By Sukant Deepak
New Delhi, Nov 26 | A few days back, when author Amitav Ghosh was doing an event for his book ‘Jangal Nama’ in Mestre, Italy, some of Ali Sethi’s songs were played. Later, everyone wanted to know where they could get them. “We are now actually developing a stage performance of ‘Jungle Nama’ with the help of the University of Pennsylvania,” Ghosh tells IANS.
‘Jungle Nama’ (HarperCollins) is Amitav Ghosh’s verse adaptation of an episode from the legend of Bon Bibi, a tale popular in the villages of the Sundarbans, which also lies at the heart of the novel ‘The Hungry Tide’ (2004). It is the story of the avaricious rich merchant Dhona, the poor lad Dukhey, and his mother; it is also the story of Dokkhin Rai, a mighty spirit who appears to humans as a tiger, of Bon Bibi, the benign goddess of the forest, and her warrior brother, Shah Jongoli.
The original print version of this legend, dating back to the 19th century, is composed in a Bengali verse meter known as dwipodi poyar. The book is a free adaptation of the legend, told entirely in a poyar-like meter of 24 syllable couplets that replicate the cadence of the original.
The first-ever book-in-verse by Amitav Ghosh, ‘Jungle Nama’ evokes the wonder of the Sundarbans through its poetry and is accompanied by artwork by the artist Salman Toor. Now, Audible, a leading creator and provider of premium audio storytelling has come up with an audio edition of the folktale performed by Ali Sethi.
There is something about the Sunderbans that makes Ghosh visit them again and again. “It is a fascinating and rich landscape, teeming with stories of all kinds, What is of greatest interest to me is that these stories are often about non-humans, as well as humans – just as is the case with Jungle Nama,” says this recipient of the Padma Shri Honour.
Talk to him about the unique collaboration with Salman Toor and Ali Sethi, and the author who has known Toor since he was a student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, which is a few blocks from his house, remembers that it was evident even back then that he was immensely gifted, and in the years since he has proved this again and again.
“So his was the first name that came to my mind when I was thinking of an artist to work with. But by that time Salman had become incredibly successful, with a one-man show coming up at the Whitney Museum in New York – something that is almost unprecedented for an artist of his age. But then the pandemic intervened, and the Whitney show was postponed, so it became possible for him to take on this project. And the experience of collaborating with him was astonishing; he has created some truly marvellous images for the book,” says Ghosh, winner of the 54th Jnanpith award, India’s highest literary honour.
As for Ali Sethi, the author has known even longer – he took a class with Ghosh back in 2003, when the author was doing a stint at Harvard. Remembering that back then he (Sethi) was more a writer than a musician, Ghosh says, “But in the years since he has grown into a real star, with millions of followers on Youtube, and sold-out concerts all over the place. But he remains a very cerebral, thoughtful person, so he was able to completely enter the spirit of ‘Jungle Nama’. The songs he has composed for the audiobook are at once catchy, and musically interesting.”
As far as the audiobook goes, it was Ali Sethi, and his team, along with the HarperCollins tech team that dealt with Audible.
“Fortunately I didn’t have to get into that part of it. But I do indeed think that we will be hearing books much more in years to come. This has already become a major part of the book market, and I think this will continue,” feels Ghosh, whose latest book ‘The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis’ (Penguin Random House India) released in October.
The author, who has been writing on the subject of climate crisis in many of his works, and even pointed out in ‘The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable’ that not enough contemporary novels were addressing climate change as a central issue of our time feels that the principal reason for the lack of media coverage of the climate crisis, around the world, is the fact mainstream media is largely controlled by big corporations and billionaires, who have a vested interest in playing down the seriousness of the crisis. “Of course there are some honourable exceptions,” he adds.
Even as the world continues to battle the Corona Pandemic, Ghosh says that the recently concluded COP 26 meeting in Glasgow shows, unfortunately, that governments have yet to wake up in relation to the seriousness of the planetary crisis. “This meeting seems to have got even less done than those before if that is even possible.”