‘The Hungry Tide’ takes you into the lesser-explored literary landscape of the Sundarbans. This book written by Amitav Ghosh was published in 2004 and is recipient of the Hutch Crossword Book Award for fiction. Now, if you love Amitav Ghosh’s writings, then this one is sure to make inroads deep inside your heart.
As Amitav Ghosh takes you to the ‘Tide Country’ aka the Sundarbans, he provides a beautiful mythological description of the place, “It is here, there is a point at which the braid comes undone, when Lord Shiva’s matted hair is washed apart into vast, knotted tangle. Once past this point, the river throws off its bindings and separates into hundreds, maybe thousands of tangled strands.” India, being such a large country, we never get to see these portions that lay cut-off from the mainland. ‘The Hungry Tide’ is so fulfilling as it takes you on a vicarious trip to the Sundarbans.
The story begins with the journey of its two protagonists – Kanai, a translator from Delhi and Piya, a young Cetologist (a biologist who specializes in marine animal) from America. Both are heading towards Sundarbans. Kanai is set to meet with Nilima, his aunt in Lusibari (one of the islands in Sundarbans), who wants to hand over a packet from her late husband, Nirmal for Kanai. Nirmal’s death, about twenty years ago, and now this packet is a disturbing and intriguing element in the story – the reference to Morichijhapi uprising in the islands.
Piya, on the other hand, is on her expedition of surveying dolphins. She has made arrangements with the local forest officials, who in the least care about Piya’s work and are of very little help to her. There is an unfortunate tiff between her and the officials, and she falls into the rough waters. From here, begins the unusual relationship between her and Fokir, the fisherman in a small boat who saves her. The emaciated, dark, brooding man with his young son and an American born Indian woman in a boat, their communication (or lack of it), the ordeal, and the emotional bond is the highlight of this book. This illiterate fisherman reveals himself in the course of the narrative, as the man with immense knowledge on the Oracella, the specie Piya is studying. As a reader, Fokir aptly tears down our prejudices and false pride in acquired intelligence, compared to the rich knowledge base of the locals/ native.
Nilima’s character is adorably etched. She is a hardworking woman who has established a hospital in Lusibari that turns into a shelter during the cyclone, being the only concrete structure on the island. She tells her Nirmal, whom she senses is involved in some sort of an uprising, “I am not capable of dealing with the whole world’s problems. For me the challenge of making a few little things a little better in one small place is enough. That small place for me is Lusibari.“
Nilima could never understand the frustration of her husband, the man who opted to be a teacher in the mangrove to support for his wife’s inclination to work for the development of the people in this desolate region. She believed that Nirmal did not live in reality, “You live in a dream world – a haze of poetry and fuzzy ideas about revolution. To build something is not the same as dreaming of it: building is always a matter of well-chosen compromises“.
The historical account of the tidal land is reached through Nirmal’s handwritten note for Kanai and Kanai’s childhood memory of Nirmal’s anecdotes. There is reference as to how the British colonised the islands and named each one of the small islands. In 1903, Sir Daniel Hamilton bought ten thousand acres of the tide country from the British. At that point, there was no habitation; only tigers, crocodiles, sharks and leopards that lived in the mangrove. Hamilton had dreamed to make the habitation in the islands an ideal one, with principles of equality and co-operation. Gradually, people settled in, who received free land against their work on the island but the efforts sadly ended up as, “rat-eaten islands”. In the author’s note, Amitav Ghosh mentions that Lusibari and Garjantola are fictitious however Canning, Gosaba, Satjelia, Morichjhapi, and Emilybari are real.
‘Morichjhapi incident’ finds its mention is in an article by Ross Mallick, Refugee Resettlement in Forest Reserves: West Bengal policy reversal and the Morichjhapi massacre (The Journal of Asian Studies, 1999, 58:1, pp103-125). The account of the tale that preceded this incident is built by Ghosh in the diary kept by Nirmal and we are divulged to the details through Kanai’s reading. There is a part where Kusum (Fokir’s mother), one of the characters deeply involved in the uprising tells Nirmal, “This island has to be saved for its trees, it has to be saved for its animals, it is part of the reserve forest, it belongs to a project to save tigers, which is paid for by people from all around the world“. But, what about the poor people grappling with hunger, poverty, natural disasters and safeguarding their lives against the wild.
Amitav Ghosh intricately builds the lives of locals in Sundarbans with backstories of a few characters and weaves local rituals like Bon bibi Joharnuma. Within this ambit, Ghosh balances the environmental and ecological aspects. He touches upon the incident of man-eater tigers, the constant struggle between man and the wild in desolate, difficult areas for human survival. He questions the lack of media coverage on the issues related to human suffering in these cases.
It is indeed incredible how Amitav Ghosh etched out a character like Fokir, he is the protagonist lurching on the sidelines until the narrative takes you through the labyrinth of mangrove canals, sailing against the waves and caught in the cyclone. There could have been a love story between him and Piya, but there is a certain angle with Kanai and Fokir’s wife Moyna. And, there is a bigger issue of survival in this difficult, desolate place, devoid of modern amenities and even basic facilities.
The wilderness, swamp and paws lurching in the dark are sure to grip you until the end. Though, climax may be a part where one can draw parallels to ‘Life of Pi’ but that apart, I love this book and can’t wait for a re-read.