In the face of apocalyptic climate change, an Indian immigrant searches for the truth behind a Bengali legend.
Deen Datta travels each year from Brooklyn, where he works as a dealer in rare books and Asian antiquities, to his native Calcutta, “or Kolkata, as it is now formally known,” visiting family and scouting new purchases. As Ghosh’s (Flood of Fire, 2015, etc.) novel opens, a smart-alecky relative tells him the tale of a Bengali folk hero called the Gun Merchant, whose story is rooted in a shrine in the Sundarbans, ”a tiger-infested mangrove forest“ at the mouth of the Ganges. Another relative, an elderly woman who grew up in the islands, has more stories to tell—and so does Piya Roy, a young, female marine biologist who is studying the effects of climate change on whales and dolphins, once abundant in the storm-lashed Sundarbans. Deen is a collector not just of old things, but also of interesting friends from all over the world, such as the Italian scholar Giacinta Schiavon, who makes an urgent case for taking folktales seriously as descriptions of the world and auguries of things to come, even as Deen protests that he is ”a rational, secular, scientifically minded person.” There is good reason to beware of signs and portents, for even as the Sundarbans disappear beneath the rising sea and cobras strike unwary victims, places like Los Angeles are falling before a wall of fire, “a glowing snake hurtling towards me, through the flames,” while legions of displaced people are in flight, walking across continents, fleeing aboard boats “crowded with refugees.” Much of Deen’s story is a fictional rejoinder to Ghosh’s 2016 polemic, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, and, as with that book, blends elements of journalism, folklore, science, and history to describe a world on the verge of catastrophe—and one in which people, in the end, have nowhere to go.
Ghosh’s story, involving and intricate, speaks urgently to a time growing ever more perilous.