The Place of the Planet: Climate Change and Migration in Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island

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As the recent face-off between Poland and Belarus over the future of hundreds of migrants at the Poland-Belarus border shows, human migration is increasingly taking center stage in international diplomacy. The European Union (EU) has accused Belarus of “encouraging migrants—from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa—to illegally cross the frontier into the EU in revenge for sanctions slapped on Minsk over human rights abuse.”1 Quite ironically, seeing the migrants only in terms of political power-play also undermines universal human rights, a discourse that the EU claims it is founded on.2 In counterpoint, Laura Zanfrini has argued that “[t]he refugee crisis reveals the unavoidable gap between the inclusive logic of universal human rights and the nation state’s prerogative to exclude undesirables.”3

This gap is inherent in the nation-state-based idea of belonging, an idea that has come under pressure in the age of anthropogenic climate change, which, by invoking our species history on the planet, destabilizes national identities. Moreover, this gap also lies at the heart of ecocriticism as a field of study because, for a long time, ecocriticism has promoted place-based environmental ethics. The bioregional movement in the US, for example, encouraged “people to explore more deeply the natural and cultural landscape in which they already live.”4

“While protecting vulnerable environments and human and non-human lives of those environments is necessary, a narrowly place-based, sedentarist idea of belonging (even as human and other species populations are moving/transforming) is becoming incompatible with the realities of anthropogenic climate change.”

While protecting vulnerable environments and human and non-human lives of those environments is necessary, a narrowly place-based, sedentarist idea of belonging (even as human and other species populations are moving/transforming) is becoming incompatible with the realities of anthropogenic climate change.5 How, then, can we reconcile land-based, situated environmental ethics with human mobility? How can we understand better the complexity of migration – outside of the polarities of good and bad – and re-imagine agency and intervention in the debates over migration brought on by climate change?

In this context, Amitav Ghosh’s 2019 novel Gun Island can be seen as a response to the political and social impasses created by climate change-forced migration. Gun Island uses an autochthonous Bengali myth that concerns the snake goddess Manasa, the merchant Chand’s struggles against the goddess, and their final reconciliation through the mediation of Chand’s daughter-in-law Behula, to comment upon migration in the context of anthropogenic climate change. The novel offers two parallel narratives: one involving New York based book dealer Dinanath Dutt’s exploration of the Gun Merchant legend, which in turn turns out to be a seventeenth century re-enactment of the Manasa myth, and the migration of Rafi, a fisherman, and his lover Tipu, from India to Venice due to social stressors exacerbated by climate change. The use of a premodern myth situates the plot of the novel in relation to the historical migrations of humans from before the origin of the modern nation-state.

We are informed by Dinanath that the Manasa-myth’s life cycles coincide with “times of upheaval and disruption”6 such as the Little Ice Age of the seventeenth century, the setting of the legend of the Gun Merchant. This legend, it is revealed in the course of the novel, concerns the figure of the eponymous Gun Merchant whose “homeland, in eastern India, is struck by drought and floods brought on by the climatic disturbances of the Little Ice Age,”7 causing him to seek refuge in foreign lands. As he sails out into the Bay of Bengal, he is captured by Portuguese pirates (known as harmads in the region) and sold at Goa as a part of the Indian Ocean slave trade. At Goa, he is bought by a Jewish sailor named Ilyas, with whom he goes to the Maldives, Egypt, Istanbul, and finally to Venice, a city known for its cosmopolitanism and pluralism in the seventeenth century.8

Where the story of the Gun Merchant was engendered by the Little Ice Age, its present-day revival as legend is catalyzed by anthropogenic climate change. The Sundarbans is depicted as a place where natural and social disasters fuel each other. Devastated by cyclones and the encroachment of sea water into arable lands, the traditional livelihoods of the inhabitants are in jeopardy, and as a result, as the character Moyna informs Dinanath, “the exodus of the young was accelerating every year: boys and girls were borrowing and stealing to find them work elsewhere.”9 In this context, as a young fisherman, Rafi decides to emigrate to another place that would offer him better prospects. But Rafi and Tipu’s homosexual love for each other also plays a part in their decision to go to Europe, foregrounding the fact that climate change migration is further complicated by concerns of race, gender, and sexuality.

Rafi at first wants to move to an Indian city where he might have greater job opportunities, but Tipu, who has links to dalals or human traffickers, persuades him to move to Europe as it would be easier for them to live there as a couple.10 Rafi and Tipu decide to move illegally, with the help of the dalals, from Bangladesh across the borders of India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, and Austria to Italy. But while crossing the Iran-Turkey border, Tipu is injured and has to take a detour through Egypt, from where he takes a boat to Sicily, where he is confronted by Italian border security guards. In the tussle between the migrants and the security forces, Ghosh contrasts the planetary nature of the migrants’ journey against the narrow place-based identity-politics that the Italian government advocates. Situating the current European “migrant crisis” in the context of a fluid and continuous idea of migration dating back generations, Gun Island critiques the nation-state’s refusal to see the planet as a place for shared belonging grounded in an ethics toward the other.

The Sundarbans on a cloudy day.
The Sundarbans on a cloudy day. Photo by Tirthankar Som.

Gun Island’s juxtaposition of a pre-modern myth with ongoing anthropogenic climate change reframes contemporary discourses of climate change migration by pointing out our shared species history that is marked by both human and non-human migrations.”

Thus, Ghosh’s novel intervenes in mainstream discussions on the “migrant crisis” in two ways: by positing human migration as a continuum rather than an exceptional event, and by underscoring the agency of the migrants by showing how Rafi and Tipu carefully execute their plans against pressures from human traffickers and border security guards. Gun Island’s juxtaposition of a premodern myth with ongoing anthropogenic climate change reframes contemporary discourses of climate change migration by pointing out that our shared species history is marked by both human and non-human migrations. By so doing, one also recognizes how the environmental humanities can offer interventionist criticism of events such as the Poland-Belarus face-off by critiquing the utilitarian and sedentarist view of the nation-state, foregrounding an ethics of alterity by situating humans relationally with other non-human and geophysical agencies.


Notes

1 Alan Charlish and Felix Hoske, “EU Accuses Belarus of ‘Gangster’ Methods as Migrants Shiver at Polish Border,” Reuters, November 9, 2021, accessed November 24, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/hundreds-migrants-remain-poland-belarus-border-temperatures-drop-2021-11-09/.   

2 For more on the EU’s engagements with international human rights, see Jan Wouters, Manfred Nowak, Anna-Luise Chané, and Nicholas Hachez, The European Union and Human Rights: Law and Policy (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2020), access through Oxford Scholarship Online, accessed November 24, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198814191.001.0001.    

3 Laura Zanfrini, “Europe and the Refugee Crisis: A Challenge to Our Civilization,” The United Nations Academic Impact, accessed November 24, 2021, https://www.un.org/en/academic-impact/europe-and-refugee-crisis-challenge-our-civilization.

4 Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism (New York: Routledge, 2004), 118.

5 For more on the criticisms of the place-based and sedentarist view of belonging, see Kirsten Hastrup and Karen Fog Olwig, introduction to Climate Change and Human Mobility, ed. Kirsten Hastrup and and Karen Fog Olwig (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012), 1-20.

6 Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island (Toronto: Hamish Hamilton, 2019), 7. 

7 Ibid., 155.

8 Ibid., 155-156.

9 Ibid., 53.

10 Ibid., 257.

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Tathagata Som

Tathagata Som is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Calgary. He works in the fields of environmental humanities, postcolonial studies, and South Asian studies. He is also a creative writer, and his most recent short story, "Mother," was published in the second issue of Samyukta Fiction.

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