It’s an unputdownable book for those who like Amitava Ghosh’s mixing of cultures and timelines, fiction and facts. The ending was a bit sudden, but it may just be in preparation for the next episode.
Gunpowder & Mughals
Equally intruiging was the recurrent theme of the gun) or _bundook_—a word that had entered Bangla through Persian and Arabic). The Mughals were of course famously a ‘gunpowder empire’. Like their contemporaries, the Turkish Ottomans and the Persian Safavids, their power had rested largely on firearms.
On a boat in the Sundarbans
Slowly as I followed Piya’s finger, what had seemed at first to be an unvarying mud-brown colour revealed itself to be a composite of many different hues. Nor was there any uniformity to the pattern of the river’s flow: once my eyes had grown accustomed to scrutinising the water I was able to spot pools, whirlpools, braids, striations and many sort of ripples.
These were signs, said Piya, of the innumerable streams that were contained within the course of this one river. Each of those streams differed from the others in small ways, and each was freighted with its own mixture of micro-nutrients. In effect, each was a small ecological niche, held in suspension by the flow, like a balloon carried along by a wind.
‘Each of these rivers,’ said Piya,’ is like a moving forest, populated by an incredible variety of life forms.’
While flying over California wild fires
I would later learn that the remains of a wildfire are by no means a wasteland. For certain species of birds—hawks, eagles and other raptors—they present rare opportunities for hunting: the loss of tree cover makes it easy to spot those rodents and reptiles that have survived the fire by burrowing underground.
For birds of prey the conditions are so favourable that some species of raptor have even been known to start, or spread, wildfires by carrying burning twigs afield in their beaks.
‘Climate and Apocalypse in the Seventeenth Century’ — topic of a presentation at a conference in LA
The seventeenth century, declared the historian, was a period of such severe climatic disruption that it was sometimes described as the ‘Little Ice Age’. During this time temperatures across the globe had dropped sharply, maybe because of fluctuations in solar activity, or a spate of volcanic eruptions—or possibly even because of the reforestation of vast tracts of land following the genocide of Amerindian peoples after the European conquests of the Americas.
In any event many parts of the world had been struck by famines, droughts and epidemics in the seventeenth century. At the same time a succession of comets had appeared in the heavens, and the earth had been shaken by a tremendous outbreak of seismic activity; earthquakes had torn down cities and volcanoes had ejected untold quantities of dust and debris into the atmosphere. Millions had died: in some parts of the world the population had declined by a third.
In these decades more wars had raged than at any time before: many parts of Europe had been convulsed y conflict; England had experienced the greatest internal upheaval in its history—civil war—and central Europe had been devastated by the Thiry Years War; in Turkey a fearsome drought had led to a devastating fire in Instanbul, shaking the Ottoman Empire to its foundations; elsewhere, as in China, long-established dynasties had been overthrown amidst torrents of blood; in India the Mughal Empire had been beset by famine and rebellion.
‘… in that language (Arabic), Venice is linked to three apparently unrelated things—hazelnuts, bullets and guns! I say “apparently” because of course the shape of hazelnuts is similar to that of bullets which are, in turn, indispensable for guns! In any event, all three are known in Arabic by a word that derives from the Byzantine name for Venice, which was “Banadiq”—the ancestor of the German and Swedish “Venedig”. In Arabic “Banadiq’ became “al-Bunduqeyya”, which still remains the proper name for Venice in that language. But bunduqeyya is also the word for guns, hazelnuts and bullets—and the latter, I like to think, were cast precisely in the foundry of the old getto!’
‘And through Arabic the name of Venice has travelled far afield, to Persia and parts of India, where to this day guns are known as bundook —which is, of course, none other than “Venice” or “Venetian”!’
Translating a conversation between a Bangla refugee and a native Venetian scholar
‘He came in a gommone?’ gasped Cinta. ‘But didn’t he fear for his life? Ask him—wasn’t he afraid to take such risks?’
… his answer. ‘He says he never thought about it like that. He was in a group and they crossed over together, giving hope and courage to each other.’
Here the young man broke in, with a grin, challenging me. ‘And you?’ he said. ‘How did you come here?’
‘In a plane’
‘And is there no risk in that?’ he said, grinning. ‘Did you study the risks before you got on the plane?’
‘Nor did I,’ he said. ‘Sometimes things seem normal just because others are doing it. And anyway, when you’re young you don’t think so much about risk.’
Thoughts of the native Venetian scholar after the conversation
‘Sometimes I ask myself,’ she said, ‘what would happen if those great Venetian travellers—the Polos, Niccolo de Conti, Ambrosio Bembo—were to come back to the Venice of today? Who would they have more in common with? Us twenty-first-century Italians, who rely on immigrants to do all our dirty work? The tourists, who come in luxury liners and aeroplanes? Or these ragazzi migranti, who take their lives in their hands to cross the seas, just like all those great Venetian travellers of the past?’
Reasoning from an urban, white collar Bangla who’d illegally stayed back
‘From an early age I’d wanted to leave Bangladesh. I had a close group of friends and we decided, when we were still quite young, that we wanted to go to Finland.’
‘Finland?’ I said in surprise. ‘Why Finland?’
Palash smiled self-deprecatingly.
‘I know it sounds strange—to want to move to Finland!—but in Dhaka there are many young people who have that dream. My friends and I thought of Finland as everything that Dhaka was not: quiet, clean, cool, uncrowded—and, of course our first cellphones were Nokias, made in Finland, so we always had a soft sport for that country.’
‘… if you’re white, it’s easy: you can go wherever you want and do anything you want—but we can’t. When I look back now and ask myself why I was so determined to go to Finland, I always come back to this: I wanted to go there because the world told me I couldn’t; because it was denied to me. When you deny people something, it becomes all the more desirable.‘