetles are expanding their range as the mountains warm up. They invade forests by tunneling inside tree bark. The novel draws connections between bark beetles, forests, and wildfires. The stories of the suffering of Bangladeshi people due to climate crises, such as cyclones and floods, are also presented. Strong winds capable of tearing roofs off houses and rising water levels are evident in various parts of Bangladesh. These personal stories of suffering resonate with the natural calamities faced in our own world.

The novel consistently carries the theme of the climate crisis from beginning to end. Through Bengali folktales and fables, it warns us about the potential apocalyptic world. The novel is, in fact, an alarm, reminding us of our role in exploiting and devastating the planet for short-term gains and vested interests. Rather than being prescriptive about our actions, it vividly portrays and envisions the consequences of the climate crisis escalating at an unstoppable pace.