Stories matter, now more than ever

Arguably, to write a work of fiction, all one needs is imagination, whereas non-fiction requires knowledge about the subject matter. I don’t know whether this makes it easier to write fiction than non-fiction, but it is certainly easier to write about non-fiction than fiction. To write about a book on, say, international labour mobility in the 21st century, one needs to answer a few questions: What is the book’s central claim; is this claim novel; and is it credible? How does one write about a novel about migration?

Even that question might be problematic! How does one decide what a novel is about? What’s the purpose of a novel? To preach or proselytize? To educate, or persuade? Is it a work of polemics, or entertainment? I guess many-a seminar in literature departments of many-a university would have failed to reach answers to these questions.

One simple approach, necessarily subjective, would perhaps start with the notion that a novel ultimately has to depend on the story and characters, and to write about it, one would need to answer — how do we feel about these characters and their journeys?

It was a surreal feeling reading two novels about migration — international labour mobility in the 21st century — back in late March, when labour mobility around the world screeched to a halt. The modern world has seen economic disruptions, natural disasters, and war. They usually lead to movement of people. This time has been different. But chances are that people will be moving again soon, and Amitabh Ghosh’s Gun Island and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West will continue to be relevant.

Two novels, two worlds

In the meantime, how do I feel about the two novels as works of fiction months after reading them?

Of course, neither book is written as a treatise on migration. But migration plays a central part of both stories. And both have passages about historical precedence, about people leaving old homes behind, not always voluntarily, and making new homes. Migration on a massive scale is not a 21st century novelty by any means. Proportionate to the population (of both sending and receiving lands) there were bigger waves in the past, with today’s migrations being reflections and reverberations of yesterday’s empires. A generation ago, Bob Marley sang of leaving Babylon for our father’s land. But in these stories, Zion is to be recreated by the rivers of Babylon.

Gun Island is marketed as a novel about climate change, but Ghosh’s story is as much about migration — not that a novel must be about only one thing, nor that migration and climate change are unrelated. It’s an action-packed tale where king cobras, spiders, and ship worms jostle with falling masonry, people smugglers, goons in baseball caps, and hackers for our attention, and the jamboree of set pieces, factlets, and ideas rival the best work of Michael Crichton.

If Rudyard Kipling’s Hurree Chunder Mukherjee was the Bengali spy in Her Majesty’s Imperial Service, Ghosh’s narrator — a New York Bengali dealer of antiquarian books with a PhD in humanities (if only most desi doctorates had such an adventurous life in reality) — could well be the desi Indiana Jones, given the quest to decipher centuries-old Bengali folklore.

The folklore concerned is a variation of the tale of Chand Saudagar — a merchant and devotee of Shiva who refused to worship the goddess of snakes, despite many travails and tribulations. The story probably is based on the encroachment of the urban, trading civilisation in pre-modern Bengal — the economic history of the nobo lakh banijjo is a subject of its own non-fiction work.

In Ghosh’s retelling, the merchant is captured by slavers in the 17th century, during the Little Ice Age, and taken to lands of taal misri (Misr or Egypt), rumaal (Rumelia), shekol (Sicily), and Bonduk Island (Venice, which is called Al-Bunduqiya in Arabic). The deciphering of this riddle, juxtaposed against the route taken by undocumented Bengalis — I deliberately use the term instead of Bangladeshi or Indian because, in the story, the relevant characters’ nationalities are as irrelevant as the border between the two countries is in the Sundarbans — could have been great.

I say could have been because, ultimately, Ghosh’s characters — not just the failed academic, but also the marine biologist, historian, an undocumented worker, and a hacker — are about as interesting as villains in Marvel movies: Bland, predictable, and sadly, forgettable.

Hamid’s, on the other hand, are anything but. Exit West is very much a story about migration, but not just the physical aspect of it. This is a story of falling, or migrating, in, out of, and back in love again — that is, migration here is between states of mind, or human heart, which, after all, is meant to be the only thing worth writing about!

It was sublimely melancholic to read about a world where people move between continents almost instantaneously at a time when one couldn’t see a loved one 25km away. Months later, the feeling that remains is one of haunting, aching enchantment.

The protagonists here are a young couple, who meet at an evening class on corporate branding. They work in marketing and insurance, both are consummate smartphone users. He lives with his parents — university teachers from the post-independence era when people were hopeful. She is dressed in black robe, to avoid being harassed by men, and not out of religious faith.

She is far more adventurous than him, ordering intoxicants over the web, and initiating sex, which he isn’t comfortable with outside marriage. Which intimate encounters count as sex — subject of many a bad joke about Bill Clinton — is rendered as a poignant reflection. As are the reflections on identity. For example, he prays not to find communion with God, but as a way to connect with his community. She continues to wear the black robe long after the need to avoid harassment is passed.

These are two vividly drawn characters, mattering equally — not an easy feat. These are two “normal people,” to use the name of lockdown’s surprise TV hit (that deserves its own post), developing a normal relationship, meeting for a date in a Chinese restaurant, then texting each other at work, falling in love slowly, then suddenly.

They live in an unnamed city which is not quite the West, but is globally connected, until it stops being connected when the brutal war arrives. It could have been in Syria of the 2010s. It could well be in Bangladesh of the 2020s. The where and when of this story don’t matter, nor does the how of the couple’s flight from their war-torn city to the West.

Hamid uses a magic realist device whereby people teleport across the world. In a lesser novel, this gimmick would be grating. Here it simply allows the reader to accept that in the 21st century, travel is ubiquitous, and the physical acts of moving are far less important than the emotional dislocations and the psychological trauma that migrants have to live through.

The couple’s experience in Greece, London, and then California echo tales of generations written in subway walls and tenement halls of the great cities of the West. Eventually, the vicissitudes of life take their toll on the couple. However, unlike normal people’s normal relationships in such circumstances, Hamid’s duo part ways without bitterness and recrimination, finding new life with new lovers.

They meet up decades later in their home city where the war is now a distant memory. A hopeful end, without being sentimental. Ghosh also ends in a positive note, in a cinematic climax where seemingly the miraculous happens in the Mediterranean. It’s not fair to pit the books against each other and ask which of the endings leave a longer lasting impression. The stories complemented for me, but that’s merely because I happened to read them simultaneously.

And the stories matter, more than ever. We live in a world saturated with facts, so much so that facts seem to have no impact and we find our own alternative facts. But stories still matter. Stories about migration, climate change, war, and love still have the power to shape our thoughts and actions. That’s a point Ghosh makes explicitly. And that’s the lasting impression Hamid leaves the reader with.

Jyoti Rahman reads and watches stuff and writes about them at

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