Book review: Jungle Nama by Amitav Ghosh
The legend of Bon Bibi in rhyme
Amitav Ghosh`s slim new book takes the popular folk tale of Bon Bibi, the guardian spirit of the Sundarban forests, sets it in the dwipodipoyar verse form, and gives readers an hour or two of much reading pleasure.
The eroding ecosystem of the Sunderban has long been a cause of concern for Ghosh and woven into this epic is the familiar theme of how man is transgressing where he should not, wreaking havoc on the land, waters and air wherever he goes, as also the cruelties being inflicted on man by the elements, the terrible impact of climate change on the hapless and the helpless.
The verses read deceptively simply, telling the tale of poor Dukhey and how he is more or less commandeered to go with his wealthy uncle into the tideland jungles, hunting for legendary treasure in there. However, the deep forest is the domain of Dokkhin Rai the fearsome demon king, who is described thus:
He loves to prey on souls that are meek and humble;
A good lad like you he’ll find irresistible.
It`s not just flesh he craves, he likes to kindle greed;
To wake the demon in man is his greatest need.
The rich uncle cuts a deal with Dokkin Rai, promising him Dukhey in return for unimaginable wealth, which comes, interestingly enough, in the form of beeswax.
All seems lost for the poor young man but of course it isn’t, really. His mother has told him to call to Bon Bibi when in danger, and that is precisely what he does. Sure enough, the Bibi comes to his rescue with her fierce warrior brother Shah Jongoli, and all`s well that ends well, Dukhey returning to his mother with enough wealth to ensure a comfortable lifetime.
Ghosh has stated that this work is about the balance that has to be maintained between people and the environment. One stanza goes thus:
Thus did Bon Bibi create a dispensation,
That brought peace to the beings of the Sunderban;
Every creature had a place, every want was met,
All needs were balanced, like the lines of a couplet.
This Bon Bibi epic is meant to be read aloud, to be recited, to be performed. The artwork by Salman Toor is more striking than pretty, drawing the reader into the menacing world of Dakkhin Rai, the abjectly pitiful world of Dukhey and his mother, showing how man and nature aren’t exactly cohabiting peacefully.
There is an audio version with musician Ali Sethi being worked on. Meanwhile, do read this book with your children, to your children. It`s never too early for them to learn about the importance of that crucial balance.
Junglenama By Amitav Ghosh/Illuminated by Salman Toor/HarperCollins Books/Pages 82/Rs 699.
This appeared in the Sunday Express magazine of 4 April 2021.