Published by HarperCollins
Review by W. R. Greer
The Ganges River flows from the Himalayan Mountains across northern India, emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The river delta creates a vast archipelago of islands, the Sundarbans, where mangrove jungles grow quickly on land not reclaimed by the tide. The tidal surge from the sea can cover three hundred kilometers, constantly reshaping or devouring islands, with just the tops of the jungles often visible at high tide. This is the tide country, home to the Bengal tiger, huge crocodiles, sharks, snakes, impenetrable forests, and a few people trying to scratch out a living. At the beginning of the 20th century, Sir Daniel Hamilton decided to create a utopian society there, offering free land to those willing to work as long as they accepted the others as equals, regardless of caste or ethnicity. It's a difficult life that leaves most women widowed at a young age and land barely farmable if the saltwater of the hungry tide can be kept from flooding their fields.
It's in this tide country, the Sundarbans, where Amitav Ghosh sets his engaging novel, The Hungry Tide. The book is told from the perspective of its two main characters, Kanai Dutt, a Delhi businessman, and Piya Roy, an American scientist who has come to study the rare Irrawaddy dolphin which lives in the rivers of the tide country. Kanai, educated as translator and owner of a successful translation business, comes to the island of Lusibari to visit his aunt, Nilima. Kanai is a proud and arrogant and not above using his status to get his own way. He tries to be always in control of the relationships of his life. Nilima describes him as "one of those men who likes to think of himself as being irresistible to the other sex. Unfortunately, the world doesn't lack for women who're foolish enough to confirm such a man's opinion of himself, and Kanai seems always to be looking for them."
Kanai had been to Lusibari as a teenager, sent by his parents to be "rusticated" for his pride and arrogance. He's now being summoned by Nilima because of a package left to Kanai by her late husband, Nirmal, which has just been found some 20 years after his death. Nirmal and Nilima came to the Sundarbans when his revolutionary ideas became too dangerous in Calcutta. Nilima founded a cooperative which brought help, medicine, and ultimately a hospital to Lusibari, while Nirmal spent his career as headmaster of the local school. For a short time in 1970 while Kanai was visiting, a young woman named Kusum passed through their lives. The package now left to Kanai contains an account of the events at the end of Nirmal's life, which revolved around Kusum, her son Fokir, and the catastrophic struggle of the dispossessed to form a new society on the island of Morichjhãpi.
Piya Roy is the daughter of Bangla parents who had immigrated to Seattle. She's a woman used to the solitude and rigors of the life of a scientist working in the field. Piya often works in areas where she knows neither the customs nor the language, and can survive for days on just energy bars and Ovaltine as she studies river dolphins. She's come to the Sundarbans to find more of these rare creatures, but her trip doesn't begin well. With an official permit, she's forced to use a government-approved guide and guard, but she finds herself at their whims until events land her in the small boat belonging to Fokir, who is fishing for crabs with his son. Fokir brings Piya to Lusibari, where the paths of Piya, Kanai, and Fokir all merge.
Setting The Hungry Tide in the Sundarbans allows Amitav Ghosh to create a setting where everyone is on an even footing. It's not just the legacy of Sir Hamilton, but the hostile environment erases all societal strata because everyone is an equal in the struggle to survive in the hostile environment. This theme runs continuously throughout the novel. Nirmal, a poet at heart who constantly invokes Rilke, approaches retirement feeling like his life was poorly spent because he never lived up to his revolutionary ideals. Nilima is the practical side of their marriage, building a cooperative trust which brings hope to many lives. She, however, is unwilling to do anything that might upset the government whose favors she needs. Their middle class upbringing and college education brings them no luxury, just the gratitude and respect from the locals in the tide country for the services they provide. This is a life Kanai doesn't understand. In the Sundarbans, his wealth, servants, and pride have no value. While he feels himself to be superior to Fokir, on the river he needs Fokir's skills to provide for his survival. Piya, who feels closest to the animals she studies, needs Kanai's translation skills and Fokir's local knowledge of the river and wildlife for her to do her research.
At the center of all these relationships is Fokir, perhaps the truest soul in the novel. He's an illiterate man, but possesses more knowledge of the river and its wildlife than all the outsiders who don't understand him. Piya feels an affinity for Fokir and his life which matches the rhythms of his environment. Kanai, attracted to Piya and envious of Fokir, decides to accompany them on a trip up the river to study the dolphins. The three of them embark on a trip into the heart of the tide country which will bring lasting change to all of their lives.
The Hungry Tide is a novel full of ideas, none of them found to have an easy answer. In Kanai's and Piya's world, they prefer the structure of science or business where they can view everything as black or white. In the Sundarbans where the tide changes the environment daily, nothing is certain and everything in life is a shade of gray. It's a place where tigers kill hundreds of people a year, but since they're a protected species, killing a tiger that has been preying on a village brings in the goverment authorities to mete out punishment. In an environment where life is fragile, the essence of any person is broken down to its core. Amitav Ghosh lets the tide country break down the barriers of both society and his characters.
While The Hungry Tide is about the struggle for each person to find their place in the world, it's not a novel of constant action and suspense. This doesn't slow the pace of the novel. Amitav Ghosh keeps the pages turning with the history of the tide country, the stories of the local deities, scientific information, the back stories for each character, and Nirmal's journal of what happened to Kusum and her son. At times, the history and scientific information start to overwhelm the story, and these carry on for a bit too long before the final voyage up the river begins. Someone already knowledgable about the Sundarbans or cetology might find this book dragging at times with these details, but the explanation of the exotic, whether scientific, geographic, or historical, can be as engaging as the lives of the characters. A bit of judicious editing about three-quarters of the way through the novel to eliminate the history of the scientific research of the river dolphin would have been helpful.
This is a small complaint, though. For the most part, The Hungry Tide is a compelling book about ordinary people bound together in an exotic place that can consume them all. It's the basest of human emotions, love, jealousy, pride, and trust, that will make the difference. That's a lesson we all can learn, again, as we follow Piya, Kanai, and Fokir into the heart of tide country.
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