Amitav Ghosh’s graphic novel Jungle Nama (Harper Collins, ₹ 699) is a culmination of Ghosh’s fixation, for more than a decade now, on the folktale of Bon Bibi, popular in the villages of Sunderbans — “a tangled green archipelago” with dense mangroves sprouting at the confluence of the Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Meghna Rivers in the Bay of Bengal.
In his 2004 novel The Hungry Tide, also set in the Sunderbans, a troupe of traveling actors were performing ‘The Glory Of Bon Bibi’. When Kanai, a sophisticated Delhi businessman, who had never heard of Bon Bibi, asks what the story is about, a character tells him dismissively, “It’s all the usual stuff. Gods, saints, animals, demons.”
But what is remarkable about the story, and what strikes Kanai’s fancy first, is where it begins. Not on the banks of the Ganga or the heavens “like the mythological tales with which he was familiar”, but in Medina, in Arabia, where Bon Bibi and her brother Shah Jongoli were born through the blessings of archangel Gabriel. When they grew up, they were sent by the angel on a divine mission, to travel “to the country of eighteen tides — atthero bhatir desh — in order to make it fit for human habitation”.
This country of eighteen tides — the Sundarbans — was under the rule of Dokkhin Rai, “a hungry shape-shifter” with an aversion to humans, whose blood he lusts after. I see him as the spirit animating, and thus explaining, the man-eating tigers of the Sundarbans, the way so many of our folk tales evolved as explanations of the natural world our ancestors inhabited.
The story is about how Bon Bibi with her merciful strength makes Dokkhin Rai agree to divide the country of eighteen tides into two halves — one where humans can live, and one where Dokkhin can lay claim to, with no human interference.
The second part of the tale is about Dhona, a greedy, rich merchant, and Dukhey — literally meaning sorrowful — a poor cousin who trespass this boundary, and how Bon Bibi is again invoked to solve greed with mercy and power. Dokkhin Rai is taught another lesson, but with a kind heart and not an iron fist. Bon Bibi does not want to end Dokkhin Rai, but wants to end his tyranny.
Amitav Ghosh re-tells this story in Jungle Nama in verse, illustrated by Salman Toor, an artist who has put a spring in the step of queer art in American galleries. (The original print version of this legend, in Bengali verse, comes from the nineteenth century.) The need to re-tell this fantastical folk tale — which involves a lasting image of a caravan of crocodiles carrying Dukhey and his riches — comes from his complaints about the contemporary novel. In his 2016 collection of essays, The Great Derangement he notes, “The novel [was] midwifed into existence … through the banishing of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday.” In the same essay he notes “the slow but inexorable excision of all the pictorial elements that had previously existed within texts: illuminated borders, portraits, colouring, line drawings, and so on. This pattern is epitomized by … the novel.”
Jungle Nama, thus, brings both the fantastical and the pictorial to the foreground of his storytelling. But there is another element that Ghosh brings to the table — that of performance. Composer and singer Ali Sethi, best known for his Coke Studio rendering of ‘Ranjish Hi Sahi’, is performing the audio book — via narration and music he composed in traditional ragas.
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The performance itself is playful, with inflections of Punjabi music, a “Marhaba” here, a “Jai Ho” there, coasted along by Sethi’s controlled, melodious, and wide-ranging vocals. You can, if you, like me, have been avidly flocking to his Instagram live performances over the lockdown, imagine his face contorting as he makes various sounds to fit the pitch of the dialogues. The story itself doesn’t have, nor make space for emotional nuance. The point is not to be moved but awed, not to relate to but to learn from. It’s the templated folk storytelling which while simple, is also simplistic — characters who can easily be slotted into good and bad, weak and strong. (We are going through publishing cycles where writers are trying to re-tell epics by infusing interiority into stock characters. Jungle Nama isn’t that, nor is it attempting it.)
Sethi’s music veers between Hindustani/Bengali and English, and it is this transition that I was unable to make peace with. When he croons “Haath Na Aaye” something tingles within, but then right after we get,“Where Is The Honey, Where Is My Money” with a somewhat humorous aftertaste. When Sethi sings in English, it does not, and perhaps cannot, have the full bodied feeling that he brings to the Indian language. Is this a limitation of the language or the production?
The audiobook ends with a moving rendition of ‘Majhi Baiya Jao’ and a moral about how Dokkhin Rai learns restraint from the “magic of meter, word count, and rhyme”. That poetry isn’t just aesthetic, or literary, but also moral. That when we move away from the discipline of rhyme and meter to the reckless intoxication of free verse, we lose something elemental. Does this sound reasonable? It certainly sounds lovely. Enough, at least, to now look for the physical copy of the book to see how Salman Toor visualized the drama we imagined in our heads to Sethi’s guiding voice.