“Writing in verse was both extremely demanding and very rewarding”: Amitav Ghosh

Writing in verse format comes with its own set of challenges, but is hugely rewarding, says 2018 Jnanpith Prize winner and acclaimed author Amitav Ghosh. Gosh’s Jungle Nama: A Sundarban Story, which is in verse format, has now been converted into an audiobook available on Audible, read by Pakistani writer and musician Ali Sethi.

The verse adaptation which evokes a “sense of Sundarban through its poetry” features an episode from the legend of Bon Bibi, a tale popular in the villages of Sundarban, which is also at the heart of his novel, The hungry tide. It is the story of rich miserable merchant Dhona, poor boy Dukhey and his mother; it is also the story of Dokkhin Rai, a powerful spirit who appears to humans as a tiger, of Bon Bibi, the benign goddess of the forest, and of her warrior brother, Shah Jongoli.

The original printed version of this legend, dating from the 19th century, consists of a Bengali verse known as dwipodi poyar. The book Jungle Nama is a free adaptation of the legend, told entirely in a poyar-type meter of 24 syllabic couplets which reproduce the cadence of the original. In an email interaction with indianexpress.com, the author discusses the verse format, the rise of self-publishing, while reflecting on 2021.

Why worms?

This story requires some suspension from your everyday sense of reality. But that could be said of many of the most important moments in our lives – like when you look over your shoulder and see a tornado (or tsunami) coming straight towards you. Or when you look across a room and think to yourself, “Ah, this is the person I’m going to spend the rest of my life with. If this suspension of reality comes more easily to children than to adults, it is because life has not torn from them the sense of the infinite possibilities of the world. With adults, verse stories can sometimes help transcend the everyday sadness of adult life, which is why Jungle Nama is in verse.

This is your first book in verse. What is difficult?

Writing in verse, especially in a very tight metric form, was both extremely demanding and very rewarding. It was a wonderful experience.

What is your opinion on the audio adaptations?

I enjoyed working with Audible. While I didn’t go into the technical details (which were handled by my editors, Harper Collins), I really do think audio as a medium is here to stay. For authors and creators, it opens up a new form of storytelling and allows them not only to work with their written words but also to express themselves through their voices and sounds. People say audio is a new medium, but actually I think it brings a sense of nostalgia – the storytelling is so ingrained into the very fabric of Indian culture and goes back many generations. Audible provides access to a variety of untold stories from the original way the stories were told, by listening.

Do you agree that reading habits have changed over the years?

Reading habits change irreversibly. Young people today do a lot of their reading digitally, which means they interact with the written word in a very different way than people of my generation. They are more used to seeing images in the same space as text, for example. Likewise, they are also more accustomed to the text being accompanied by sound. I think that enriches the text in many ways. And certainly, Ali Sethi has created something much richer than the usual kind of audiobook; he composed music, and we collaborated on writing a few songs, etc. We wanted to create an immersive experience, and I think Ali did it wonderfully.

There is a proliferation of literature from self-publishing to publishing houses that publish books every day. What is your opinion ?

I think it’s great. When I started out as a writer, it was almost impossible to find publishers of English books in India. It couldn’t be more different now, and I think that’s a good thing.

How would you describe 2021?

The main lesson from this period, in my opinion, is that we have to learn to value the simple things in life, like family, friends, shared meals, etc.

How did you get through your confinements?

I was mostly working on my new book The curse of nutmeg; Parables for a planet in crisis.

What are you looking forward to in 2022?

Of course, we all hope for a return to what we considered “normal”, but everything suggests that there will never be a return to this state. We are now indeed in the throes of a multidimensional planetary crisis, and we must prepare for many years of growing uncertainty.

What are you reading these days?

I am reading The dawn of everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow, an absolutely amazing book. I pick up books when they look interesting.

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