Opinion

Oldest Stripes

Amitav Ghosh versifies the oldest tale of the Sundarbans in a magnificently illustrated volume

Advertisement

Oldest Stripes
info_icon

When two celebrated artists, one wielding the pen and the other a paint brush collaborate, what do you expect? Jangal Nama is a beautifully retold episode of a legend from the Sundarbans, in verse, with rhyming couplets and fluid images. Only on a single occasion do I find Amitav Ghosh faltering, when he uses ‘peepul’ in order to adhere to the constraints of rhyme. Peepul trees are not found in mangrove forests.

At first sight, the very well-produced hardbound volume may seem like a children’s book. My 12-year-old daughter gave it a quick read. The following are her observations: The dialogues are like poems; Dokkhin Rai is a personification of evil; he takes advantage of negative qualities of humans, like greed; he appears to be a tyrant; the book shows that good forces like Bon Bibi can’t fully subdue evil like Dokkhin Rai, but can restrain it; evil never really ceases and is reawakened by human frailties. It indeed is a children’s book, with hauntingly beautiful illustrations. It is for adults too, with a central theme of responsible consumption and production.

Advertisement

Bon Bibi Johuranama, from which Jungle Nama is adapted, probably came to be written around the 13th century, alth­ough the best known print versions date from the late 19th century. The legend might have been propagated when Islam arrived in this part of the world and extended the frontier into forested Sundarbans.

Historically, the Sundarbans has been a frontier, more in the American sense than in the European one. Europeans view the frontier as a border zone between two countries. In America, a frontier is a border between the settled and unsettled, the ‘civilized’ and the ‘wilderness’. The Sundarbans presented the conditions which allowed a process of continuous advance, both in physical and socio-political terms and has been the arena for transformation of land, religion and values. The tussle between Dokkhin Rai and Bon Bibi and her brother Shah Jongoli, narrated in the opening pages of Jangal Nama, may be not so much between good and evil, but about delineating a boundary between the settled and the wilderness.

Advertisement

Scholars like Richard Eaton have observed that between the 13th and 18th centuries, pioneering Muslim holy men not only established Islam in much of south and eastern Bengal, but also played important roles in the intensification of wet rice agriculture, establishment of new modes of property rights and fundamentally altering a natural, forested ecosystem. It could also be that the reverence of the mostly Muslim forest-clearers led to the emergence of Bon Bibi as the presiding deity of the Sundarbans. In 1883, James Wise, a physician by profession and an anthropologist by vocation, noted the popularity and significance of pioneers such as Mubarra Ghazi, who is said to have converted the forested western bank of the river Hooghly into paddy land. It seems that each villager had an altar dedicated to him. No one would enter the forest, and no crew would sail through the district, without first making offerings to one of the shrines. Even now, Hindu and Muslim alike, propitiate Bon Bibi before venturing into the forest.

I have had an abiding interest in the Sundarbans and its people. I have lived and worked in the region for two decades. To me, Jungle Nama is precious, but I wonder what, outside of Amitav Ghosh’s admirers or those interested in the region and its people, the book would hold for them. Does it attribute tyranny to the tigers of the Sundarbans or perpetuate the labelling of them as man-eaters? These magnificent predators are neither tyrannical nor man-eaters. Having ventured into the forest on foot hundreds of times for developing a methodology for the assessment of the status of tigers in their unique habitat, I can vouch for that.

Advertisement

For Ghosh fans, however, Jungle Nama is a collector’s item, not just a book of verse with brilliant illustrations. The value of the volume will increase with time as the world hurtles towards a future that is very unlike what modern humans have witnessed.

(The author is with Vijaybhoomi University)

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement