Published:  07:53 AM, 04 August 2021 Last Update: 08:02 AM, 04 August 2021

Retelling a folktale with contemporary ecological crisis in mind: Review of Jungle Nama

Retelling a folktale with contemporary ecological crisis in mind: Review of Jungle Nama

-Muhammad Nurul Islam
Amitav Ghosh, a contemporary renowned writer from India, in his recent oeuvres investigates the subtleties of human and non-human’s relations living under the same ecology. His latest endeavor Jungle Nama: A Story of the Sundarban(2021) is a rewording of the popular medieval Bengali tale in English or a transcreation of  a folktale from the villages of the Sundarbans. It is his maiden work in verse, a free verse adaptation based on the legend of Bon Bibi, the guardian of the Sundarbans. 

Jungle Nama has been brilliantly illustrated in artwork by Salman Toor, a prominent New York-based Pakistani artist. Originally the legend of Bon Bibi is told to have been authored by poets, Abdur Rahim Sahib and Munshi Mohammad Khatir back to late 19th century dubbed as the Banbibir Jahuranama (the Narrative of Banbibi’sGlory). It has been written in Bengali verse meter popularly known as dwipodi-poyer. Ghosh has also retold this legend in poyar-like meter of twenty-four syllable couplets that reverberate the flavor of the original. 
Jungle Nama, the epic poem, recounts twin stories connecting material and ecological, natural, and supernatural worlds. On the one hand, it talks about the mighty battle between Dokkhin Rai, a ferocious spirit hunting in tiger’s skin, and Bon Bibi, the kind protector of the forest, and her fighter brother, Shah Jongoli. The story goes that Dokkhin Rai, a monarch, used torule the entire forest, Sundarbans ruthlessly until Bon Bibi and Shah Jongoli reached there with the mission of peace and balance. After a horrendous confrontation between them, a ceasefire was called upon, and a splitting frontier between human and non-human agents was founded. It was a great dividing “line to mark a just separation/ between the forest and the realm of the human” (06). Thus,a world of order and peace, a balance between need and greed, a working harmony between human and non-human agents started to emerge. 

On the other hand, it also tells the narrative of a rich yet avaricious merchant Dhona, his rich and happy brother Mona, destitute boy Dukhey and his mother. In day out of absolute desire, Dhona decided to delve into the forest to amass more wealth disobeying the imaginary border line. He uttered as the writer writes “take all I can see; honey, wax and timber, and all of it for free!” (10).  At that very moment, Mona declares the ethics of foresting what Carolyn Merchant would call, “a partnership ethic” that, “those who enter the forest should go out of need/or they’ll court danger; tigers know the smell of greed” (10). Without listening to the ethic, Dhona arranged his crew to go into “the tideland jungle” (17) and deceptively included meager boy Dukhey into his convoy. But before his leaving, Dukhey’s mother has told him about the tricks of Dokkhin Rai, the life-saving mantra of recalling Bon Bibi in dwipodi-poyer. Driven by uncontrolled desire, Dhona with his crew “crossed the invisible boundary/ that marked the edge of Dokkhin Rai’s territory” (29) and thus provoked the furious Dokkhin Rai. Afterwards, getting entangled in the terrible web of Dokkhin Rai, Dhonadeceived Dukhey and left the boyto the hand of this tiger avatar forresources like honey and wax. Dukhey was left terrified and alone, and the monster was getting geared up for his prey, the boy uttered, “Save me, Ma Bon Bibi, before I am torn apart/ an unearthly tiger wants to rip out my heart” (53). Bon Bibi instantly responded to his call and saved his life. This time, she and her fighter brother became enraged with Dokkhin Rai and taught him strong lessons. Finally, the boy returned to his mother with much wealth paid by Dokkhin Rai as his debt to Dukhey. The legend concludes with this note that the maxim of happiness is “all you need do, is to be content with what you’ve got/ to be always craving more is a demon’s lot/ a world of endless appetite is a world posseted” (70). 

Seemingly, the legend of Bon Bibi seems to be a folk tale. Yet beneath this, the story is deeply engaged in ecological crisis. Ghosh himself writes in “Afterword” that the story is about “limiting the excessive greed and maintaining a balance between the needs of humans and other beings living” in natural world and“these are essential values for this era of planetary crisis”. The reason behind it is simple; this legend is not a mere folktale, rather it is a mandate for the forest people, “a charter that regulates every aspect of life, and beliefs associated with it dictate how they relate to the forest, and to beings that inhabit it especially tigers” (Afterword74). From deep ecological viewpoint, the story pushes the reader towards eco-centric realization rather than ego-centric one, towards a bio-centric equality that encourages biodiversity and a meaningful relation between all beings on the Earth as distinct and valuable agents rather than superior or inferior to each other. This is what exactly the “dispensation” (06) of Bon Bibi stands for when she dictated, “every creature has a place” (06).Hence, the book reviewed not only highlights the discourse of natural resources and human selfishness, but also delineates a deeper and sophisticated engagement with nature and natural beings.  It sharply underlies an eco-centricethic grounded in the cosmos where all living beings; humans, animate or inanimate are “assigned intrinsic value”. 
As a story Jungle Nama incorporates hybridity of languages.Linguistically, Jungle Nama has travelled across regions, religions, cultures, and countries. Its vocabulary is highly hybrid. In the text, words like, ‘jungle’ (Forest), ‘Nama’ (narrative), ‘shikar’ (prey), ‘Bon’ (Forest), ‘Bibi’ (lady), ‘Munshi’ (Islamic scholar), ‘Ma’ (mother) and ‘Dastoorie’ (reward) carry this evidence of diverse linguistic as well as cultural presence for someone reading this text. It should be noted here that though written in contemporary, yet elegant English, a reader initially might struggle to grasp the beauty of the narrative for its diverging hybrid inclusions. Some readers even might find Jungle Nama odd and irrational as it blends Islam, Hinduism, and local folk into a compact legend. 

Jungle Nama, a book of 8o pages only including an afterword by the writer, reflects strong ecological implications and a critical gaze at very core of capitalism—the world’s dominant culture today. Because, in the human history of civilization, the cult of anthropocentrism, the mode of capitalism and the bloody avarice of European colonialism have oppressed, and polluted natural world, and the nature of the world to the extremist extent.Thus,Jungle Nama is a significant work for contemporary readers; fable lovers, folk lovers as well as lovers of ecological narratives. Since it poetically and precisely represents why a serious urgency of a balance between need and desire is needed,and how a meaningful mutuality among beings can be restored. 

-The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of English, FASS, Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP)

Ghosh, Amitav. Jungle Nama. Uttar Pradesh India, Fourth State,2021. pp.88

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